About new Roads… and making them: a conversation with Todd Oldham

“It is always easiest and most meaningful to inspire thru action, which may be a bit of following and leading. “

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In Japan, gifting souvenirs to friends and family when you return home is deeply ingrained. The practice, called “omiyage,” is most often (but not limited) to food items that can only be found in the regions visited. The practice is so widespread that omiyage comes specially packaged in gift shops and airports, in brightly coloured boxes that often contained individually wrapped snacks meant for dispersing to colleagues and family members. Todd Oldham, for instance, is beyond a souvenir. Even beyond the supermodels who used to walk up and down his runway shows until the early 2000’s… or Fran Drescher [as The Nanny] wearing his designs on tv. Oldham’s bold imagination, irreverent wit, and a near promiscuous delight in upending traditional fashion decorum and dictates are, among other qualities, part of his virtue.

That’s why Todd Oldham’s master feels appropriate to create an anthology of answers and thoughts without abstraction. Here a gift for observation.

First of all, where is your mind right now?

I have been feeling, like the rest of the world, a bit confused. I am hoping that my usual optimism wins out in the end.

Taking into consideration these times we’re living in and your philanthropic work throughout the years on the advisory board of different organisations; what’s your overall view on the current global situation?

It is a real challenge to not be seriously bummed out over the state of humanity lately. Retrograde behaviours and a lack of curiosity are not serving us well. I decided long ago to stop lamenting broken systems and to step to the side and make new roads. This is now more necessary than ever before, it is the main reason we make Kid Made Modern.


What does transformation mean to you?

I think it requires context, but I accept that change is all we really have and constant transformation keeps you floating and interested. I also think of my friend, the late make up magician Kevyn Aucoin, he would wipe your face off and paint someone new on you, transformation kind of under-sold it.

How do you manage to articulate your thoughts and translating them into pieces of work?

I like being very present while making anything.  Because I have a finely tuned aesthetic and point of view I can shift mediums with ease and still have the outcomes still sort of look like I did them. I often impose guidelines to a project which then makes choices easier and clearer as without guide rails I float to the ethers.

What is your reference source that never stops giving you good ideas? Do you have any?

My curiosity is what fuels everything, a way-of-seeing instead of a what-of-seeing.

Getty Images

Fashion designer Todd Oldham posing w. his cloth & flower wrapped dog Betty on desk in his office. (Photo by Barbara Laing/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

You have probably been asked this before but, why did you choose art as a career?

I am happily unemployable so art was a natural calling.

What do you think it’s the difference between being a designer or creative person in the 20th century and in this one?

I think my ideas about design are somewhat the same but perhaps a bit amplified of late and it is this: no one needs what you do so it better be amazing.  I do see the new digital assistance as a huge advantage and with beguiling taste can be brilliant. There is also unfortunately the possibility for disconnective outcomes; it is an arena for soulless duplication.

It’s crazy because our actions can make us followers or leaders, according to the politics of the world. What do you think about these two boxes?

We are all followers and leaders all the time. It is when the powers are exploited on either direction that things can get dicey. It is always easiest and most meaningful to inspire thru action, which may be a bit of following and leading. It is sound advice in all cases to carefully consider the source of leadership and honestly decide if they are worth your attention.

What recent or past event in your life have made you reflect on how you do things on earth?

I read constantly and it is impossible to not be aware of the toll manufacturing takes on our planet. This has lead all of my companies to adopt as many positive attributes like not using shrink wraps and when necessary switching them to corn based plastics. Uncoated stocks, bio-degradable inks, re-usable and re-purposed supplies and more make the manufacturing process more earth friendly but that said I am endlessly tortured trying to be better, there is always an opportunity to improve. We work with some very big store chains that agreed to adapt to our packaging concerns and are now adopting it elsewhere in the store. That is terrific.

From your point of view, are you able to explain the importance of references and technique to create a vision in the fashion world?

I am often in design schools in America speaking about many facets of design but the one unifying effort is to try to inspire a thirst for knowledge. In fashion especially the bar is set very high. The best designers are great sophisticates. There is a certain thrill when design seems to reference nothing historic, but I suspect these efforts are by the most knowledgeable talents, you can’t break the rules properly if you don’t know them.

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Todd Oldham Jeans, American Vogue, August 1996. Photograph by Gus Van Sant.

I have to confess that I remember being so disappointed when I found out that you were not doing shows during fashion week, because I loved them always full of joy and so inspiring. What was your biggest decision after that one?

I knew for a year I when my last collection would be and I was touched to find people missed what we did. In hindsight, we had an unusual point of view that valued the artisan more that than celebrity. Our art-first approach yielded a lot of passionate effort that involved incredible makers all over the world

 Richard Martin, the former curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told Newsweek in 1995: “Todd can design a whole world.” How do you grow as an artist?

I was most flattered by Richards’s kind words. I think because I was raised learning how to add-on to our house, lay brick, wire lamps, and sew it never occurred to me not to try designing everything. I am not afraid to try any new mediums and I think that keeps me moving. I also love science too and I am truly possessed by plants and propagating them. The mix of science and art are fascinating. Every week the plants are doing something magical.

We had Janet Delaney for CHEVET — she has some great words of wisdom– and asked her If she would have the chance to ask a very tricky question to a fellow photographer, what would that be? “I would ask them how to make a good portrait,” was her answer. Since you have done photography, can you answer this question of hers?

I love portraiture! It depends on what the goal is but generally people try to look their best or most beguiling for which there are many tricks to get there. I tend to like revealing portraits. Maybe they are not honest but there is realness to them. I think of the many times I have had the pleasure of shooting Amy Sedaris and how different she looks in each and real each seems. Lighting plays the biggest trick in successful photographs. I learned about light while being photographed by the world’s top photographers and it was a great film school.

The Chilean writer Isabel Allende, said that you are a true writer once you have published your second book. I was wondering what’s your opinion on this after publishing 23 books? 

That number of books snuck up on me! It is a treat to make books, weather you are shining a light on people or movements you love or sharing your thoughts it a monastic and rich experience to make a book. It requires mental gymnastics and a caring so dense and complicated that devotion must be complete.

What does the public mean to you?

I love that I get to make so many things that are enjoyed publicly and I also love that I live in a completely self imposed bubble.

TO

All of Everything: Todd Oldham Fashion – Wexner Center for the Arts

What’s your earliest memory?

I have many early memories of childhood but I have a distinct one when I first noticed there was something to color proximity. When I was about 4 sitting in my backyard I was really moved to see how lovely my tan corduroy pants looked with the bright blue sky. It was a big deal for me, a day new doors opened permanently for me

Can you give us the best 5 words to end this interview?

Make stuff that you love.

 

Special thanks: Tony Longoria
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