Monday, 15 July 2024

Tom Ford

And the spectacular rejuvenation of first-class style…

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There was a time when Tom Ford claimed he’d never start a label under his own name. Since then, however, the magnetic Texan’s priorities have clearly changed. After all, why bother sexing up yet another forgotten label when you can do it all for yourself? And so in 2007 the Tom Ford label was born. An intriguing new hybrid of bespoke tailoring and classic ready-to-wear, his menswear line is only part of the story. With the new brand, the fragrance and the eyewear range all up and running, and with time racing on, the fantastic Tom Ford is getting ready for a new addition to the family…

From Fantastic Man n° 7 — 2008
Text by STEPHEN TODD
Photography by JEFF BURTON

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What do you wear to a meeting with Tom Ford? A slim-cut suit, style circa-1976? White flat-front slacks (yep, they’d have to be ‘slacks’) and a dark turtleneck sweater? Stripper shorts? During his ten-year tenure as creative director of Gucci, Ford was the ultimate Man For All Seasons, every six months sending out signals about how men should – and inevitably would – dress to be at their (slightly retro, disco-sexy) best. Tom Ford’s departure from Gucci in 2004 left men the world over treading water until the recent launch of the menswear label bearing his own name, an all-encompassing collection that has put him back in the style stakes and somewhere near the top of his game.

That is all well and good, but I am still left here in Paris, staring at my wardrobe, with a distinctly sinking feeling. The Gucci jacket? No, too obvious. The YSL sweater? Too tricky – Tom’s time as that house’s creative director was not his most trouble-free. A Marc Jacobs suit? Wrong: Jacobs was Tom’s boss at Perry Ellis in the late 1980s, and the two have never shown any overt sign of camaraderie. In the end I settle for my usual uniform of blue jeans (Levi’s 501s – waist size and trouser length indicated on the hip tag so no need to try them on), white Calvin Klein T-shirt (even Tom can’t argue with that all-American classic) and a pair of handmade Gucci shoes. The look I’m working – for those who haven’t noticed – is one of effortless classic chic. If only there wasn’t that white stain on my Margiela sweater, the one I noticed in the taxi on the way to the Eurostar, by which time it’s too late to return home and too cold to take the damn thing off. Effortless, that’s me…

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Tom Ford is a Virgo; he was born on August 27, 1961.

Tom Ford’s London headquarters is in a red-brick Georgian building on the Kings Road, Chelsea. The very area where, as Ford was hitting puberty in small-town Texas in the early ’70s, London’s newly nascent punks were roaming the streets, looking for trouble and the latest Vivienne Westwood rip-torn porno-print T-shirt. “I would have been about twelve at that time,” remembers Ford. “I would have been wearing flared pants, moccasins, beads. I was very much wrapped up in the post-hippy moment. I was not the world’s most athletic thing, I didn’t play American football, so I wasn’t so popular.” But then a funny thing happened on the way to adolescence. “At fourteen or fifteen all of a sudden I became very popular because – and I’m not saying this in an egotistical way – I became good looking. I wasn’t even aware of it but other people were all of a sudden aware that I was handsome. I was having sex with girls when I was fourteen, and that was because they were pouncing on me. I wasn’t even aware that I preferred men. It felt good, and it all worked and I was like, ‘Okay, this is great…’ I started to realise that I was attractive and that I can work that.”

Today Tom Ford is working it in grey fleck woollen trousers, patent black shoes and a black shirt unbuttoned to south of the sternum. At 46 years old, Ford is in remarkably good shape. He’s trim, slightly tanned, his short hair receding in two perfect arcs that give him the high-forehead look of the intelligent. A look further enhanced by his aviator-shaped spectacles, the cross-bar of which seems perfectly calibrated to offset his trademark askew squint. The glasses are part of the eyewear collection that marked Ford’s much-anticipated comeback in early 2007. “I remember when I started to do eyewear, people were like, ‘Oh he’s so weird. Why is he doing eyewear? What’s that about?’ But I of course knew that the revenues from the eyewear line would finance the fragrance, which would finance the rest. I had a master plan.” That master plan involves the roll-out of some 18 menswear stores carrying his name around the world this year. Dubai, Qatar, Kuwait, Milan, Zurich, St. Moritz, São Paulo, two in Moscow… “You know, everywhere. About 50 stores in the next two years.” Except Paris. “Paris is not a priority. Our stuff is not aimed at tourists coming in and taking a lot home – and Parisian men don’t know how to dress!”

