Todd Oldham places his hands over his heart at the mention of his Cincinnati-artist friend Charley Harper.
“I loved Charley,” the multifaceted designer, author/editor and onetime MTV House of Style contributor says. “He was very dear — is very dear. He’s just not with us anymore.”
The Modernist Cincinnati wildlife artist is no longer living, but his influence is alive, quietly, in the new exhibit All of Everything: Todd Oldham Fashion at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus. Like Harper, Oldham took the traditional and turned it around for his couture career.
Oldham knew Harper only five years before he died in 2007 at age 84. But the artist had an effect on the Texas-born Oldham long before then as illustrator of 1961’s Giant Golden Book of Biology. As a boy, Oldham, now 56, memorized the drawings that ranged from mammals to molecules.
Oldham sought to meet Harper after realizing that the Ford Times magazines that caught his eye at a thrift store in 2001 were illustrated by the same artist behind his beloved biology book. Harper’s joyful art “inspired me to be interested,” Oldham says in Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life, the 2007 monograph he produced in appreciation of his friend.
Yet Harper practiced what he called “minimal realism.” Oldham’s 1990s clothing is described as “exuberantly styled and deliriously embellished” in the Wexner retrospective’s literature.
“There’s a Minimalist quality to what I do, too, that’s not that apparent,” Oldham says, while in Columbus for the exhibit’s opening. “It’s the duality of these two sides (of design) that makes it most interesting.”
In signage accompanying his silk Comb Suit, Oldham informs visitors that he actually loves conservative fashion and classic, even Minimalist, design elements such as pinstripes. He merely chose to design the stripes for this suit out of blown-up images of combs from a clip-art book.
“Ridiculously opulent” pinstripes on a black skirt are made out of handstitched freshwater pearls. The red trousers in his Après-Ski Ensemble “are just simple beaded plaid slacks,” according to his tongue-in-cheek text. Sparkling with sequins, they’re hardly ho-hum.
Elaborate embroidery and sheens wouldn’t read as well on confusing forms, Oldham explains. A shimmering tuxedo “shirt” became only a satin bib as he “added less and less and less.”
“So, there is a Minimalist underneath,” the designer acknowledges with a chuckle.
As Oldham leads a tour of the exhibit that he originally designed for the RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) Museum in Providence, it’s clear that, like Harper, he, too, wants to inspire others to be interested — especially in detail and the handmade.
Harper once famously described his simplified style by saying, “I don’t see the feathers in the wings. I just count the wings.” By contrast, “I counted the feathers,” Oldham says in our interview.
Then he interrupts himself to comment on yet another detail he’s just noticed — my fused-glass ring reminds him of some of the buttons that his studio produced out of glass, resin, silver, gold, pearls and even cocoa shells, nails and screws when it couldn’t find just the right finishing touch. More than 2,000 examples of buttons, belt buckles and other accessories are in the exhibit. “There was no end,” Oldham says.
Almost 20 years removed from the noisy world of fashion designing, Oldham looks professorial these days — and he has spent time teaching at RISD, even though he didn’t attend design school himself. Close-cropped gray hair and a bushy goatee have replaced the younger man’s long brown bangs and clean-shaven countenance. The bright blue eyes that sparkled on the runway alongside supermodels Cindy Crawford and Tyra Banks now rest behind glasses. There’s still some boyishness about Oldham, but he’s humble as videos of his energetic fashion shows play in the exhibition’s lower gallery.
Rather than begin his tour by speaking about the designs on the mannequins, Oldham instead calls attention to the people, materials and processes behind each piece. He uses “we” more often than “I.” His collaborators include a workshop in India that has been practicing embroidery for 400 years.
“There’s not one digital moment within all three of these galleries,” Oldham says. “Every bit of this is analog, 100 percent made by hand.”
He did create one new, over-the-top ensemble for the exhibit. Ever gracious, he refers to it as a dress that “I got to make with my friends at RISD.”
The gown’s very full skirt is a single 20-foot length of screen-printed fabric featuring brushstrokes of every shade imaginable, floral patterns, images of insects and an explosion of spangles. Underneath lies more than 2,000 feet of colored tulle. The gorgeous silhouette evokes a bent tulip overwhelmed by its own beautiful petals.
In fact, Oldham has laid out the rest of the exhibition to resemble a formal French garden that introduces order to the natural world — sort of like Harper did with his Minimalist wildlife art. The 60 or so outfits in this final gallery take on the appearance of rows of blossoms springing from a chartreuse lawn. There is a hint of Harper in the charming bumblebee detail that Oldham added to a flowery dress he made out of pipe cleaners. The desert blooms, succulents and birds that adorn ensembles influenced by photos in Arizona Highways magazine suggest what kind of fashions Harper might have created on his 1947 Southwestern honeymoon if he and wife Edie weren’t painting landscapes from their road trip instead.
With fashion in his own rearview mirror, Oldham today is focused on motivating kids just as his hero did, through the Kid Made Modern line of craft projects. “It’s something I’ve always sort of instinctively wanted to do, but having interfaced with Charley, it’s more deliberate now,” Oldham says.
“Charley was able to sort out of lot of information in a very clean way that we could assimilate at once. And I love that. Isn’t that a great call to arms?”
All Of Everything: Todd Oldham Fashion continues through April 15 at the Wexner Center for the Arts, 1871 N. High St., Columbus. More info: wexarts.org.