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Oldham Shares Warmth + Wisdom

Oldham Shares Warmth + Wisdom

In late April Textiles students in two Fabric Silkscreen classes taught by Assistant Professor Mary Anne Friel presented their print designs to a very special visiting critic: fashion designer, author and all-around creative superstar Todd Oldham, who also came to RISD last spring to accept an honorary degree at Commencement.

In 2013 Friel had brought her students to Oldham’s studio during a visit designed to help them connect with industry leaders in NYC. “We were digging into his archive of innovative fabrics,” she recalls, “when Todd had the idea of coming to RISD to make a group print with students.”

As that idea came to fruition this spring, students in Friel’s classes have been enjoying a rare opportunity to work directly with the prolific designer. During one visit, when they presented prints inspired by sea creatures housed at the Nature Lab, Oldham was as gracious as ever in offering incisive feedback.

“These tones are exquisite, and I love your sophisticated color combination,” the designer gushed as he examined a sample of silk chiffon by Staveley Kuzmanov 17 TX. “And this print really captures the tumble between the water and the sea floor,” he said of a textile designed by Christine Kim 17 TX. “The colors would look great on any skin tone.” Made with specialty fabrics such as wool, velvet, silk knit and linen, the prints showcase experimental approaches to mark-making, dyeing and printing.

When Oldham came to campus to accept his honorary degree last spring, he met with RISD Museum curators of Costume + Textiles Kate Irvin and Laurie Brewer, who are now organizing a retrospective of his work slated to open at the museum next spring. As arrangements for the exhibition continue during his visits this spring, Oldham lays out some of the incredibly detailed and finely crafted skirts and dresses likely to be included in the show, encouraging students to examine them closely.

“For at least six or seven years, I made all my own dress patterns,” Oldham tells them. “I love old clothes and learned about construction by shopping at Goodwill and altering everything. When you’re designing fashion,” he adds, “it’s important to remember that the pieces will be seen from all angles. You need to think about all facets of the work.”

Oldham’s desire to work with Textiles majors to create a new print is also coming to fruition this spring as Friel’s students work together to create 18 yards of silkscreened muslin. He plans to transform the fabric into a full-skirted dress that will be part of the exhibition. “I tried not to put too many rules in place,” the freethinking designer says. “I want students to see their marks within the piece when it’s shown at the museum.”

In fact, Oldham prefers to eschew rules in general when it comes to creative practice. “Ignore old-fashioned rules,” he tells students. “Carve your own way. Bring your own truths to the work.”

Each visit to RISD is punctuated by a steady stream of enthusiasm and insights like this, born of industry experience. And, as Friel notes, Oldham is extraordinarily generous with his time. He has returned to Providence repeatedly to lead experimental printing and dyeing sessions on Frazier Terrace, guide students through their final print projects and offer feedback during group crits.

Perhaps most valuable of all, Oldham has an uncanny ability to really see each student’s work and tap into what makes it special. “Whatever it is,” he tells one hesitant student during a critique, “just make sure you mean it. If you love what you’re making, chances are someone else will too.”

Simone Solondz

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