'Kitsch' look has been kind to young designer Todd Oldham

May 13, 1992|By Jim Servin | Jim Servin,N.Y. Times News Service

NEW YORK -- A woman in black rushed up to Todd Oldham as he entered the paint-by-numbers show at the Bridgewater Lustberg gallery in SoHo a few weeks ago. "Of course, you'd be here," she chirped, throwing an air kiss to the 30-year-old designer. "Your work is so kitschy."

Mr. Oldham, a native Texan who can look like a wholesome farm boy one minute and a Joe Orton punk the next, smiled his best Opie smile and walked away, slightly irked.

"Congratulations, you star," said Kachin Kobayashi, a fashion stylist. She was wearing an Oldham-designed shirt also employing the paint-by-numbers theme: a brown horse against a flat-blue sky.

"Your show was the super-great show," said Natalie Stamford, a sales representative for Moschino, referring to his recent fall collection. "I saw it and thought, 'Money in the bank.' It wasn't just kitsch."

There was that word again. And though he was just a guest at the gallery, Mr. Oldham was being bombarded with it, with the label and the aggressive attention that comes with being the newest fashion darling.

Though the label makes him squirm, kitsch has been kind to Mr. Oldham. In an industry where image is everything, a recognizable handle can be an extremely effective marketing tool. Since his first show in 1990, Todd Oldham's whimsical shtick has been embraced by a fashion press ever eager for new handles.

Last December, Mr. Oldham received the Perry Ellis Award for best young designer from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. It's an award that's something like the Grammy for Best New Artist, having gone in previous years to David Cameron, Marc Jacobs, Isaac Mizrahi, Gordon Henderson and Christian Francis Roth.

And like the Grammy's, the award doesn't necessarily mean that the designer in question will find financial success, or even be heard from, in the years that follow.

Mr. Oldham is certainly not the fashion world's equivalent of Milli Vanilli, but it's still too early to tell whether he's a Mizrahi, now almost a fashion brand name, or a David Cameron, who went bankrupt just one year after his CFDA award.

Like other young designers before him, Mr. Oldham has gathered about him a formidable mix of celebrity groupies, the bold-faced names that form an integral part of the success equation.

Isaac Mizrahi has Sandra Bernhard; Mr. Oldham has Queen Latifah, Susan Sarandon and the drag queen Billy Beyond. Rolling Stone named him designer of the year in its recent "Hot List" issue, alluding to his designs for Queen Latifah's "Fly Girl" video and to his costumes for the upcoming tours of the B-52s and Deee-lite.

The CFDA award placed him in that evening's circle of winners -- Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Karl Lagerfeld and Isaac Mizrahi. It's odd company for a designer whose jackets have been decorated with pot holder pockets. This is a man who has designed a dress based on a hammock and a suit on wallpaper.

His fashion shows have featured the theme from "The Dating Game" and disco songs from the '70s. He based his most recent collection, called "Interiors," on a Three Stooges episode: A doorbell chime greeted each model's turn on the runway.

The designer's office, with its colorful streamers and layers of knickknacks, looks something like a Mardi Gras float. Still, Mr. Oldham said a few weeks ago, "the kitsch label drives me crazy."

"That word makes me want to get the knife," he added, rolling his gray-blue eyes. "Kitsch to me is pink flamingos and salt shakers. There's such a fine line between a sophisticated take on it and a lazy one."

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