FASHION THE NEW FAIR-HAIRED BOY

Local designer Todd Oldham is hot on both coasts, but virtually unknown in his home town. That’s about to change in a big way.

Do you know anyplace in New York where I can get a Timex?” asked Todd Oldham, a man on the run. I had telephoned New York to talk to him about what it feels like to be a designer of promise, waiting in the wings of Seventh Avenue. We talked for a minute about the difficulty of finding simple stuff in New York, and then about the heady realization that anything you could ever want is in New York if you’re willing to dig hard enough to find it. But then, Todd Oldham is a home boy who knows about digging.

A Texas native, for the last ten years Todd has been about the business of fashion, based in Dallas: conceptualizing, designing, manufacturing, and selling his own collections of contemporary sportswear for women and occasionally for men, from several different warehouse/factory sites in the shadow of the Dallas Apparel Mart. There have been successful seasons. There has been a fair amount of media acclaim, both locally and nationally. And there have been lean years in between. Even when sales figures leapt on both the East and West coasts, they barely limped through Texas. But though Todd’s modern, urbane clothing has always sold better away from home, the “Dallas designer” label stuck.

“When you’re in Dallas, that’s the compartment they put you in. I tried to buck it for years,” admits Oldham. “Even when we opened a New York showroom, I just couldn’t shake it.”

But on May 1, 1989, all that changed. Todd Oldham, designer, became the new boy wonder at Onward Kashiyama USA Inc., the 1.5-billion-dollar consortium that also distributes, promotes, and sells the collections of fashion heavyweights Jean Paul Gaultier, Soprani, and Dolce & Gabbana in the U.S., and represents more than one major American designer in Europe and Japan. Asked to interview along with an impressive list of about seventy-five other fashion talents, Todd was ultimately selected to fill the spot vacated by star-status designer Marc Jacobs, who left Kashiyama to become head designer at Perry Ellis earlier this year.

Bright lights. Big city. Bye bye, Dallas, for most of the year at least. Quite a coup for a guy who still flinches at the memory of being much maligned and oft misunderstood at his high school in Keller, a quiet bedroom-and-bovine community about twenty miles on the un-Dallas side of D/FW Airport. A Janis Joplin reference seems inevitable. “Right,” laughs Oldham. “There will be no statues of Todd Oldham in Keller, Texas.”

For years, Todd had been designing and stitching up special things for his sister Robin, his first house model. After high school, Todd blasted out of Keller and headed for Dallas. He worked in alterations at The Polo Shop for a while, kept reinventing new combinations of things, sewing, finding a vintage print or a special embroidery he liked, envisioning the finished product, and working on it until he had it down to the last detail.

In 1981, he designed a small collection of simple, sporty cotton knits: skirts, roomy shorts, cropped tops, comfortable Ts, and a loose, one-size-fits-all chemise he christened the “Safeway” dress that could be pulled on fast and lived in by almost anyone. Self-taught, he selected fabric, piece-dyed it, cut the patterns, stitched and seamed, and sold a few pieces to Neiman Marcus. The Dallas fashion press was intrigued.

When I was a fashion writer for The Dallas Morning News, we got a telephone call from Todd Oldham one hot summer day. Several of us set off for an un-air-conditioned warehouse that backed up to the Trinity River levee. There, we met Todd and did far more than look at the collection: the designer felt it had to be tried on, experienced, to be understood. I met his parents, Linda and Jack Oldham, and several of his sisters and brothers. The entire family was working to fuse Todd’s ideas into reality. We found the clothes were easy, comfortable, and desirable, and the close-knit family situation was right out of Norman Lear’s imagination, but better: these were real people.

The next time I got the call, Todd’s grandmother had been enlisted and the enterprise had moved to bigger, better digs near The Anatole. On that visit, I watched as a Vietnamese patternmaker, a Mexican-American seamstress, an embroidery salesman, and the Dr Pepper man in turn asked for “Granny,” and waited for instructions. While Todd and partner Tony Longoria showed us the line, his mom and dad checked on boxes of clothing as they were loaded onto UPS trucks. It had become an international family. Sales were up, but still not in Dallas.

With the next collection, Todd Oldham womenswear caught the attention of buyers and media on the East Coast. In Dallas, Lou Lattimore bought the line. M.A.C., a chic San Francisco retailer that continues to show the line, opened a small Todd Oldham shop the next season to the delight of Bay Area fashion victims. In 1987, a New York showroom was opened and Fall ’87 got hot: Todd Oldham’s womenswear collection was bought by Barney’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Charavari in New York, Bullocks in L.A.. and Stanley Korshak in Dallas. In 1988, an unstable distribution agreement caused problems and the Oldhams pulled out, cutting their losses. Todd and Linda Oldham became co-operatives on a line of special shirts they labeled Times 7.

“I’d been toying around with doing a shirl line; the category was kind of hot and people had always loved my shirts,” says Oldham. “It was a science project, kind of.” Times 7 became a phenomenal success story, quadrupling in sales volume by the time Kashiyama came to call.

Family ties and a portion of the manufacturing, distribution, and warehousing of Times 7 remain in Dallas as sort of a Todd Oldham South operation, while Oldham the designer readies his first collection for Kashiyama that will debut in New York in September and go on sale in stores in the spring. The theme of this first spring season is luck.

“I’ve always thought I was one of the luckiest people I’ve ever known,” says Oldham. “There will be a Mexican lottery board on silk, horseshoes, and other things that represent hope and good spirits and all sorts of different bits of esoteric luck. It’s been a great inspiration for me.”

Oldham’s new partners at Kashiyama tend to think the young man represents a lot more than luck, and they expect big things from Todd Oldham-like a projected sales volume in the seven-figure range the first year, and building from there. I tend to agree with Granny: “Todd is the kind of person that knows what he wants and that’s the way it’s going to be. He doesn’t see any limits as to what he can do. He gets it done.”

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