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Todd Oldham making a bigger splash along Seventh Avenue

NEW YORK — New York -- "I LOVE IT!" shrieks Ricki Lake, preening before a full-length mirror in a simple, tailored black pants suit. "So what do you think?"

"You look great," soothes designer Todd Oldham, who is getting the talk show host ready for a television awards ceremony. He nips in the waistline an inch and piles her hair on her head in a sexy tumble of curls festooned with colorful rhinestone barettes. "What we don't want is to do some heap of beads like all the soap opera ladies wear. Because the suit is so elegant, you can go for it with the hair. I want them to look at you."

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An understated black suit is hardly what we associate with witty, sexy, tongue-in-chic Oldham designs. "Va-va-va-voom outfits that stop a room," observes Los Angeles boutique owner Madeleine Gallay, have made him one of Seventh Avenue's hottest, hippest stars.

His color-drenched and glamorous spring collection -- glittery animal prints, shiny bras and even rhinestone pasties -- blasted the jaded fashion press out of their seats.

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Never mind that Oldham clients have a tendency to land on Mr. Blackwell's "Worst Dressed List." A few years ago, a photo of Susan Sarandon in the seductive, keyhole-neckline Oldham gown she wore to the Oscars appeared in a supermarket tabloid that shouted: "Would you be caught dead in this outfit?"

The 32-year-old designer readily admits his clothes are "an acquired taste." He is the designer of choice to a bevy of stars -- Ms. Sarandon, Rosie O'Donnell, Queen Latifah and Janet Jackson -- who prefer a jolt of color and a flash of beads to a boring sea of taupe and beige.

What surprised fashion-watchers is that this year he was also named the designer of choice for the posh Escada label. It seems a mismatched union. Escada, the German-based company founded by Margaretha Ley and her husband Wolfgang, is the choice of an international set of women who don't mind flaunting their clothing allowances but are not of an age to flaunt too much skin.

The company has been losing millions since Ms. Ley's death in 1991. Her replacement, Michael Stolzenburg, died this year. The company hopes the Oldham touch will put it back in fashion contention.

Although the designer insists he's not ambitious, a burgeoning work load suggests that's a little white lie. Besides his eponymous collection, he also designs Times 7, a line of shirts and sportswear; a shoe collection, home sewing patterns for Vogue and buttons.

Two years ago he joined Cindy Crawford's "House of Style" on MTV as host of "Todd Time," a style segment that offers offbeat tips on everything from updating a wardrobe for $1.98 to buying a swimsuit.

Even with a new boutique in SoHo and plans to launch a fragrance next year, he insists he has no desire to build a fashion empire.

"It's pretty great all the opportunities that have come my way, but I could also be really happy on a turnip farm," says the designer.

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Although his razzmatazz creations generate most of the buzz, he also designs understated, scrupulously fitted pieces like Ms. Lake's black suit. Ask him to name his favorite items from his fall collection and he'll mention, not the glitzy numbers, but the Ultrasuede and pinstriped pieces. "It was fun working with conservative stuff," he says.

Basics with a twist

"In the past, most of what he did were well-made novelty pieces, but now he's doing more basics, basics with his own special twist," says Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus. "It's helping him establish a good, solid base of customers who are building wardrobes, not just buying items."

Not that the Oldham brand of wacky, eye-zapping fashion is without its detractors.

"Real life wearability can sometimes be a problem with Todd," says a New York retail consultant who asked not to be identified. "I mean, where does he expect you to wear some of these clothes? And if you're not 6 feet with a body like [model] Elle Macpherson, forget it."

"Our clothes aren't for everybody," concedes the designer. "Most people don't have the occasion to wear such extreme things. But people who have surreal lives, which most celebrities do to some extent, can wear my stuff."

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A few days after the Lake fitting, the designer is nestled on a marigold silk sofa, a patchwork pillow in his lap, in the corner of a cheery SoHo loft that serves as his showroom. The walls are papered with a decoupage of pink-tinted newspaper. Red and orange ombre velvet curtains divide the spacious room and everywhere you look there are racks of wildly colored clothes and rows of fanciful shoes and boots.

If the showroom looks nothing like the sleek, mirrored ateliers that line Seventh Avenue, neither does Mr. Oldham look like your typical fashion world darling.

Instead of the de rigeur white T-shirt, he sports a faded plaid cowboy shirt from Goodwill. A few of his bare toes, peeking out from sandals, are decorated with tattooed rings and a tattoo encircles his ankle. His thatch of sandy hair is styled more do-it-yourself than Frederic Fekkai and his boyish face, with its crinkly blue eyes and crooked grin, calls to mind some teen-ager from "American Grafitti."

He speaks in the soft, unhurried cadence of Texas. He talks about "integrity" and "sensibility" and "not losing focus." But the words seem heartfelt from the man even even industry cynics describe as "sincere" and "sweet."

"Nobody needs me to make anything," he says. "I'm very serious about my commitment to what I do, but I don't lose focus about its importance. I make cheerful clothes that hopefully will allow someone to express herself or just have fun, but that's really it.

"We have customers who come back to us over and over because they like our sensibility and relate to it," Mr. Oldham adds. "But if you buy something because there's security in the label, I'm sure a thousand bucks in therapy would probably do you better than a new black suit."

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Ask him to describe his clothes and he quickly says, "Luxurious," "goofy," and "comfortable." Ask him to describe himself and he looks perplexed.

"To be honest, I don't spend much time thinking about myself," he says. "I'm not a worrier. What's the point? And I'm not competitive in the slightest." He's also a strict vegetarian who doesn't smoke or drink and would rather spend an evening at home with his dogs, Mike and Betty, than at some wingding with Calvin and Kelly.

The technical stuff

The two things that he likes most about the fashion business are the "technical stuff" like developing his own prints and beadings and putting together his semi-annual shows.

"The show is the only pure representation of my vision," he says. "We look at the show as one big party. I'm happy we attract celebrities, but we also invite street kids and moms and children and drag queens."

The oldest of four children, he was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, into a close knit, peripatetic family that traveled around the country and to Iran before returning to the Lone Star state in 1978.

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His grandmother taught him to sew when he was 9 and by 14 he made his sister a dress out of Op-Art printed pillowcases. The day after graduation from high school ("I loathed school and wished I had quit in ninth grade," he says), he went to Dallas where he landed a job in the alterations department of the Polo/Ralph Lauren boutique.

"They fired me, but I'm eternally grateful for what I learned there," says the designer whose counterculture attitude (he dyed his hair pink) no doubt ruffled the Lauren crowd. "To be able to take apart Ralph Lauren's clothes and put them back together was all I needed to know about this industry."

In 1981, he borrowed $100 from his parents, bought 40 yards of cotton jersey and created his first tiny collection that he sold to Neiman Marcus.

Seven years later, with Tony Longoria whom the designer calls "my partner in business and life" moved to New York and started a collection of women's blouses called Times 7. He confesses he eager to branch out into films. He designed some costumes for Alfre Woodard in "Crooklyn" and whipped up some outrageous creations for "To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar," a comedy about two drag queens trekking cross-country starring Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze.

He directed a "Todd Time" segment and spent part of a vacation directing Billy Beyond in a music video.

"Right now, I'm happy to work on these short projects, but ultimately I want to be involved with feature films," he says. "I think I'd make a good director. I'm not wishy-washy. I definitely know what I want."



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