Oldham's Timeless Brilliance

Oldham's Timeless Brilliance

Todd Oldham's colorful collaboration with RISD students takes center stage in his fashion retrospective at the RISD Museum. | photo by Thad Russell MFA 06 PH

At the opening celebration of a major fashion retrospective at the RISD Museum, multitalented designer Todd Oldham – who has since moved on to design everything from books to furniture to film – didn't hesitate when asked why his fun, witty and over-the-top apparel designs from the 1990s still look so fresh and appealing.

“Well, we were never fashionable,” the designer reasoned. “We were on our own little island doing our thing and bumped into fashion enough to not make it too strange.” Of course, Oldham admits that he also had the foresight to anchor his exuberant vision with purposefully classic forms. “I could have done really extravagant shapes but when you have ideas this vivid, you have to ground them somehow.”

Featuring more than 65 full ensembles along with video projections of runway shows, All of Everything: Todd Oldham Fashion is the first exhibition to focus on his 10 prolific years of making haute couture that combines amazing technical innovations with his singular sensibility. “We were always throwing curve balls,” Oldham recalls. “I felt I had something to say and it was meaningful and had duality and juxtaposition.”

Curator of Costume and Textiles Kate Irvin says that the show evolved from conversations she began having with Oldham in 2014, when he came to RISD to accept an honorary degree at Commencement. While touring the museum, the NYC-based designer offered to give the museum several runway pieces from his studio archives. The exhibition – which Oldham designed and features work he has donated to the permanent collection – brings together some of the most daring moments in a decade in which he pushed the boundaries of color, pattern and material. Consider, for instance, the dress encrusted with thousands of Swarovski crystals or a pair of shorts embroidered from 18-karat gold bullion that was hammered into thread.

"We were never fashionable. We were on our own little island doing our thing and bumped into fashion enough to not make it too strange."
Todd Oldham

“The most exciting thing is that this exhibition is at RISD,” notes Oldham, who values the “bright and beautiful people” who study here so much that his four-member in-house design team is comprised entirely of RISD alumni. Having visited campus many times before as a speaker and guest critic, he approaches art and design – be it furniture, product design, photography or any of the other expressive mediums he works in – with the same commitment to process and experimentation that is a hallmark at RISD.

“My work is completely process-oriented,” Oldham said at an exhibition-related event called Critical Encounters: Kicking the Machine, a conversation with Wendy Goodman, design editor at New York magazine. “I’m rarely attached to outcomes. That’s a very boring way to go about things.”

"The most exciting thing is that this exhibition is at RISD. This place makes the brightest, most beautiful people."

Last spring Oldham shared his ongoing commitment to process and generosity in working with students by serving as a visiting critic in two Fabric Silkscreen studios taught by Assistant Professor Mary Anne Friel. Students in both studios helped embellish 18 yards of muslin used in the RISD Ensemble dress, the first original garment Oldham has designed in years. In All of Everything, the gown takes center stage on a pond of green sequins, its cacophony of color commanding attention – even amidst such historical showstoppers as the Old Master-New Mistress skirt, a Mona Lisa/thrift-store painting mashup that made fashion legend Gianni Versace sit up and take notice. More than 30 “artists who were pretending to be students” contributed to the RISD Ensemble and their names are duly noted on the accompanying gallery placard.

During his conversation with Goodman, Oldham said that All of Everything, which continues through September 11, has given him a wonderful opportunity to reflect on an exciting creative period in his life. “I didn't realize what I was really working with at the time,” he told the overflow crowd. “But in hindsight I do.”

Robert Albanese

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