Todd Oldham may have bowed out of fashion in 1999, but his vibrant creations are about to have a second coming at an exhibit opening this spring at RISD. Spanning the designer’s decadelong fashion career, the exhibition promises “all of everything” from Oldham’s vast and varied oeuvre. Sound daunting? It is. In his 10 years in the atelier, Oldham had done everything from embroider with actual hammered gold to turn a photograph of a flaming tuna can into a print for Naomi Campbell to wear on the runway.
“I can’t say that I ever had in mind staging a retrospective. I’ve had so much fun in fashion—and had the same fun since leaving it—so it’s something that never crossed my mind,” said Oldham, who has spent his post-fashion life continuing to create interiors, films, and books. When it came to the exhibit, it was RISD that made the first move, proposing the idea to the designer after building up a relationship with him through guest lectures. (In 2014, Oldham received an honorary degree from the university and donated many of his creations to its archive.) “I was most honored when RISD said that they wanted to celebrate all my years in fashion,” Oldham continued. “I was actually quite shocked.”
The retrospective will open on April 8, housed across several galleries in the RISD Museum. Oldham himself tackled the exhibition design, staging the main room in the style of a French garden, with tops once worn by Cindy Crawford where topiaries would sit. (Recalling his models, Oldham breaks into a near cheer, “Well, that was a big pleasure. Boy, I was so lucky and blessed to get to work with all those amazing girls.”) Within the space, the clothes are not organized chronologically, but rather re-styled into new looks that reflect the designer’s current interests and ideas. “I’m not very nostalgic, and I wasn’t sure how it would be, if it would be strange, or weird, or fun, or what,” Oldham said of revisiting his garments. “But it turned out to be really fun.”
Adding to the fun is that, somewhat miraculously, the designer still had nearly every piece he ever created. “What made this exhibition possible was that we never had a sample sale, which was sort of a basic in the fashion industry. Every season at the end of the season, the collection was boxed and put into the archive: Shoes, hair accessories, every earring, every belt buckle—everything!—was locked down and tucked away for 20 years,” he said. This plays out in the exhibition. In one area, 30,000 to 40,000 of the custom buttons Oldham created sit in a cabinet; in another, collages that were then turned into sublimation prints hang on the walls. Still, the ephemera is kept to a minimum. “What it sort of came down to was to let the clothes be as they were and maybe not reveal all the tricks,” Oldham laughed.
And even though he gave up fashion nearly 20 years ago, Oldham took up his needle once more to work on a special project for the exhibit: creating a new dress made from textiles designed by 50 RISD students. “This has been so much fun because it’s really ridiculous. To have 50 students all eager to jump in on this crazy project is a thrill, and the fabric is extraordinary,” he said. The goal was to teach students the joy of the process, something that has thrilled Oldham over the years as well. “I’ve always felt most alive when I’ve had scissors in my hand or was at the sewing machine, and I wanted all the artists I got to work with on this to see how important it is to be alive during that time.” It’s safe to say that a little time at the pattern-making table has sparked something in the designer too. “It was really fun to feel those tickles again, just to have the scissors in my hand again. I did enjoy it. For many years, I really thought I was completely done [with fashion], but I have enjoyed this so much. I learned a long time ago to never say never.”
“All of Everything: Todd Oldham Fashion” opens at the RISD Museum on April 8.
Photo: Courtesy of the RISD Museum, Providence RI
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