That Tom Ford is able to arbitrate on Parisian men’s lack of style (or that of Australian men living in Paris for that matter) is a given – Ford is the archetypal global nomad. Sentences like the following roll effortlessly off his tongue: “We moved here – to London – in 1996, but we had a place in Paris from the time we moved to Milano in 1990.” He says “Milano” like an Italian. “Quai de Conti” like a Parisian. Both with a baseline of Texan tenor, and with a tendency to dramatise with spoken italics.

The ‘we’ in the above sentence is a reference to his long-term partner, journalist Richard Buckley; the itinerary is a reflection of Ford’s peripatetic professional lifestyle. Buckley’s career seemed to take second seat to Ford’s since, as Buckley has often quipped, “I married well.” Ford smiles wryly at the reflection. “Oh, he just says that ’cause he doesn’t use… If he cared about such things… He doesn’t maximize that. He’s very much his own person. He does his own thing, has his own income. He could live exactly the same life without me.” Multiple houses. An art collection with a value in the millions. You do the math.

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So what art does Ford own? “Oh God, don’t ask me that,” he squirms in his seat – not unbecomingly, it must be said. (I suspect ‘unbecoming’ is not part of Tom Ford’s repertoire.) “That’s pretentious.” But insist slightly and he’ll admit, “I made a lot of money and have everything I ever wanted. So I have, I don’t know, fifteen Warhols – and they’re okay ones too. And I have all the classics: Calder, Franz Kline, Motherwell… When I first made any money I bought things that were iconic to me growing up. It’s only probably in the last ten years that I have started buying real contemporary art produced by my generation or younger. But I just buy things that mean something to me.”

Tom Ford admits to reading a lot, but insists, “No, I wouldn’t say I’m an intellectual. Richard’s the intellectual. I think I’m intelligent. There’s a difference. I act intuitively.” The books on his office shelves, he shrugs, are just “the basics. You have to have a Jean-Michel Frank book, a Dupré-Lafon book, the Roulmann book. I mean, I use them all the time. Dupré-Lafon is probably somebody I’ve knocked off more than just about anybody in the whole world. For my shop interiors, for my house…”

How many houses does he own? “Oh God, I don’t even know, I have to think. I’m serious – I really don’t, ’cause there used to be more. I live in London, I have a house in Los Angeles. I have a house in Santa Fe. An hour from there I have a very large ranch. I have a house in Texas, so I only have five.”

Ford’s determination to appear unpretentious is the foil to an evident pride in his incredible success. Born to a couple of middle-class Texan real-estate agents in 1961, his life is a parable: that of the Great American Achiever, the ordinary guy done good – and looking damn sexy while doing it. His career in fashion began almost by accident: while he was studying architecture at Parsons in Paris, a friend left her internship at Chloé and offered the post to Tom. He thought he would do it as a summer job. But while the position consisted of “just sending shoes out all day to magazine shoots, I thought, ‘What a great, cool business,’ and one much more suitable to my frivolous personality than architecture was.” After completing his undergraduate architecture studies, Ford put together a portfolio of fashion sketches and “started banging on everybody’s door.”

FANTASTIC MAN - Mr. FORD is wearing a white pure-wool single-breasted two-button peak lapel tuxedo jacket over a classic black gros-grain double-breasted six-button waistcoat; black velvet bow tie and pure-silk black & white contour print packet square; 18 carat white gold with 11 carat blue sapphires and 2.4 carat Princess cut diamond studs; all by TOM FORD.

He landed a job with New York designer Cathy Hardwick in 1986, and then moved on to Perry Ellis. In 1990 Ford was hired by Gucci’s influential creative director Dawn Mello as head women’s ready-to-wear designer, and when the house was acquired by Bahrain-based Investcorp in 1994, he was named creative director. A star was born and a new era in highly sexualized fashion had begun.

Today Ford travels extensively house to house, meeting to meeting, store to potential store, but the constant movement is laughed off as just a slightly crazier version of an everyday working man’s life. A supersonic Boy’s Own story. In the two weeks preceding our meeting, by his own estimation, Tom Ford had been to “Los Angeles, New York, London, Milan and Moscow. After Moscow I came back to London for one day, I went to New York for two days and I just came back.” Does Richard travel with him? “Most of the time. He didn’t come to Moscow with me, because it was just for 24 hours. So he went to New York instead. We were together in California the day before, so we split for a day and met back in London.”

