Visible Man

updated 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

IN HIS CRAMPED SHOWROOM ON MANHATTAN'S Seventh Avenue, Todd Oldham keeps a scrapbook of clips from the fashion magazines, which call him a whiz kid. But the 30-year-old designer gets as big a kick from spotting his witty creations, such as suits with paint-by-number motifs, in the supermarket tabloids. Last May—in the same week that Women's Wear Daily touted his "potholder pocket" suit on its cover, the Star ran a picture of Susan Sarandon in an Oldham creation with the headline WOULD YOU BE CAUGHT DEAD IN THIS OUTFIT?

"I was so excited," says Oldham, cutting patterns for his spring collection in his homey, cluttered workroom. "To me, the only reason to make something is if it is unlike anything else." That is precisely the philosophy that attracts celebrity clients from Ivana Trump to rapper Queen Latifah, who says she loves his "fun and happy style."

"Todd Oldham goes over the edge," adds Anything but Love costume designer Patrick Norris, who frequently chooses Oldhams for the ABC comedy's unconventional Catherine (Ann Magnuson) because, he says, "her character wants to be noticed." Otherwise, Oldham isn't sure exactly who buys his hand-beaded or embroidered outfits, which cost as much as $4,000. "Rich ladies, I guess," he says, smoothing the collar of his blue satin shirt, which he bought for 50 cents at Goodwill Industries. "I have no interest in paying a lot of money for clothes."

That isn't the only paradox about Oldham. He never studied fashion, and, at 18, he was fired after four months from his first job—in the alterations department of the Ralph Lauren Polo store in Dallas; it wasn't quite his scene. "I had a punk haircut and came to work on roller skates," he laughs. "They tried to keep me away from the customers."

Now his hair is acceptably cropped, and he socializes with stellar clients: He recently hung out with Latifah at the taping of her Fly Girl video. But Oldham remains a nonconformist. Someday, he says, he'll ditch fashion and make films. "Life is about change," he says (his favorite runway model is, after all, a transvestite named Billy). "My whole family suffers from 20-minute itch."

And how. Oldham's fiercely independent parents, Jack and Linda, now both 48, "wanted to have an interesting life," says Todd, who was born in Corpus Christi, Texas. So they packed up the family, which also includes Todd's brother, Brad, now 25, and sisters Robin, 28, and Mikell, 22, and hit the highway. Jack worked as a computer consultant and Linda had various jobs (including fruit-stand operator) in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, California and Nevada. From 1973—'77, Jack consulted for a helicopter company in Iran, and the family eventually settled in Keller, Texas, 30 miles west of Dallas.

The nomadic life helped the Oldham children develop a singular self-sufficiency. "We taught them all how to sew, cook, wash and iron, wire lamps, plant trees, build garages," says Linda.

Oldham's kooky kind of handiness surfaced occasionally at Keller High School, which he hated. "For a shop class project I made a pair of platform sandals for my sister Robin," he says. "They were really good, too, but I don't think I turned them in."

He was equally unmotivated to enter the work force. After leaving the Polo store, he borrowed $100 from his mother and bought 40 yards of cotton-knit fabric, which he dyed various shades of pink in his bathtub. He sewed it up into split skirts and T-shirts on his grandmother's old Singer and sold his creations to Neiman Marcus. By 1989 he had a bread-and-butter line of $90—$160 women's shirts called Times 7, as well as a staff of 22 and a rented factory in Dallas.

Though Oldham moved to Manhattan three years ago and began to make news with his unique styles, his family still produces his clothes back in Texas. Linda is his business partner; Robin is his fitting model; Brad makes the buttons; and his 72-year-old grandmother, Millie Jasper, fills orders for notions. (Mikell is a student at Texas Woman's University in Denton.)

Though his business has flourished, Oldham hasn't changed his dime-store habits. He collects thrift-shop paintings and porcelain birds, which crowd the downtown Manhattan apartment that he shares with a roommate of 11 years and his terriers, Mike and Betty. Oldham's latest collection is called "Garage Sale." It includes beaded "fat man golf pants," he says, and "embroidered shirts that look like they've been iced by cake decorators." Wait until Sarandon—and the tabloids—get hold of those.

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