Designer Todd Oldham was always a big fan of the Sundance Film Festival. But he felt that the design of the merchandise never quite matched the courage and iconoclasm of the rest of the festival. This year he decided to do something about it, overseeing the design of the entire line. He sat down with Paste recently to talk about the collection, some of his favorite Sundance movies, and whether his parents really loaned him $100 to buy material for his very first collection.
Paste: Thanks for spending some time with us. Now, you grew up in Corpus Christi, is that right?
Todd Oldham: Oh, well I was actually just born there—my parents were kind of traveling and passing through so I have no memory of Corpus Christi. We were there very briefly. But that was the case for most of my childhood. We moved constantly, so I kind of grew up all over the world.
Paste: Where did the fascination with design begin?
Oldham: Design has always been something of great interest to me since I was very young because my parents are very talented artists and builders and spend a lot of time making sure all four of us-their children—knew how to do everything that they knew how to do. So I’m very grateful that we spent time learning how to wire lamps, rebuilding sinks, those kinds of things along with all the arts and crafts we learned.
Paste: Now, this next story sounds like something out of a screenplay. It sounds to good to be true about you borrowing $100 from your parents for your first collection and-
Oldham: Yeah it is true.
Paste: Why don’t you tell that story?
Oldham: It was $50 actually. At the time, I could never find what I wanted, but I found some thermal underwear that was really terrific. But it was in white and I didn’t want to work in white. So, my grandmother had found a drugstore that was going out of business and bought all the dye that they had. So I was able to make the clothes and dye them the colors I wanted. It was a great start, and it was for a collection that Neiman Marcus eventually bought. So. Neiman Marcus was one of my first big customers and it kind of took off from there.
Paste: Not a bad place to start.
Oldham: A good place to start and a good place to move on from. I haven’t done fashion in many many years, though. I’ve been focusing on so many other things like buildings and books and kids stuff and it’s been really a blast.
Paste: Let’s talk a little bit about this Sundance collection. Tell me a little about it.
Oldham: Just everything they do, I think, is fascinating. Their focus on creating an arena to support new thinking-it’s just fantastic in every way. I’m always happy when I get to have an adventure with them. Through the years I’ve designed opening and closing parties for them. Bag collections, all kinds of stuff. So, this was sort of the first year I took on the entire merchandise collection, as well as the great team they have there, to try to find a new way to reinvent it.
Paste: You have a couple of big names joining you, maybe not big names from the world of design, but certainly big names from the film world. People like John Waters and Morgan Spurlock.
Oldham: We got seriously fantastic artists to join us. We created what hopefully will be the beginning of an ongoing celebration called Sundance Film Festival Editions. We have nine artists working with us this year. Lauren Greenfield, Shirin Neshat and John Waters all did fantastic t-shirt images with us. And then Mike Mills and Stacy Peralta and Parker Posey did patches, which are really cool. And then Amy Sedaris and Morgan Spurlock and Mike White did button collections for us. All of these people certainly have incredible visions. I think they were excited to get asked to do something that they are not normally asked.
Paste: And then the Sundance film festival A to Z book is this-is this part of your oversight as well?
Oldham: It is. What I was trying to do-I mean, the Sundance legacy is just ferociously important and while the archive on the site is a nice document of what’s come before us, there’s really been no sort of visual celebration. So the institute defined about ninety to a hundred authors, directors and actors that have contributed in some meaningful way to Sundance history.
We divided them up in just the way a kid’s book might be, with A to Z. Each letter might have anywhere from a couple to five different films and directors. We worked with 27 different artists to make composite images based on whatever letter they may have signed up for. And we got the most incredible illustrators and artists working today, and it just all came through so beautifully for Sundance. It’s really a beautiful book.
Paste: I’m looking at a couple of images that, unfortunately, I can’t share with the readers quite yet. It looks fantastic.
Oldham: Oh, it came out just incredible. It’s done on very thick board, just like a kids book would be. A thick, heavy book. The printing’s gorgeous. It’s interesting working with illustrators, because so many times what they produce is about showing an art director a couple of sketches and then having them choose and manipulate i. And of course, we would just ask everybody to just get into the task and trust that people would do good work. And we got astonishing work from everybody.
Paste: Now, with all of the sort of involvement that you’ve had with the festival in the past, when you come out to the festival, are you able to actually go and see some films or do you usually go out to meetings and functions?
Oldham: Well, I try to minimize meetings and parties. Parties are not my favorite thing at Sundance. They’re a little-it’s a little too much. A little too many people in proximity for my taste. So, I see films. Last year I saw 34 features and a giant amount of short films too. But anyway, some 30 to 38 I usually see every festival.
