All Todd, All The Time

On a brilliant spring morning, with the ocean calling, Todd Old-ham packs up his merry band of models and makeup artists and trucks on out to Coney Island, N.Y. They've come to film the latest installment of "Todd Time," Oldham's irreverent segment on MTV's "House of Style," and the rinky-dink atmosphere of the boardwalk is the perfect backdrop for the kitsch-is-cool womenswear designer. As he starts taping "Delightfully Useless, Sometimes Sexy and Often-Romantic Tips for Summer," he spreads out an old purple and white shirt in the sand. Then, with expert strokes and orange scissors, he measures and snips until he's transformed the bleach-stained shirt into a sexy halter top. Finally, he holds it up for inspection. "Brain surgery, huh?" he says, grinning his chip-toothed grin.

With his Beaver Cleaver face and thrift-shop wardrobe, Oldham, even at 33, comes across as the slightly goofy pal you'd bring home to dinner, not the guy you'd vote most likely to succeed. But this aw-shucks stuff obscures a sophistication and determination that, in the last seven years, has propelled Oldham and his high-priced ready-to-wear to the front of the fashion pack, embraced by the seen-it-all establishment and the hip young things who have more moxie than money. Now, he's ready for more. In the last nine months, Oldham has opened his first store (a SoHo shop he built with his dad, Jack); signed on as creative consultant to Escada (the $700 million-a-year German fashion giant) and jumped into the big-bucks licensing arena with his first perfume and jeans line. Oldham-ed out? This week, the Warner Bros. Studio Stores roll out Todd Oldham Forever, a $20-to-$280 line of dresses and jackets inspired by the upcoming extravaganza, "Bat-man Forever." Like a kid invited for a spin in the Batmobile, Oldham's buckled up for what promises to be an exhilarating ride.

In an industry that hasn't produced a world-class designer since Perry Ellis hit big in 1978, Oldham is poised to be the first in his young class--a muscular group that includes Isaac Mizrahi, Anna Sui, Marc Jacobs and Cynthia Rowley--to graduate into the ranks of America's fashion superstars.

What distinguishes him isn't just talent, but the breadth of his vision. "Todd has that sense of canny Americana that we associate with certain great artists, like Andy Warhol and Keith Hating," says Richard Martin, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's costume institute. "It's an ability to be curious and quirky, yet at the same time to achieve a mainstream style. Todd can design a whole world."

Or maybe his appeal is as simple as his resistance to all things beige or black. "When you go outside New York City, the world wants color and prints," says New York retail fashion consultant Vicky Ross. Oldham's are happy clothes in hyperbolic colors and chaotic prints that alternate between loud and over the top. He finds inspiration everywhere: '50s shirts, religious tchotchkes, Paint-by-Number paintings. He likes to turn on Mary Tyler Moore reruns and start sketching. "My guess is that by distracting my conscious mind, my hand just churns it out. But maybe what it boils down to is, I'm happiest in my pajamas."

In an industry built on spin, Oldham has honed his image without spending a cent on advertising. He has an adoring press eager to feature his $800 to $1,200 suits in theft spreads. He has celebrities - actresses Susan Sarandon, Debi Mazar, Fran Drescher--who wear his frocks. Most important, he's the only designer who has a monthly stint on MTV, plugging him into the hearts and wallets of 4.5 million 12- to 84-year-olds. Most can't afford his $2,000 gowns; but they can afford his $65 jeans or $22 Batman stockings. "He's reaching an audience no other designer has figured out how to tap," says Alan Millstein, editor of the Fashion Network Report. He's done it by understanding that in the age of MTV, stimulating the senses--with his eye-popping prints and telegenic persona-- is as important as designing the clothes. "As a kid watching movies, I'd get wrapped up in the visual edits," he says. "I'd notice how manipulative they were."

Comparisons are inevitable to another master manipulator, Calvin Klein. Indeed, Oldham, who has rings tattooed on several toes, connects with Gen X on the same visceral level that Klein, in his fast-track days, channeled into the Studio 54 set. But while Calvin evokes raw sexuality, Oldham aims for a sweeter sexiness. While early Calvin was about labels (remember who put his name on your undies), Oldham lets his clothes speak for themselves (his perfume bottle doesn't even bear his name). What both are hawking, though, is entree into their world. In Oldham's ease, it's a land of Gen-X multiculturalism (he touts lesbian models and models of color), environmentalism (his shop's chandeliers are made of recycled refrigerator wire and toilet floats) and animal rights (he doesn't do fur, and even sells dog bowls and donates the proceeds to the care of AIDS patients' pets).

Oldham's social conscience comes from his family, and so does his sense of adventure. Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, Oldham and his three brothers and sisters moved constantly to keep up with his father, Jack, a computer programmer. When Todd was 12, they hauled off to Iran, an experience Todd's mother, Linda, believes changed their lives. "After that, the fear of trying something new was taken away from anything we did." Four years later they returned to Keller, Texas, and the day after Todd graduated from high school, he headed to Dallas. His first job was in the alterations department at the Polo/Ralph Lauren shop; they fired him.

So Oldham, whose grandmother taught him to sew when he was 9, borrowed $100 from his parents, bought 41 yards of white cotton jersey, dyed it and put together a tiny collection that he sold to Neiman Marcus. By 1985, it was faring well enough that Neiman's buyer Tony Longoria joined him. Three years later Todd and Tony--who describe themselves as partners in business and in life -- headed to New York.

What next? From the first, Oldham--designer and designs-captivated the fashion trendies. In the last two years everyone else has caught on. The question now is, what's next? The logical move would be more licenses, but that could mean changing the whole tenor of his life. Oldham's business, estimated at $15 million a year, is a family affair. Back in Dallas, Linda runs the factory; brother Brad makes casts for buttons; sister Robin heads computer operations, and 74-year-old granny, Mildred Jasper, runs the notions department and rounds up lunch. Big fashion businesses are usually a lot more corporate. "What made Calvin successful," says Millstein, "is that he has Barry Schwartz, a strong business partner, who makes the hard decisions, handles financing and oversees licensing." Longoria, 40, may not have the muscle to be another Schwartz.

But Oldham isn't sure he wants to be another Calvin. Up in Oldham's atelier, a cozy SoHo loft where the walls are decoupaged in pink newspapers, Longoria, his black hair streaked with royal blue, explains: "Things start to spoil when you have all these have-tos." Longoria says they want to hone Oldham's lower-priced bridge line, Times 7, into a collection aimed at Gen-Xers and allow the signature line to stay cutting-edge. But they're also thinking beyond clothes. Tony ticks off ideas for cosmetics and a line of home furnishings; Todd's excited about a children's book he's writing, a screenplay he's developing about Granny's childhood friend and the possibility, of turning "Todd Time" into a video collection. And if none of this works out? Oldham leaves no doubt he'd be just as content in his pajamas, sketching.

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