An Audience with Tom Ford

A few weeks ago I interviewed designer Tom Ford for the very first time. As with all fashion designers, Ford came with the usual list of horror stories – apparently he once told a journalist that he found her unmanicured nails offensive, and drinks diet coke like its going out of style (it should  also be served with a black straw pointing in a certain direction). Then there were the things that intrigued me- his show stopping good looks, his fascination with sex and an innate marketing savvy that doesn’t seem to exist in any other designer working in the industry today.

So what did I learn that day? Aside from the fact that he can talk the hind legs off a donkey and loves diet coke (he was drinking it at 10am!), he is also an extreme perfectionist with an incredible sixth sense and attention to detail that I have not witnessed since I met Giorgio Armani. Control freak, maybe, but a very interesting one at that. PS. He didn’t notice my nails although he did say I had the best eyebrows which is apparently the only part of the face you cannot change with plastic surgery. It was probably not true, but it didn’t stop me from loving him anyway.

Below is my unedited interview with Ford along with some juicy bits that didn’t make it into the paper. Enjoy.

Tom Ford’s Spring/Summer 2011 women’s collection

DESIGNER Tom Ford likes to get naked. Apparently he once conducted an interview with a journalist entirely in the buff and has been known to appear in magazine shoots in nothing but his birthday suit. Then there are his sexually charged and provocative ad campaigns which feature models in various states of undress. They have included Sophie Dahl laying naked across a fur rug, her back arched in post-orgasmic bliss and cupping one breast in her hand (Yves Saint Laurent, 2000); a woman pulling down her underwear to reveal her pubic hair shaped into Gucci’s famous G logo (2003); and a glass perfume bottle squeezed between two very large silicone breasts and a couple covered in soap suds frolicking naked (Tom Ford, 2007 and 2011 respectively).

For someone who has made his name dressing men and now women in his beautiful clothes, it seems ironic that he loves to take them off.  But when it comes to Tom Ford, everything is about making a statement of some sort.

I am set to meet the designer at his newly opened women’s store at IFC Mall. I arrive early and everything looks immaculate. The scene could be taken from an Architectural Digest photo shoot – cushions on the light grey sofa are plumped to perfection as assistants adjust vases containing fresh orchids to the exact millimetre.

You can also feel the tension. Everyone looks nervous as the salesgirls hurriedly fix their hair and makeup in the back, and the men stand erect holding their breath waiting for the arrival of a man whose name is emblazoned in huge letters above the shop door.

“Mr Ford is here,” whispers the PR, almost 30 minutes later than scheduled. Suddenly the crowds part, as I am whisked through the store and brought to a room where a single man (pardon the pun) is waiting alone to welcome me.

“I apologise profusely for being late, I am terribly sorry,” says Ford, extending his hand out with such charm and grace, he could be mistaken for Cary Grant. He certainly looks and sounds the part. His voice is melodic, with a slight American accent that has been softened from many years of living in London. Of course, he is as handsome as any Hollywood star with his dark, chiselled features and perfectly trimmed beard that glistens under the soft light. Then there are his clothes, which he has on – a flawless hand-stitched black suit, freshly pressed white shirt and black tie, all by Tom Ford, natch.

“I only ever wear a suit. I have never worn sweats although I wear shorts when I play tennis, or am at the beach. But if you think you will catch me walking around the shopping mall in shorts, it’s not going to happen,” he says, referring to a recent controversial statement he made admonishing men who wear shorts and flip flops.

“I really said it because of the flip flop thing. I hate it when men wear them and don’t get a pedicure. They don’t quite get that – grooming seems to stop there. I have to teach them.”

Ford has been educating the masses about fashion since he joined the Gucci group in 1990 and hasn’t looked back since. Today he is at the helm of his own fashion brand which in just six years has grown to include beauty, eyewear, accessories, men’s wear and most recently, women’s wear with a global distribution and network of stores that spans New York to Beijing. It’s difficult to believe that Ford didn’t want to acknowledge his future career in fashion when he was younger.

“Funnily enough it was harder to admit to myself that I wanted to be a fashion designer, than it was to admit that I was gay. It was even harder to tell my parents because a lot of people thought [fashion] was trivial… But when I finally admitted to it I was very pragmatic. I had all the classifications to do it well, and I was very particular about everything, so it really made sense in the end,” he says.

