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:

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