Q&A: Todd Oldham on MTV’s Resurrection of House of Style
By Laurie Brookins
Todd Oldham doesn’t care for the idea of nostalgia: “I think there’s something in that which feels like lamenting the past, and I don’t believe in doing that,” he says when I mention I’m feeling nostalgic upon hearing that House of Style, MTV’s wunderkind show about fashion as seen through the lens of the groundbreaking music channel, has been honored with a documentary—House of Style: Music, Models and MTV went live on the network’s site earlier this week—as well as the news that in October MTV will revive the series, which originally aired from 1989 to 1999. (You also can now experience the feast of HoS archives, which have been painstakingly catalogued for the first time, on MTV’s site.)
So perhaps “celebrate” is a more apt word, I offer, and Oldham is all for that. After all, House of Style’s original host, Cindy Crawford (Daisy Fuentes and Rebecca Romijn came after her, but really, HoS was partly built on adoring Cindy), and Oldham should be celebrated for what they helped create during their four-year run on the show: a fun, informative, sometimes wacky and often off-the-wall look at fashion (Cindy takes Duran Duran shopping at Sears and learns about hip-hop style from then-Fresh Prince Will Smith!), the people who influenced fashion (Anna Wintour when she just started at Vogue! Lagerfeld before he lost all the weight!), and how you, that gawky teenager living someplace that likely wasn’t New York, could go behind the looking glass and experience it. House of Style was seminal, sensational television, partly due to Oldham’s “Todd Time” DIY segments, in which he’d jump into anything and everything, from showing you how to decorate your dorm room using stencils to how to cut up your Doc Martens for summer or make an impromptu sleeping bag (seriously, I can recall each from memory). Here, Oldham talks about his time on House of Style and why we’ll likely never see that early-’90s, high-wattage zeitgeist moment of fashion ever again.
How were you initially approached to take part in House of Style when the original show was being conceptualized?
Alisa Bellettini is an amazing producer, and it was her show from the beginning. She used to come to my fashion shows; she’s kind of out there and lovely and has great personal taste. So she came to my studio to pull some clothes for the very first House of Style, and we started talking. I had just done my fashion show, which was based on interiors, and she asked if I wanted to do a segment about how I’d put the show together; in those days it was pretty much that easy. So we did this crazy piece in which I talked about my fashion show, and then we did a tour of my apartment to talk about interiors, and then we went to this flea market and were looking at chairs and upholstery, and the whole thing just sort of tied together.
From there Alisa asked me if I wanted to do a regular segment, and that’s how “Todd Time” was born in the very next episode. I think in the first one I showed you how to shop in a thrift store, with lessons like how to look for the empty hangers, because that means someone hid something great below the rack while they go home to get more money and come back for it.
Because of “Todd Time,” my stock comment in those days was that you were the MacGyver of fashion: You could take two paper clips, a rubber band, and some masking tape and out of that would emerge a stunning bikini. Not really, of course, but it did seem like you could create something out of anything.
I love those kinds of magic tricks; not real magic tricks, but someone making things happen out of nothing is endlessly thrilling to me. I hope to always create those kinds of moments—it was never really about giving someone permission to try something, it was more this idea of, If this goofball can do it, then so can I. Like the segment in which I showed guys how to cut their own hair because I’ve always cut my own hair. Every two weeks since that segment aired, someone has walked up to me and mentioned it. It was just always about taking this thing that seemed mysterious and showing people they really could do it.
Tell me about the early days of the show; you mentioned at the press screening, “Looking at it through a historical lens, I just can’t believe what we got away with.”
It really was an incredible time at MTV, and the trust level was so great. I was truly baffled that they let me do all that I did; I started editing my own tapes fairly early on and was just handing in finished pieces. It was a super learning experience in TV, but that would never happen today. And no one ever tried to push us to do anything; there was no obligation to use advertisers. But we also were about showing things that were about ingenuity and not money.
And the people we got, looking back on it, were pretty incredible. We would do these segments like Kevyn Aucoin doing my makeup for the show, because he was a friend and he was around. Naomi Campbell did a segment in which she showed how she washed her face and applied zit cream every night. One of the world’s most glamorous women showing young girls she was just like them; that was a perfect paradox moment for House of Style. And one of the very first fashion pieces I did was an interview with John Galliano and the first collection that he did, the one everyone went crazy over. It was backstage, and we were just sitting on the floor; the clothes were hanging over us and we were talking about bias-cut construction. I realized after, here I was with one of the most masterful designers in the world talking about really technical things. That’s something you don’t see on Project Runway.
Because of that freestyle approach, you guys really did make some amazing things happen.
It’s true, because it was this perfect storm: MTV was at its most lovely and I was traveling all over the world, and there was this universal kind of camaraderie about it. I interviewed Gianni Versace and Anna Wintour and all these amazing Europeans. It was just a super sweet time, in which you never knew who you’d run into around the offices. I remember standing backstage at a concert next to Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, and Kurt was just goofing around with [his daughter] Frances, who was maybe two at the time. For four years Cindy and I did all sorts of stuff, always folding the House of Style programming into whatever we had going on: If she was doing a shoot with Helmut Newton, that would become a segment.
You and Cindy were really what made the show so great during those early years, which also was amazing because they coincided with the supermodel moment of the ’90s.
That’s so true. Cindy Crawford was and still is such a goddess to me. She’s lovely and so smart, and such a charming and sweet person in that great Midwestern way. She’s one of those rare people who have got it all, and yet you don’t hate them. And she also made amazing things happen: If you have Cindy then you can talk to Kate and Linda and Naomi, and it was also easy to get designers to talk to us. I really don’t remember anyone ever saying no to us.
Why do you think the show was such a high point for fashion at that time? It really did inspire so many kids who loved fashion, while educating the mainstream audience as well.
It was because we had MTV’s power behind us; we acted and behaved like the parents weren’t home, but the parent company was made up of the best parents you could hope for. And at the time, the fashion industry was all about celebrating individuality. I’m not sure we do that anymore.
What projects have you got going on at the moment?
I have a bunch of things: a new book coming out in October, Charley Harper’s Animal Kingdom [Ammo Books], which is my second with him, because the first one made everyone realize they had all this great Harper material. And then there’s my third Kid Made Modern collection, which we just turned in to Target; that will be coming out in March. And I’m also working with the Sundance Film Festival, taking the merchandise that they sell and making it really cool and fun. I’m having a blast doing that.
Ultimately what goes through your mind when you think about those House of Style years? And do you ever think we’ll see something that stratospheric again?
Well, first it just thrills me that MTV is doing what they’re doing with the archives; what’s amazing is that there really was scant information about it online until MTV did this. There were a few clips on YouTube, but we literally had to drag out all these old VHS tapes and transfer them. When was the last time you went looking for something and it wasn’t already internetted to death? So it’s been amazing to look back on them and see how we celebrated the art and not the artifice. And as for whether we’ll ever see a moment like that again? No, I don’t think so, only because the stars never align the same, and people’s ideas about design and creativity are bracketed pretty differently these days. But we sure did have fun.
Behind the scenes with Sigourney Weaver in her Gotham cover shoot.