Clearly Ford thrives on the Olympiad pace. He insists he does not miss the Gucci days, “having to design 16 collections a year and make a lot of silly stuff I really didn’t care about.” He says, “Leaving Gucci taught me a lot about who is a real friend and who is a friend for business. Even though no one would know that because I never said, ‘You’re an asshole,’ but in my mind I filed them away. Click.” He is equally adamant about the positive aspect of his own new brand. “These days are great,” he smiles, as I sip on my second vodka tonic at around 5pm. (“I already had two before you came here. We start cocktail hour rather early…”) “I am in a unique and wonderful position in that I am just starting. So right now I am able to put in only the things that I really believe in.”

What Ford seems to believe in is a certain suave masculinity, infused with a heady sense of mid-70s chic. Like his art collecting, his fashion sense seems to be about “things that mean something” to him. Things like Halston. Disco. American Gigolo… Ford’s aesthetic is intrinsically linked to his own formative years as a late teenager in Manhattan, doing the Bus Stop and the Bump as Andy the eternal voyeur looked on. When Studio 54 opened its doors in late 1977, Ford had just turned 16. By the time it closed, the 1980s were upon us, and the spectre of AIDS loomed large. If there is a nostalgia to his menswear collections, it is a tensile one, buoyed up by a high-strung sexual tension. “Sex is part of my image,” he readily admits. “It’s a part of me. I’m extremely sensual. If I like someone I want to touch them, if I love them I want to hold onto them. I’m very physical. But also I don’t find sex offensive, I don’t find the human body offensive. I don’t find a guy’s cock or a woman’s vagina offensive, in fact I find them beautiful. I would put them on an ad with a perfume bottle if I could get away with it. But when I design something I’m not necessarily trying to think, ‘How can I get the biggest rise out of people?’ I’m thinking, ‘How can I make the most beautiful image?’”

FANTASTIC MAN - Mr. FORD is seen here in a black wool, single-button single-breasted, grosgrain peak lapel tuxedo with grosgrain buttons; white piquet plastron, collar and cuff three-stud dress shirt; silver jacquard silk tie, and 18 carat white gold cufflinks; all by TOM FORD.

That said, Ford clearly knows how to press the right buttons. Over the years his Gucci ads featured girls with G-shaped pubic hair, a guy with a prominent erection showing through his pants, and piles of naked bodies wildly writhing. Perfumes have been given names like Envy, or Rush, a 1970s name for poppers. With each new season, deliberately or not, Tom Ford actioned an aesthetic that was bound to keep his image at the fore. “I am a hybrid of businessman and designer. I am very much a designer, but I am not an artist and I have never pretended to be. There are fashion designers who are artists – Alexander McQueen is an artist; Nicholas Ghesquière is an artist – but I actually enjoy designing more when I have a box, meaning, when I can say, ‘What’s missing? What does the world need? What can I do that’s the best thing from a design standpoint but that fits into that box? So I start with the bigger picture and move in. When looking to start my own line and stores, I couldn’t do so until I figured out a unique way of doing it, that wasn’t already out there, that is valid and that means something that I can stand behind.”

The Tom Ford menswear collection riffs on the classic gentleman’s wardrobe – riding outfits, tennis gear, evening wear, as well as the obligatory chunky sweaters, clean-cut trousers and impeccably crafted shoes – while pushing it into the now. Brideshead is not so much revisited, as re-edited. There may be nothing ostensibly new in that fine tweed suit, that piqué shirt, that tennis-stripe waistcoat. But Ford has always understood that menswear is not about unnecessary novelty or gimmick. It’s about the careful curation of classics, fine-tuned and tweaked to resonate with the contemporary consumer. As the Tom Ford website mantra puts it: “Style is most potent when it is least complicated.”

