Todd Oldham has left no design area untouched by his creative hand, all of it bespoke by signature impeccable detail. His work was acquired by The Met, his honorary doctorate and museum retrospective bestowed by RISD, and his influence has permeated design, art, and fashion for a generation. Sustainability and inclusivity were integral to Oldham’s practice long before those terms were trending, and these values are most recently expressed through his new Maker Shop of limited edition collections. Oldham has always collaborated with his crafty family and friends, and he consistently celebrates others and inspires creativity—a visionary legend. It’s Todd Time!
Kristin Farr: How did your new Maker Shop begin?
Todd Oldham: In a funny way, it’s closer to my DNA than anything else I’ve ever done. The way I was brought up, my mom always said she knew I’d be home late from school on trash day because, to me, that was like the mall had opened. I’d walk the trash all the way home. I found a dead TV I had to get so we could pull out the screen and make a new vanity. That’s the way it worked. My parents were like improv comedians who always said, “Yes! And!” They didn’t want us to get hurt, but they didn’t want to discourage us, so if it was moderately safe at all, it was a yes.
Pull out that TV and smash it.
That’s what we did. You’re not supposed to take a hammer to the diode, but it worked!
Maker Shop repurposes archival items from your ’90s runway collections. Was that always the intention in saving everything?
It wasn’t so much for a future use, it was a respect for all the work, not only mine but the dozens of artisans who poured their efforts into it. We were never arbitrary about anything. Everything was about seeing how far we could push it. We made all of our own buttons, we cast them. If you saw a gold button, it was 24k gold-plated. And then we’d do things to manipulate it to the point that it didn’t even look like gold anymore. I knew no one needed anything I did and they never have. So I felt it better be special if you’re going to make something that no one needs. Turn it up.
There’s such unique detail in your work, you’re a master of that extra touch.
I appreciate you saying that. It was really important to me to not just be a part of “more.” We’re always part of more to some degree, but I wanted to make things so they’d last, whether in your memory or in your closet. Most of the clothes were so well made, they look perfectly fine today. When I decided I didn’t want to focus on clothes as much, we were always doing a lot of other things at the same time—hotel design, home collections, books, and TV—so we just turned the one thing off that was really loud. We had dedicated ourselves so distinctly and precisely to getting all this stuff right. We never had sample sales and we never dumped things. We’d spend six months making something, so why would I toss it out? We had worked with museums through the years, so I knew how to handle estates, the problems, and the advantages, so we just packed everything cleanly for a couple of decades. Then, one day, I wanted to look at it, and I thought, maybe there‘s something here. I had not had the urge in any way prior to that.
You’re using the archive in a new way, like the beads on the Maker Shop hoodie strings.
Those are from evening gowns. It also amazed me that we had some of the original dress patterns from 1983 that were really important to us, so it was nice to be able to use them again. When we bring something back from an existing pattern, we do it in a new fabric. And if we’re bringing back an old fabric, we do it in a new way, so we’re not duplicating anything from the past. We’ve always got a new take on it.
I imagine you feel the world would be better if everyone fulfilled their inherent creativity since your Kid Made Modern beginner art supplies were the first of truly high quality, inspiring new artists.
Any creative experience is like a step up the stairs and you never take a step back. Even if something doesn’t come out as you wish, it’s still going upward. Artistic and creative efforts never backslide, no matter what. If you have confidence and ability, you can keep going and evolving, fine-tune, and get to where your vision needs to be.
Comfortable confidence changes everything, the way you move through life, and it doesn’t have to be confused with arrogance. Being comfortable knowing that you can figure stuff out is the side effect of creativity. Empathy, understanding, compassion, open-mindedness—there are a lot of good tenants of a creative soul that benefit being a great human as well.
The supplies make all the difference. I mentioned my folks, my truly amazing parents, who spent so much time with us and helped us understand it all. If something didn’t work out, we never thought it was because of us or our skills. They’d help us understand how the mediums worked or didn’t for our ideas.
When I started entering into this arena of kids’ products, we researched. Again, I didn’t want to be a part of “more,” I wanted to make a difference. We found heartbreaking things, like this old company called RoseArt that would only put one-inch leads in their pencils.
And their crayons were crap, just wax.
It was very close to the jeans industry. When we had a denim collection, we saw the $500 jeans and the $7 jeans were all going through the same equipment, and it’s the same with art supplies. I could turn everything up to super maximum, and it would only be a few pennies more.
It’s no surprise that you got into the science of making art supplies since you invented the DIY movement in the ’90s.
That might be overstated. I was on an MTV show called House of Style…
“Todd Time” was the best segment.
Our voice was unique and the power was so odd because, at that point, MTV was ruling the world, and we had a conscious voice… I mean, we got Bill Clinton elected! We got to make DIY fashion, and style was a normal consideration. DIY wasn’t a novelty or something for hippies. It made people think differently, and the information was coming from me, or Cindy Crawford, or the endless designers we interviewed, people who knew what they were talking about. And since we were in the middle of it, Cindy took Duran Duran shopping at Sears, and I’d remake a back-to-school wardrobe for $1.98, and then interview John Galliano. It made sense to us and it had nothing to do with money. We showed things that were expensive, but that’s not why we were showing them. They were amazing works of art that should be seen. I think that unspoken neutrality is why people remember it. You were welcome there. If you didn’t have any money, the ideas were free. I taught guys how to cut their hair. We did a show called “Lazy Guy Tips” and about once a month since it aired decades ago, I hear from somebody who says, “You taught me how to cut my hair.”
There is literally nothing you haven’t done. Oh, I read that your dream design project is a quarry and I need to know more.
It makes me so happy to even think of it. The trouble is there’s radon that would not allow me to live in a quarry the way I want to. They’re just so beautiful. Everything about it thrills me, except the radon.
Like living in a ’60s space movie?
It would be more like year 60. Prehistoric times. It has never stopped crossing my mind… you could fill up one hole as a swimming pool. There would be a wooden house on the edge of a giant quarry hole with all kinds of beautiful stone stripes, colors, drips, and blobs. And then the magic of plants that seem to emerge out of the cracks… You’d have slides somewhere, going from the top to the bottom… I’ll let the idea keep floating.
What’s the last thing you photographed?
Probably my dog, Eve, clawing my legs off, but that was just with my phone camera. I’m a photographer too, and I just shot Alexander Wang’s new underwear campaign. That was fun, I got to work with Carmen Electra and Amanda Lepore, crazy cats.
Discover new, limited edition releases at the Maker Shop site, and Todd’s latest line of art supplies, Smarts & Crafts, at Walmart. Dr. Oldham is also featured on the new season of Yo Gabba Gabba!