Oldham is New Again World

A few years ago a friend gave me a gift subscription to a magazine about “simple living.”

At first I scoffed at the idea that a 130-page monthly periodical stuffed with advertising would simplify anything. But one day as I pulled an issue out of the mailbox, the warm, clean cover image actually seduced me into believing that I might have a better life—maybe even be a better person—if I could just have a tiny stand to hold decorative towels, topped with a bonsai plant, a chunk of coral, and a framed picture. One weekend I went crazy with a can of white textured spray paint, glamming everything from baskets to picture frames to tree branches I found outside. What was happening to me? Had I begun to reach enlightenment, or had I fallen into a trap?

Todd Oldham laughs and reassures me I might be normal after all, or at least abnormal in a good way. (Somewhere between aerosol fumes and enlightenment.)

“The most important thing I think you’ll ask anybody who’s involved in creative efforts is about making stuff. That’s how you know you’re alive,” he says. “It’s not the end result—and I think it’s something that any creative person will agree with.”

I confess I peel the label off my shampoo because it doesn’t match my bathroom. Oldham tells me he cuts the labels out of all his clothes. And we both sigh for a return to the clean aesthetic of the generic aisle of the grocery store where shoppers of the ’70s and ’80s could buy cereal, ice cream, or even beer in simple white containers with square black lettering. (C’mon. We just lived through 2017. We’re allowed to be a little nostalgic.)

Oldham’s design retrospective, “All of Everything,” coming to the Wexner Center for the Arts is an exhilarating look backwards to a decade of runway fashion with more than 65 of his meticulously constructed garments, a sparkling thrift shop of pieces that indeed makes clothing with almost everything imaginable from plaid to pipe cleaners to Swarovski crystals.

“I was really never interested in trying to make something new, but I loved making something new from what was in front of me.” Oldham said, as he recalled a childhood DIY project of busting an old TV and using the cabinet to make a sink cozy. “It’s all the same to me; I think that’s why those clothes look the way they do. They’re built.”

Oldham dominated the runway from 1989 to 1999, becoming one of the first designers to work with then-rising supermodels Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, and Christy Turlington. Designing for an America trying to rock skate tees, wallet chains, and hair parted straight down the middle, Oldham puts a playful, even absurdist, twist on the colors and textures of childhood with nods to tie-dye, thick knits, and paint-by-number crafts scattered throughout his designs. While the pieces may call back an era where cable TV was the latest thing to hit the media, Oldham frequently receives comments that his collection looks surprisingly contemporary.

“We were always on our own little island in fashion, so to speak,” Oldham explained. “We were in fashion, but kind of off to the side. The clothes weren’t really about following trends or what things were at the moment. So they kind of endure in a different way.”

What is not contemporary is the entirely analog construction of the garments, each reflecting months of work, with beads, sequins, and embroidery attached by hand. The consideration to detail, combined with the diversity of material, brings a delightful balance to the craft of making and the art of design. As technology continues to disrupt the analog, Oldham and his studio have moved on from “old school” crafting by hand, not just to save time and money, but also to cull new creative possibilities.

“We’ve interfaced with these incredible makers in our studio who’ve grown up digitally and here they’re learning to embrace the analog part of it, and what’s coming out of that is extraordinary,” he said.

Oldham, a native Texan who moved frequently and spent four years of his adolescence in Tehran, credits much of his career and creativity to growing up in a family where ripping through pillowcases to build an ensemble, or visiting the botanical gardens, was just another normal day. That engagement has lead to a cross-pollinating career of masterful and eclectic design. After moving on from the fashion world, Oldham expanded his studio projects to furniture design, interior design, photography, filmmaking, and book publishing. But regardless or direction, element, or form, Oldham insists upon the singularity of his work.

“It’s no different from what I was doing when I was 6 and 7—which was just making stuff out of stuff.”

All of Everything: Todd Oldham Fashion will open February 3, and run through April 15 at Wexner Center for the Arts. For more, visit wexarts.org.

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