Having already relocated from his hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico to New York to study architecture, he decided to tackle the cutthroat world of Seventh Avenue’s garment district. He landed a job with sportswear designer Cathy Hardwick (where he also met his current partner of 24 years, journalist Richard Buckley) and later at casual wear company Perry Ellis.  These jobs taught Ford all he needed to know about the business and took him all over the world – including Hong Kong where he remembers spending three to four months a year going back and forth between factories in the New Territories and his room at the then Regent Hotel.

After four years he began hankering for something new. The answer came in the form of a design job at stuffy Italian house Gucci, which was known for its bad management and equally bad taste.

“When I got there it was horses and hunting, it wasn’t appealing. But I was 28 years old, I had worked on Seventh Avenue and Richard and I wanted to go back to Europe. I didn’t like what was being done at the time but [the current designer] Dawn Mello was really an icon. I thought if she’s there, she knows something I don’t know. My plan was to go there for two years, figure out how everything works, find manufacturers and start my own collection. Plus if you were well-known in Paris or Milan you were globally marketable instantly. I wanted to be globally marketable,” he says matter-of-factly.

Armed with a determination to succeed and a keen business sense, he quickly moved up the ranks to become design director and then creative director when Mello left. In 1995 things changed overnight when he debuted his now infamous hip hugger collection on the catwalk featuring skinny tailoring, 1970s inspired satin shirts and velvet hipster trousers. It was high glamour, sexy, modern and above all, sellable.

“I decided to step out on the runway which was against my contract at that time,” he remembers. “I thought I love this collection, I am behind it, I take credit for it. The next day the showroom was mobbed. The next collection was a hit and it went really fast.”

And so began what insiders call the “Tom Ford decade” at Gucci Group, where he became as known for his slick marketing skills as he did for his designs. Within five years the company was worth about US$4.3 billion, as Ford also acquired new labels and designers into the group’s fold such as Alexander McQueen, Nicolas Ghesquiere and Tomas Maier.

When PPR took control of the company in 2004, Ford along with his mentor and Gucci chief executive Domenico De Sole made the hard decision to leave.  He says leaving a brand he practically made his own was a difficult time.

“I was very isolated at Gucci. When I left I hadn’t flown a commercial plane in 10 years except for the Concorde. But it was a needed and helpful wake up call. I created that company and isolated myself that way. I was like a racehorse, I had so much to do that I literally had no time for life other than to be fed and exercised. I couldn’t have done it much longer,” he says.

Initially he planned to take a break, but lasted a total of three months before he got bored. Instead he set out to fulfil the original plan he hatched when he joined Gucci – to launch his own line. Rather than jump headfirst into clothing, he tested the waters first by launching fragrances and sunglasses in 2005. Once those were a hit, a men’s wear line launched in 2007 along with luxurious boutiques complete with in-store butlers and a made to measure service.

“I wanted to know what would sell,” he says. “Seventh Avenue taught me an important lesson about the business of fashion. If you had one collection that didn’t sell, you were fired. I didn’t develop in this bubble of fashion designers that don’t care about sales. You can be creative, but I am very creative within a box.

“So when I started this company I thought who am I competing with – well for women it’s Chanel, Lanvin, Armani. So what’s my price point, what do they make, what do they sell, what do I like or not like about these brands? What do I have to say that no one else has to say? I shrunk it down to know exactly what I needed. You build a structure, and within it comes the design,” he says.

After a long wait, he finally launched his women’s collection last September to much anticipation. But unlike the large, commercial shows he was known for at Gucci, he hosted an intimate invite-only presentation for 100 guests at his New York store. Video and photography were banned as a star studded cast of Ford’s closest friends including Beyonce, Rita Wilson and actress Julianne Moore walked the floor in his tuxedos, tailored leopard print suits, fringed dresses and python print sequinned cocktail dresses.

“It’s so funny because I didn’t think the collection was remotely 1970s so when I read that I was like really? This collection is smaller than the next one because I had to do it so quickly.  I had just finished the Oscars run and I had to put together a design team, studio and manufacturer in three months. The next one is much larger and includes more daywear,” he says.

While many critics thought the closed presentation was a one-off marketing gimmick, Ford did the same thing again when he launched his autumn/winter collection in London in February. While some editors and bloggers went up in arms, Ford says his decision was purely a business one.

“I don’t want to design the collection for journalists; I want to design it for women. If you could press a button the day you saw every piece and it could come to your house straight away, then great! But in reality there’s a six month lag time between the show and when it’s made. Our customer does not want to wear something she has seen every Hollywood starlet in the magazines wearing for the past six months. It’s too exposed. She’s tired of it already,” he says.