While the exclusive member’s club aspect of the stores evokes the hallowed halls of Savile Row, the offer is in fact much more unique. The ‘box’ Tom has identified in this case consists of a hybrid high-fashion company and a traditional tailor. “It’s very different,” he insists. “We don’t do bespoke suits from the ground up. We work off four different bases, we take your measurements, work out which base is right for you, modify it, send all this away to our factory in Italy, and then once it comes back we have a sample room in each store location where we can do quite dramatic alterations. When you go to a bespoke tailor you can have almost anything made. When you come to us, you come for a certain Tom Ford look and then it’s modified. This is a hybrid that did not exist. There’s much more customisation than you can get from any other designer company. At the same time it’s got a bit more of a personal stamp than Savile Row.” So what he’s saying is that somebody can’t walk in and have a total disaster made up in canary yellow check? “No, definitely not.”

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Like the best success stories, the plan is ultimately very simple: identify a gap, then fill it. Based on the accolades coming from the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt, the plan appears to be paying off. In fact, like most of Tom Ford’s endeavours, it appears to be a raging success. It’s hard to image the long tall Texan – Tom Ford, the man fashion editors the world over refer to simply as ‘Tom’ – ever having a moment of doubt. He almost coughs up his vodka at the suggestion. “The Gucci experience was horrible. Horrible. When I left I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’ll never do anything good again. I really thought that was it – that I didn’t want to go back to fashion. I was burnt out from working too hard and I was exhausted from the experience and a certain disillusionment and an inability to see my future. Luckily I had made enough money to not have to work for the rest of my life, and I seriously thought I’d play tennis and golf for the rest of my days. I mean, golf? I imagined the fantasy of retirement. But I got that out of my system. I will not retire until I literally drop dead.”

FANTASTIC MAN - Here Mr. FORD wears a white tennis polo and tennis shorts by TOM FORD. Wrist band, socks and shoes are TOM's own.

So today, with the Tom Ford brand, he is trouble free? “No! I worry every day. If I design a pair of shoes in the afternoon I go to bed that night thinking about them, thinking ‘Oh shit…’ So I’ll write a note, send an e-mail, make a call, change the chain, the buckles, whatever…”

I take the cue to bring my handmade Gucci brogues out into the open, to wave a flag of solidarity with their maker. “They’re quite worn out,” Tom frowns. “Quite worn out. You need shoe trees.” I have shoe trees. Forests of shoe trees. I use shoe trees… There goes effortlessly elegant, slinking in shame out the door and down the block to buy a packet of cigarettes and smoke up a funk. I wonder if my stained sweater should join it, but keep that thought to myself.

Ford says he “feels great” about where he is right now. “It feels natural, like a natural progression. I am where I should be today.” Does he regret not finishing his architecture degree? “Never. Because I get to build things all the time right now. I make enough money that I get to build a lot of houses. And I get to build stores. And I work with architects, so I get to do the fun part, you know, the sort of ‘Yes, No, Figure it out, Calculate that…’ bit.”

FANTASTIC MAN - Green velvet slippers with hand-stitched 'TF' embroidery in gold, by (and for) TOM FORD.

So what’s missing in this apparently idyllic life? The houses, the art, the travel, the money enough to retire at the age of 42? “I have everything. Except one thing – I’m going to have a kid in 2008. Richard knows I’ve wanted this for a long time. He’s just resisted it. He would be a spectacular father. Spec-tac-u-lar. It’s going to give his life new meaning.”

How is he going to get a kid? “It’s all worked out. It will be biologically mine. I mean, I’m a lot younger. If things follow their natural order he’ll probably leave the planet ahead of me and I can’t not have had something I’ve wanted forever. I’ve always wanted kids. I don’t want to get to 75 years old and just have made a lot of dresses, done some houses. I don’t know what any of this life’s about. For me, honestly, there are many moments when life is all stupid and useless. But to at least impart that to the next generation to let them resolve it. Maybe one day, generations from now, it will all make sense but at least I will have transferred the best of myself, the best of my generation, to the next wave. It feels like part of our purpose in the kind of giant flow of…I don’t know.” Ford pauses for a second and says, “Who knows why anyone wants to have a child?”

It’s a good question. And one to which, quite honestly, I have no answer. But all of a sudden my stained sweater, my beat-up Gucci shoes, my old jeans – hell, even Tom’s impeccable patent pumps and tweed trousers and perfectly pressed black shirt – don’t appear quite so important. For a moment, anyway.

CONTRIBUTIONS

Photography assistance by Alex Vanagas. Printing courtesy of Studio P Inc.