Todd Oldham

On his life of design.

Evan Smith: This is an issue all about style, which is not just fashion or just design—it’s those things and more. When you think about style definitionally, what do you put in that bucket?

Todd Oldham: I tend to look at things as an anthropologist—I feel more of a kinship to Margaret Mead than to a fashion editor any day. I think there’s fantastic style in all the elements. What it isn’t about is money, and that’s where there are a lot of bad ideas about style.

ES: People think they can just throw money at the problem.

TO: Yes, and that’s not the way it works at all. Some of the most chic and stylish people I’ve ever met were not in the normal money brackets. So it really doesn’t have anything to do with that. It has to do with ingenuity. It has to have a confidence, a cleverness, a thirst for information. People with great style are rarely stupid.

ES: You don’t mean conventional smarts.

TO: Oh, any kind—the most interesting kinds. I’m a little bored with our nation of specialists. I think it’s much more interesting when people cross boundaries and get inspiration from all kinds of areas.

ES: You don’t dispute that style is subjective.

TO: Absolutely. That’s what makes it valid. Whether I like it or deem it as good taste or bad taste doesn’t matter. If you like it and it works for you, there it is.

ES: Have things really changed since the time, fifteen years ago, when you were hosting a segment on MTV’s House of Style ?

TO: Lots of stuff has changed, though my concept of style hasn’t changed at all. House of Style was what we’ve just been talking about. It wasn’t about money; it was about the interesting thought and the interesting execution. I would interview Gianni Versace one minute and show some $25,000 gown, and then the next segment would be 99-cent back-to-school stuff—and it all sat on the same platform. I mean, God bless Neiman Marcus, but it’s not going to make everything work for you.

ES: You’ve been producing books on various aspects of style for Ammo Books as part of the Place Space series. There are four so far—including one on the filmmaker John Waters and another on the artist compound in upstate New York owned by Joe Holtzman, the founder of Nest magazine—and they have essays by the likes of Amy Sedaris and Camille Paglia. This is in keeping with your everything-is-style approach. They really cover the landscape.

TO: They do. We just turned in this year’s book, on the artist Wayne White. I’m super excited about it. It’s a giant thirty-year review of his career, from his sign-art paintings to his original designs. He was one of the main designers on Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

ES: How could you not think of Pee-wee Herman in terms of style?

TO: It’s astonishing. Basically a group of artists did that show. It was wildly sophisticated.

ES: Way ahead of its time.

TO: Totally. It still feels like it’s from another planet. Nothing could really mimic it, and that’s a good tenet of style: It’s an unreproducible effort.

ES: What’s the philosophy behind the Place Space series?

TO: We want to celebrate unusual thought and passion in execution, but as far-reaching of an idea as possible. The other two books you didn’t mention celebrate off-campus housing at the Rhode Island School of Design, what’s probably the smartest school in the world, and Bedrock City, one family’s effort to re-create Bedrock [the fictional home of the prehistoric cartoon clan the Flintstones] over eighteen acres outside of the Grand Canyon. It’s so beautiful.

ES: Some people would say, in John Waters’s case and maybe in the case of Bedrock City, “That’s not style—that’s camp.”

TO: That would make me think that they were not looking at it through the right lens. With John you have one of the most sophisticated modern art collections in the world juxtaposed against a very homey, personalized sort of feel. Bedrock City is truly like an art installation. So, you know, sometimes easy takes can lead you down bad paths.

ES: Do you feel that this and other work you do lives within what we would call the mainstream?

TO: Well, I get to do lots and lots of things. My interest level is the same for all of it, but the pipeline is certainly different. When I’m working with a giant company like Old Navy or Target, what we create has mainstream applications, but I’m endlessly surprised at what we get away with.

ES: I want to ask you about that. You became design creative director at Old Navy a year and a half ago. That seems like an extraordinarily mainstream, mass-oriented company. How do you take your view of the world and graft that onto their view of the world and not have it be an unholy alliance?

TO: What I get to do there is work with really cool people. Of all the large companies I’ve been with, this is the one with the most interesting group. I enjoy the mix of ideas. As I was saying earlier, I just don’t understand why you should be challenged with money issues when you want things. I saw a statistic that said three quarters of the population strolls through an Old Navy every year—I’m not saying they make a purchase, but they make it through a store. So the idea is, how can I possibly interface with that many people?

ES: What exactly do you do for them?

TO: I design the color palette for the season, and that has a pretty broad-reaching effect. Just the tiniest bit of influence can change things.

ES: Do you design clothing for them? I know you have a long history of doing that.

TO: I don’t design any of the clothes, though I work with 160 designers. I guess you could call me their cheerleader.

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