“I wasn’t trying to be a jerk, but there was no point in that and it doesn’t serve our customer. And subconsciously you start to design for the journalist and the next day you read about it in the newspaper – ‘Well there was nothing new at Tom Ford.’ I don’t want to make something new if it’s not needed. I want to wait and react to what women want and need in their lives,” he says.

As such, Ford is also changing other things this time round including the dressing celebrities. This is a bold move considering that almost every luxury house in the world views celebrity endorsement as a valuable marketing tool. And who more than Ford, the very man who coined the term “celebrity designer?”

“I’m talking about making special clothes for celebrities who I don’t know that well who want to wear it down the red carpet,” he explains. “You don’t know who is doing their hair, makeup, jewellery – everyone has a stylist. I am so tired of making a beautiful dress and seeing it ruined by a stylist who accessorizes it the wrong way. It always makes me sad. Does it really do our business any good to make special things for celebrities at this point? Often what they want isn’t really what you’d do, or doesn’t say anything about the moment. They all want the same thing. Those red carpet dresses with those trains,” he winces.

One thing that hasn’t changed is his drive to be successful. Earlier this month he launched a new cosmetics line under Tom Ford Beauty featuring an extensive makeup range that will launch in Europe later this year. He is also planning to open more stores, including boutiques in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo in Asia this year. And then there is of course his true passion, filmmaking, which reveals a different side to the man completely.

“What I do in film is completely different from what I do in fashion. I am sure there are some related things, but fashion for me is a commercial – artistic yes, but a commercial endeavour. Even though I financed my film and it did well, I didn’t do it to make any money or make a blockbuster. I did it as a form of expression. You can only express so much in clothes – you can express a lot when you tell a story on film. And it lasts forever. If anyone ever wants to know what I am about, watch that film because it was an extremely personal film. I hope they all will be. ”

That being said, Ford is in no rush to make the next although he says it’s good to go and could be cast immediately. Instead he wants to focus on perfecting his women’s line before beginning shooting (which he anticipates will be in August 2012).  Besides, he has bigger fish to fry.

“I want global domination, I do and I will get it,” he says launching is a soundbite I’ve read in most interviews. “I don’t want to be mean, and Karl Lagerfeld is a great friend of mine, but he is 77 years old. Ralph is in his 70s so is Giorgio Armani . Miuccia [Prada] is fabulous, but who is the next global brand?  Who has the ability to design, and I am not boasting, the breadth of product that I do. I’m known all over the world for that and I think it’s fun. Besides I will work until the day I drop dead.”

As published in the SCMP, June 3, 2011.

And the quotes that didn’t make it into the story…

On China:

“Right now China is importing Western culture and exporting goods. Within the next 10 or 15 years China will begin to export the ideas to the world and the culture.”

On his return to fashion:

“I’ve had more time to catch up with the soap opera of fashion. Six years of not watching a soap opera and you tune back in and realise nothing has changed. You might be confused about whose died or sleeping with whom but I have figured it out now.”

On the Gucci ad with the G-shaped pubic hair:

“Ok well I wouldn’t do that today. But there was a reason for the G and that was because I always try to be part of the moment. I did that as a tongue in cheek thing as branding at that season had reached a peak. Everyone was logo, logo, logo. So I thought how far can we push this? I heard about these girls in LA who did these fancy Brazilians so I contacted them. Turns out the model didn’t have enough pubic hair, so I got down on my knees, shaved it myself and took an eyebrow pencil – I am very hands on – and drew a G. At the time it was a culturally relevant statement.”

On sex:

“Everything is about sex, sex, sex and to me it’s boring. Sensuality is more interesting. It was interesting to me at Gucci but I was 32 then and now I am 50, so it is different. It was a different time and I am in a different place.”

On the pressure designers face working in a fashion conglomerate:

“There’s a reason their egos get their way and I sympathise because I have been in that situation. There’s enormous pressure when you are designing for a giant company because when you design a bad collection your sales dip hundreds of millions of dollars. And you feel it. When I had a bad show, I didn’t have many but when I did, everyone treats you different.”

On doing things his way:

“I came back into it my way. I don’t do anything now that I don’t enjoy and I am not doing anything that isn’t fun. That’s why I showed my collection the way I did in New York and if people don’t like it too bad.  I am doing it the way I want to do it, I own it.”