Clutch your pearls! This man is turning the gems into gender-neutral, playful accessories
Growing up in Texas, two things stood out to Presley Oldham about the women of the Lone Star State: their signature coiffures, best described in the well-worn saying, “The higher the hair, the closer to God,” and their pearl jewelry.
“A big deck of pearls on their necks,” he said. “That always fascinated me.”
It’s only fitting that Oldham would grow up and launch an eponymous jewelry brand, which upends the fusty image of Chanel-clad socialites wearing a strand or two of smooth opalescent sea gems. After all, he is the nephew of designer Todd Oldham, who held the fashion world rapt in the 1990s with his campy and subversive take on Americana.
The 25-year-old Oldham decamped from Los Angeles, where he briefly lived before the pandemic, to his grandparents’ ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., when the coronavirus forced large swaths of the country into shutdown. During his time in isolation he has built a jewelry business, albeit a modest one (for now), which officially launched in May. He has been hand-making necklaces, earrings and anklets from freshwater pearls of various shapes, sizes and colors. His designs highlight their peculiarities and strange allure as objects as opposed to a prim-and-proper Jackie O. fantasy.
“When I got to New Mexico, I went into quarantine for the first two weeks, away from my grandparents,” he said by phone. “I was genuinely sitting alone in this room. … I had to manifest something, put the energy somewhere. It wasn’t until I launched in May, when I finally got the website up, that I was like, ‘I guess I started a business.’”
He insists that it wasn’t all some big accident. “It was very intentional in a lot of senses, but I don’t think I really realized how much work I put into it, until it was all up there, in my face. I was like, ‘I really did do this.’ I’m proud of the amount of work and energy I’ve put into it.”
His line, which is available exclusively through his website, presleyoldham.com, is gender-neutral and has a playful feel. Take the “prickly pear” necklace ($365), a choker made from green iridescent freshwater pearls, featuring larger beads interspersed with smaller, dangling ones. The “shugah” drop earring can be ordered as a single ($45) elegant stone or in the more dramatic three-tiered version. He’s also made anklets ($90-$160), a winking throwback to the ’90s, the era when his uncle reigned supreme on catwalks. “I think it’s funny to have a pearl anklet,” he said. “Especially me here walking around barefoot getting it dirty.”
Elliott Skinner, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based musician, met Oldham in high school. “Because he hand-picks all of the elements, each piece has its own character,” said Skinner, one of the models in a video that Oldham made to show his second collection. “He made me a bracelet that I wear every day now, and it feels like a small extension of myself.”
Although pearls have been long considered feminine accessories, men have started to reclaim them. Harry Styles, ASAP Rocky and Shawn Mendes are among a new wave of guys embracing these aquatic gems. Pearls also have been featured in the recent men’s collections of brands including Gucci and Dior.
“At the end of the day, it’s still a feminine object that has this innate sensibility about it,” Oldham said. “That doesn’t mean that men can’t wear them. It adds a texture to your look — a layer.”
Skinner agreed. “We’re acknowledging the constructs of gender norms, [and] a line like this is expressive for all people,” he said. “Historically, pearl jewelry is very refined, each pearl looking exactly alike, but with his line, there is a sense of the organic, like it came from the sea to my arm.”
With his dreamy eyes, slim frame, strong brow and jawline and shoulder-length hair, Oldham is handsome and ever-so-slightly androgynous. He said some days he’ll wear one of his pieces with a tank top and “feel muscular, like a dude,” whereas other times, he’ll wear his jewelry “with my hair down and get called ‘ma’am.’”
Oldham has been surprised at the range of customers he’s already attracted. “All of these different ages, people across the country, different genders,” he said. “It’s delightful to see a 60-year-old man is ordering pearls. I’ve received a lot of really wonderful emails from people like, ‘I’m an aging hippie and I love pearls. And I love what you’re doing.’ I love that it’s appealing to all people, somehow. It makes me smile.”
A life in fashion, it seems, was preordained for young Oldham. As his uncle Todd’s fashion line was making a splash in New York, it was a family affair in the Lone Star State. Oldham remembers spending his childhood days at the factory where his uncle’s clothing was made. Oldham’s father, Brad, who’s now a sculptor, was in charge of the hardware, such as buttons and jewelry. “I quite literally grew up in my uncle’s clothing factory,” Oldham said. “I got to witness metalwork, the lines of people sewing and cutting patterns. That sort of visual stimulus was always around me, and it definitely impacted me a lot.”
Presley Oldham had his own approach to fashion, with a penchant for bright colors and bold patterns, not to mention a fondness for draping himself in fabric to mimic capes or bandeau tops. “I was the odd art kid in the middle of the oil barons,” he said, laughing. He remembers his peers wearing Under Armour shorts. “Which I did not do,” he added.
A love of performing took him from lip-syncing Britney Spears songs in front of his family as a child to studying theater at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He moved to Los Angeles to put his theatrical training to good use. When he landed here last year, he worked as a production assistant for music videos; at night, he would make chains to help him unwind. Just as he began to meet with agents and start auditioning, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Instead of sticking around L.A., he hightailed it to the desert, where he’s stayed in a small property — or, as he calls it, a “tiny home” — on his grandparents’ ranch. Suddenly with plenty of time on his hands, a new venture started to come together.
Oldham has always been a collector of sorts, a habit he fine-tuned at the flea markets and swap meets of New York. It was there that he would pick up marbles or glass beads or vintage jewelry from Elsa Peretti — and, of course, pearls.
“I definitely got an odd energy, sometimes, when buying them,” he said. “Like, ‘What are you going to do with these?’ And I didn’t know what I was going to do with them at the time.”
Last month, Oldham presented his second collection during New York Fashion Week, which this season was mostly virtual shows. He made a video for the collection, directed by Iranian American filmmaker Cyrus J. Stowe, featuring a diverse assortment of friends playfully dancing to a sensual neo-soul song. Decked out in Oldham’s casual pearls — a red-haired, mustached man in blue eyeshadow, a Rubenesque Black woman with a bleached buzz cut, a white brunette with tattoos and unshaven armpits — they all blow kisses to the camera. The group featured in the video is a far cry from those Texas grand dames.
“We wanted to incorporate movement and positivity,” said Stowe, who has known Oldham since high school, when he remembers him being voted most fashionable. “We wanted it to feel contagious, to bring life and energy to your day. We wanted it to be a celebration of self-love. ... I liked that each pearl has a story and a history behind it.”
For now, Oldham’s operation is small. He models for his own website because he’s in isolation. Although retailers have come knocking, he’s trying to be realistic about what he’s able to do, especially with the limitations of the pandemic. “It’s nice to find my voice through this lens,” he said. “Moving to L.A., there was a lot of pressure. I have to start auditioning and make a name for myself. Blah, blah, blah. This has helped me let go of those expectations we’re told to believe, and being realistic about what you can do with what you have in front of you.”
Which isn’t to say he doesn’t have bigger aspirations in mind. Looking toward the future, he said he might expand into clothing.
And has Uncle Todd given him his blessing?
“He’s been very supportive,” Oldham said. “He told me to do more — to just go bigger.”
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