An American in Paris–and London–and with creations all over the world, he has put the frisson back in Gucci and is extending his reign with Yves Saint Laurent.

There are things in the world that never change: gravity, the sine rule, your mother’s opinion of your spouse. And then there are things that last just an instant: a dance, a meal, Heath Ledger’s career. Fashion belongs squarely in the latter category. To do fashion well, one has to master the momentary, to catch time in a bottle green, double-faced cashmere maxicoat. This is almost harder than making something timeless, because as the moment changes, so must the designer, and he must understand each bank and shoal of time equally well. “The moment of a great dress is a moment,” Tom Ford has said. “Not even a week or a month. It’s gone at the end of a party.”

Ford, 39, born in Texas, raised in New Mexico and aged in New York City and Europe, has been on the whitecap of–or indeed, his splashes have created–just about every fashion wave since his Fall 1995 collection for Gucci. That was the show that brought about a rapprochement between the stylish and the ’70s, reacquainting humanity with velvet hip huggers and satin shirts in a way that allowed us to see an inner beauty or relevance we had somehow overlooked for nigh on two decades. Ford gave that silhouette’s androgyny a new spark, suggesting that being located somewhere on a male-female continuum rather than in one gender camp opens up more possibilities.

Ambiguity and transience are perhaps Ford’s chief assets as a designer. He won’t be nailed down to one look, one sex, one cut or even one couture house–at least not for long. He’s an American whose vision glares over one of the largest European fashion empires. As creative director of Gucci Group, he designs eight collections a year (for Gucci in London and YSL Rive Gauche in Paris), plus their cash cows, the accessories, shuttling between the two ateliers on the Eurostar. He also oversees the design of new stores and the ad campaigns for all the group’s beauty and fashion labels, which include YSL Beaute, Bottega Veneta, Boucheron and Sergio Rossi. There is no part of the fashion business he finds dull. “For me fashion doesn’t stop at clothes,” says Ford. “Fashion is everything. Art, music, furniture design, graphic design, hair, makeup, architecture, the way cars look–all those things go together to make a moment in time, and that’s what excites me.”

His entrepreneurship smacks to some in the fashion industry of a lack of commitment to design or a harbinger of a regrettable Americanization of European houses. But Ford is unapologetic. “I’m always perplexed by people wanting to divide this into business and fashion,” he says. “My job is to create something amazing that sells. I don’t think you can divorce the two.”

It’s an awkward business, generating desire. Ford has made it into an art form. When he started designing for Gucci, the label had been almost comically cheesy, a synonym for tasteless excess. Now it’s the definition of sizzle. There are people whose voices still grow hushed when they talk about the white dresses with strategically positioned cutouts from his Gucci Fall 1996 collection. And his two collections for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche and one for YSL men’s have been particularly cunning. Because Yves Saint Laurent himself still designs the couture line and because of the reverence in which fashion adherents hold the old master, Ford went gently at first, presenting an all-black-and-white collection, so as not to invite too much comparison to Saint Laurent’s colorful garments. By Ford’s second collection, Fall 2001, there were more playful references to the YSL archives. Yet he’s no copyist. When he draws on archives, it’s for reference, not reverence. It’s much fresher that way. And in his mastery of the now and the new, in his ability to create clothes that grasp and articulate fleeting tastes, Ford is well on his way to securing a lasting place in an ephemeral trade.