IN TERMS OF BOTH fashion vision and marketing savvy, Tom Ford, the guru of Gucci, is the envy of other designers. Since 1995, his sleek, sexy creations have quadrupled the Italian company’s gross annual sales (now $1 billion), and the New York Times ranks him with Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent in the pantheon of fashion greats. The irony is that the 37-year-old Ford—the toast of Europe, the darling of the haute couture—went from riding cow ponies to draping clotheshorses.

Born in Austin, Ford recalls spending his childhood hanging out at his grandparents’ ranch in dusty Brownwood, visiting Ralph the Swimming Pig at San Marcos’ touristy Aquarena Springs, and “mostly lying out by the swimming pool.” His parents, both realtors, “encouraged me to do anything. If I wanted art lessons, they found paint and a teacher. I was always very visual, always interested in design. I don’t mean that I sat around at age five sketching clothes. But if my parents went out to dinner and left me alone, I would rearrange all the living room furniture before they came back home.”

Ford attended New York University, where he lasted only a year, preferring to concentrate on a burgeoning career as an actor in TV commercials. After deciding to focus on fashion, he worked for designers Cathy Hardwick and Perry Ellis before signing on with Gucci in 1990 to design women’s ready-to-wear. At the time, the venerable company had been weakened by family infighting over cash and control; at one point every designer but Ford quit, so he took charge by default. In 1994 he graduated to creative director. Till then Gucci had been known for superior but stodgy leather goods and accessories. Under Ford, the company ventured into new territory—men’s and women’s sportswear and evening clothes and even home furnishings. Despite his exalted position, however, Ford maintains a hands-on approach; Gucci now manufactures some five thousand articles, from belts to ball gowns, and “every single item crosses my desk.”

Inspiration is easy, he says; “I ask myself, What am I sick of seeing?” He replaced the unadorned minimalism of the early nineties with fluid, shape-skimming designs that oozed sex. He singlehandedly inaugurated the seventies revival but added a succession of hard-edged, world-weary touches to reflect the nation’s millennial mood. His approach was at once original and retro—wide lapels (1995), low-slung waists (1996), and patent leather (1997)—and it blew other designers right off the runway. Ford says that his clothes reflect a melding of his two earliest fashion influences. “My mother was very chic, very classic. My paternal grandmother was very stylish in a very Texas way—everything big and flashy, from jewelry to car. The images of beauty you get in your childhood stick with you for life, and so there’s a certain flashiness at Gucci.” This fall’s line, he promises, is “Texas-inspired—with a certain Western feel.”

Ford divides his time among Gucci’s offices in Florence, Milan, London, New York, Los Angeles, and Paris, where he lives. He also has a house in Austin, which he visits when his frenetic schedule permits. “My family has been in Texas since the 1830’s, so I grew up with that intrepid pioneer spirit: ‘If you want to do it, you can.

by Anne Dingus