Paste: That’s an impressive number. I usually get up into the 20s But to get up into the thirties, that’s impressive. That’s really cool.
Oldham: You get that really crazy movie soup that happens about day seven.
Paste: Over the past couple of years, what are some of the films that especially stood out to you? What are some of your favorite Sundance memories or films?
Oldham: Well, lets see. The first of mine was this incredible film called Prairie Love that got-I’m not sure-did you see it?
Paste: I saw it at the Atlanta Film Festival, actually. I loved that film.
Oldham: I absolutely loved that film. I thought that it was amazing. There are just so many. There was an incredible doc about this Korean man’s relationship with his ox called Old Friends...
Paste: I love that film. I tracked down that DVD and bought it. Sitting on my shelf! Old Partner, right? Isn’t that the name of it?
Oldham: Old Partner, you’re right. Oh my god, I love that movie so much. I saw it at 8:30 in the morning and I, like everyone else in the theater, was crying by 9:45. It was just an unbelievable film. But Sundance is full of those kinds of treasures. Also, another film I saw last year that I just love was called Kid Thing.
Paste: Oh, yeah, yeah. The Zellner brothers-
Oldham: That one confused a lot of people but for some reason I was really delighted to see that little girl wreak havoc. And you know, I’m always dazzled to some degree. That’s the good thing about Sundance-you really never see a horrible film. You might see something that doesn’t work for yo,u but I find there’s way more interesting things there.
Paste: I was very interested to read in another interview that you’re a fan of my favorite author, Flannery O’Connor.
Oldham: Oh my god.
Paste: Tell me a little about what you love about Flannery and then I always ask Flannery O’Connor fans what they’re reading now.
Oldham: Well, Flannery O’Connor is certainly astonishing and I’m not in the minority with thoughts like that. But I love that melancholy thread that runs through it all with these strange religious overtones that creep in and out. It’s just so rare when an author can weave words together that make you gasp when you get to the end of it, and I’m constantly that way with Flannery O’Connor. It’s just so moving and you know, she’s so spare with the words. I don’t know, they’re truly perfect. You know, there’s lots of writers-even more contemporary like Tobias Wolff has the same sort of richness and rich and spare at the same time. And even the poet C.K. Williams is also quite astonishing. I think.
Paste: Tell me about what you’re reading now. Given that I know you have very good taste in literature.
Oldham: Ah, well. What I’m reading right now is-just at the end of this weekend (I read many books) is Michelle Mercer’s take on Joni Mitchell which is called Will You Take Me As I Am, Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period; have you heard of this?
Paste: I have not.
Oldham: It’s incredible.Iit’s sort of a little bit of bio but it’s also contextualization and of sort of the world and what Joni Mitchell wrote from the Blue record up until Hejira, but it’s really very elegant writing. I liked it very much. Michelle Mercer also wrote a fantastic bio on Wayne Shorter. And I like the way she’s- one time I was asked to do a piece on NPR about color. I like these ideas that one has to write about a complete opposite sense. Like, speaking about colors as opposed to showing it. In this case, writing about sound. You know, it’s just such an interesting translation.
Paste: Before we go, anything else to add about the Sundance project?
Oldham: I think what’s so nice about it is-the whole reason I’m happy to be involved-it supports the institute. The institute is just this magical place that has such trust in people and wants you to be the best that you can. So, any kind of organization that takes chances and sees the world in a new way is worth supporting. That’s really the reason I’m there.
Paste: That’s really a great way to put it. I tell people all the time about Sundance and how there’s a fundamental difference between Sundance and most of the other film festivals in the world. Not that they don’t all each have their own unique charms, but there are many things that frustrate me about Sundance-but at its heart, the mission of the institute is a really beautiful thing. The festival as an outgrowth of that is really great.
Oldham: And so many important films have come through there. I worked with Mr. Redford on point of view. Because, one of the things that I didn’t think synched up in the past was sometimes the festival merchandise didn’t seem to embody the spirit of Sundance in the way that it could. I wanted to make sure that the merchandise had as much umph and personality as the festival does. So, meeting with Mr. Redford and hearing his passion and hearing him talk about color-I mean, he’s a very, very bright man about virtually everything. But, he could speak about color in the most succinct way. And those talks made everything so easy for me to figure out what to do. He’s really brilliant.
Preview some images below, and then go to the Sundance store for a limited selection of products, debuting today. The full line will be available at the store starting December 7.