Todd Oldham

On his life of design.

March 2009By Comments

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.

ES: Same kind of deal at Target? Why should the masses suffer for not having money?

TO: Oh, yeah. Why should that diminish their choices? I understand that quality issues raise prices. That’s fine. But anything can be made now in a conscionable manner.

ES: What did you do for Target that you’re proud of?

TO: I liked very much the overall system [for students] that we got to design. It was two years of back-to-school programs, and it was very, very fun because we got into the psychology of the beast. You can imagine what these kids are going through. They’re being dislodged from their homes. They’re suddenly sharing bathrooms with people of the opposite sex they don’t know. We got in there and tried to find solutions, and we came up with a lot of interesting ideas, like the bed-in-the-bag idea, where the top sheet had a print on half of the sheet and the other was solid, so at least they could fake their parents out and make them think they’d changed the sheets when they’d just slipped them around. It was fun to think about how we could help them survive those first moments away.

ES: Very practical.

TO: I’m very practical. Some people might argue with that.

ES: Why?

TO: I think some of the see-through spider bras I’ve sent out through the years might contradict me.

ES: Didn’t I see you were also working for La-Z-Boy?

TO: I don’t any longer. They were the manufacturer of a furniture line I did. Unfortunately they have a lot of hiccups over there, and we chose not to go forward. The trick is going into these behemoth companies—sometimes they’re flexible, and sometimes there’s a reason that they’re behemoths. There’s a very, very big misconception that big businesses are run by big brains. It is so not true.

ES: Let me ask you about another venue for bringing your aesthetic to a mass audience, and that’s the work you’ve done as a mentor on Bravo’s Top Design. Many reality shows attempt to traffic in design or fashion sensibilities. Do you believe it’s a good thing for people to learn about taste and style this way?

TO: I don’t think it’s a good way to learn. People enjoy these shows, but I don’t personally—never mind that I’ve actually been involved in one. I don’t understand the pecking orders and the voting off [of contestants]. The show was nightmarishly hard—one thousand times harder than what it was shown to be. That never happens on TV; it’s always way easier. Also, you’d never believe the manipulation that the editors can [pull off]. They can weave together footage. They can do anything they want with you, basically.

ES: So it’s not quote-unquote reality.

TO: The interesting part is that the reality of it is sort of pushed to the back. The reaction shots are probably coming from some other shoot entirely. But I’m sure no one really—

ES: I don’t think anyone’s looking for great integrity there.

TO: It’s TV, yeah. Don’t pet a rattlesnake.

ES: Can we talk about the work you’ve done purely as a clothing designer? Is that something you still enjoy doing or have you gotten completely away from it now?

TO: It’s the only thing I’m encoded with. Everyone’s got their gifts. I have a supernatural ability to make patterns. It’s the one thing I can do with extreme ease. I took it so seriously that when it wasn’t in my heart anymore, which was about twelve years ago, I knew I wasn’t going to do it anymore. It was such a privilege to do, and I didn’t want to fool anyone. Plus, I mean, who needed what I did? The clothes were fun, I had a great time doing them, and people enjoyed them. But if you needed something, there was always something else, another choice near you.

ES: Who are the most talented people designing right now?

TO: It’s the same answer I would have given you ten years ago: John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Christian Lacroix. I like original effort. Unfortunately, the arena for fashion is really not the same as it was ten years ago.

ES: What happened?

TO: There’s been a big shift, because there are about a billion more designers. It looks fun to do, right? And with the onslaught of celebrity designers, people got fooled about what design is, and we got into this kind of weird design that ate itself up so many times that it turned into nothing.

ES: It’s been a while since you’ve been connected to Texas in a direct and consistent way, so I’m wondering how you feel about your home state in terms of style. Do you think to yourself, “How did I, a reasonably stylish person, come out of a place like that?” Or do you think more fondly of us?

TO: I have total respect and a lovely feeling for my time in Texas. Not only was I born in Corpus Christi, but pretty much every relative I have was born in Texas or Oklahoma. So I still feel very attached to it, and I am so grateful for the way it shaped me. There is a unique duality that is so charming and appealing, or maybe it’s an “I don’t give a f—.” I love that people are just themselves. I think of all the crazy characters I’ve encountered over the years—the ones in fourteen-carat diamonds and overalls. It’s just great.

ES: The rumor is that you stitched together a dress for your sister from two pillowcases when you were nine.

TO: Yeah, I guess that’s true. I learned to sew when I was about seven. My grandmother taught me. She gave me an old machine that had a short in it. It would only go on, at a thousand miles an hour, or off, by kicking it. I guess I was in early industrial training at that point.

ES: Neither parent was in anything like the business you’re in now, right? So you didn’t inherit the family mantle.

TO: I did as far as the creativity goes. Both of my parents are crazy creative, and I have a lot of brothers and sisters who are in creative fields and own their own businesses.

ES: Your dad was a computer consultant who moved your family to Iran when you were still in middle school.

TO: Yeah, we lived there for four years.

ES: How did that experience affect you?

TO: Anytime a kid realizes how tiny the world is, it’s a big eye-opener. I loved Iranian culture, and the Irani people were fantastic to us. And it was very influential. My color sense was formed, in part, by the bazaars in Iran. They were often in these beautiful high-arched halls that had beams of light coming down. It all had that movie-set beauty.

ES: Can you tell me what your next big projects are?

TO: We have a new edition of Hand Made Modern. I did a book called Kids Made Modern, and it’s all kid-friendly projects—I think it comes out in September or October. I’ve been shooting state fairs for the last eight years, including the State Fair of Texas, which is one of the best state fairs ever, ever, ever. That book comes out in December. The thing I’ve been working on for the last couple of years is a feature film that I hope to start. I’m getting behind the lens in about another year.

ES: You’ve dabbled in film before.

TO: Yeah, I’ve done tons of things: music videos, shorts, and lots of costuming. Also, because of my days as a fashion designer, I got to know and meet a lot of interesting actors and visit sets. I got to watch Robert Altman direct. I’m a quick study. It’s the same way I learned about photography: by being on the other side of the camera and by working with the best. Sitting in front of Patrick
Demarchelier’s camera, I looked at the lighting and I understood.

ES: Before you go, because we’re running our picks in this issue, I need to ask who you think the most stylish Texan of all time is.

TO: You know who immediately popped into my head? Ann Richards. She always looked clean and pulled together, though I can barely remember what she wore. It was her bravery and cleverness, the way she sifted through tough times. I always thought she was fantastic.

ES: Yeah.

TO: And Molly Ivins—those two, I think, had style. And I don’t mean physical style. When you have a graceful style, when you can weave words, that’s way more stylish. You need nothing else. You can show up in a burlap sack if you can talk like those women.

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