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Exclusive: Todd Oldham on Joan Jett and The Runaways’ Fashion Legacy

“It was one of the most fun things I ever got to do.” That’s Todd Oldham speaking about the work he did on his new book Joan Jett, perhaps one of the most devotional monographs in the history of music. Jett, one of the founding sisters of good, hard rock ‘n roll, has been a hero to quirky girls and boys in the worlds of fashion and music for over three decades now. As a teen, she founded The Runaways, still considered one of the toughest acts of all time. With her next band, The Blackhearts, she not only started one of the first indie labels ever, but she did it with a song that no one wanted to sign. That track, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” would go on to top the charts for seven weeks straight, and it remains one of Billboard’s Greatest Songs of All Time.

Timed to coincide with the release of Floria Sigismondi’s The RunawaysJoan Jett sets a place at the head of the table for a woman who’s always been ahead of the pack. We talked with Todd Oldham about Jett’s enduring impact on fashion, reading British music magazines in Iran and how Mary Tyler Moore brought the designer and the rock goddess together.

Why did you decide to write about Joan Jett?
She is spectacular on just about every level. Her story is almost like a Bible story, frankly. If ever you need an example of how believing in yourself and tenacity can get you through life — this is it. It’s the most beautiful story. And so brave. She started The Runaways when she was 15 — 15! She’s just an astonishing woman who kind of did everything on her own terms.

Her Blackheart Records is one of the first indie labels — certainly one of the first owned by a woman.
Certainly. And what was so amazing was how it came about. The Runaways started in 1975, and it freaked the world out; people just fucking freaked out. They had never seen girls playing hard core rock ‘n’ roll like this, and looking like they did. Then the sort of notorious part, which for the most part was completely made up, got ahead of everything, and people were just petrified of them. These little 15-year-old girls would show up and people would freak out.

Did you have a chance to catch The Runaways when they were around?
No, I never had a chance to see them live. I was living in Iran at the time, but I got the first Runaways record when I was there. There was a place where we could get music magazines from England, and this one store that sold international bootleg cassettes, so I got my first Runaways cassette when I was there in 1976 and it blew me away.

Are you a fanboy at heart?
Oh, seriously. I’m kind of embarrassing. In fact, I embarrass Joan all the time because I can’t quit fawning over her. I’ve known her forever, and I’ve had a crush on her since I was 15, so it should’ve subsided by this point. But it just doesn’t.

How hands-on was she in putting together the book?
She was very, very lovely and supportive. As you can imagine, for people who are kind of shy like Joan, having someone try to put together a book about you is one of the most horrid things in the world. She does it to play music; she’s not doing anything to be famous. Frankly, everyone in the Blackheart camp was surprised that Joan said yes to this. But I was so grateful that she allowed me to do it.

The way I did it was, I went through 30 years of print and live interviews with her and redacted it down into this gigantic pile. Then I conducted many, many hours of interviews with her myself, and then sculpted the text from there. So it’s all her words in the first person; I just did all the sculpting and the gathering. She was very, very involved.

She kinda went from punk to high end, with Norma Kamali. Do you think she had a big impact on fashion?
Absolutely, and I think that this book will show that she will yet again. If you think about the timing — 1975; this was almost pre-punk, and she was way ahead of the curve. You can see it through this 30-something years of pictures. First of all she looks the same, pretty much, and the style is incredible. Even the stuff with Norma Kamali doesn’t look like Norma Kamali. It looks like Joan. She moves around in the style a little bit, but it’s still straight up her.

Joan has said she cribbed a little from Suzi Quatro, a.k.a. Leather Tuscadero, back in the early days.
(Laughs) Well, pre-Leather Tuscadero. Yes, indeed, she’s a huge fan of Suzi Quatro and appreciates her influence. What’s so cool about Joan is she’s kind of her own hothouse flower, to be picking up the guitar and teaching herself how to play — it’s astonishing.

What do you think about the Runaways movie?
I liked it a lot. I thought it was a really fun ride. The music’s great, it looks very beautiful, and there are really stellar performances from both Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning.

Do you see a bunch of young women dressing up like Runaways any time soon?
They already do! In the book you can see the DNA of pretty much what every kid looks like right now.

Do you have a favorite Runaways song?
I’ve got bits and pieces of all the songs running through my head, but the one that hits me every time is the classic, “Cherry Bomb.” I still can’t believe how great that song sounds. You know Joan was on Jay Leno the other night playing it, and it was just amazing! That song never sounds any less interesting than it did the first time I heard it.

What about the Blackhearts?
Oh, I like so many. The hits are great, they’re so iconic. But I kind of like some of the in between stuff — I think “French Song” is really clever. I also like some of Joan’s early stuff, like “Crimson and Clover.”

I’m kind of keen on “Love is All Around” — the theme from Mary Tyler Moore.
Yeah, that’s great too! That’s actually how I got to meet Joan. I actually love Mary Tyler Moore, and I had this weird ritual when I was designing fashion where every night at 10:30, which is usually when my brain wakes up, I’d turn on the show, and something about the notes of the song would just snap me into a place where I could work very, very quickly. I loved watching it as a kid; I watched it as an adult. So somehow I mentioned it somewhere, and Joan or Kenny [Laguna] saw the article, and they called and said they’d just recorded the song, then asked if I’d like to use it for a fashion show. I just about fainted and said “yes, yes, yes!” And that’s how I got to meet Joan. We actually debuted ["Love Is All Around"] on our runway.

Images courtesy of Ammo Books and Bob Gruen.

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