Paris – Tom Ford, the former Gucci designer who once vowed to students in Oxford University that he would never launch his own signature label, unveiled an eyewear collection this weekend bearing, well, the name Tom Ford.

“I always said I wasn’t going to do that. But, I also always said, never say never,” smiled Ford, as guests imbibed his signature drink – vodka and tonic – in a stand at SLIMO, the giant optical trade show in Paris’ Porte de Versailles.

“I never thought I would be leaving Gucci when I did,” said Ford. “Nor did I think I would feel about design the way I did. When I left I really thought I was not going to come back to fashion, yet very quickly after I left I realized I loved so much of what I did. I loved making things, building things. I did eyewear first because I was not quite ready to commit to ready to wear. Now I am ready for men’s wear but I am not quite ready to commit to women’s ready to wear.”

Attired in a stripe double-breasted cool wool Savile Row suit, Ford proudly showed of nearly 100 pairs of shades – 23 models in five different color groups – all shown on a giant wall at the stand’s entrance.

“I love eyewear, I’ve always loved eyewear,” he added. “I’ve done eyewear for the last 14 years at Gucci; I also did it at Saint Laurent. I wear eyewear constantly. I have a vintage collection that’s pretty impressive, I mean of hundreds and hundreds of frames that I bought over a long time.”

Ford inked a deal with the Marcolin Group, the Italian manufacturer that creates shades for Roberto Cavalli, Montblanc and Costume Nationale. Based near Belluno, the Silicone Valley of Italy’s booming eyewear industry, the founding family last year sold a 40% stake in Marcolin to Andrea and Diego della Valle, the luxury entrepreneurs who also control Tods, Hogan, Acqua di Parma fragrances and Fiorentina, the soccer club of Florence.

“The thing about eyewear is that it is so potent,” said Ford, tanned as ever, though looking a few pounds more than we remember him when he took his final Gucci bow back in February 2004. “There are very few accessories that, if you were not wearing anything, if you put on they would date you to a whole era. You could look the Thirties, the Fifties, and the Nineties just by your eyewear. It’s like a pair of shoes because it is sculptural. It exists without a face. It tells a lot about where you are architecturally or aesthetically in a particular period in time.”

“As a man I love eyewear because there are very few accessories that a man can really wear, and I am fairly classical guy, but I don’t want to look like banker, so eyewear is something that gives you an instant look,” he added.

The collection is also a mini homage to his friends and colleagues – since he named models after his long-time partner Richard Buckley, loyal assistant Whitney Bromberg and business partner and ex Gucci CEO Domenico De Sole, with their names in tiny letters on each stem. Of the three, only De Sole was not present at the launch.

Ford’s debut Spring 2006 collection features sculpted aerodynamic shapes, oversize aviator looks and retro futurist takes. Overall, they look pretty large in size, and in keeping with the gigantism one sees throughout this Paris fair.

Stems carry a large horizontal T set flush along the temple, while lenses have a very small Tom Ford logo in a signature typeface. Using lots of dark tints, smoky effects and lacquers, the collection has lots of panache.

“This collection is maybe a bit more luxurious than a lot that are on the market at the moment,” said Ford. “We at Gucci pioneered the idea of mass luxury. What’s interesting to me, which is what I will do now in men’s wear and do in fragrance as well, is to create true luxury again. I mean higher quality, more attention to details, smaller distribution and a higher price point.”

The first shades will reach stores in late November, rolling out to 800 doors, 60 of them major US department stores, and priced at between 200 to 350 Euros, or $240 to $425. Insiders are predicting annual sales of around 20 million Euros in the first year. At the end of his three year rollout plan, Ford’s shades will still only be one third of the distribution of a Chanel or Gucci.

“Maybe I am more about sensuality than sexuality now, maybe not quite so in your face,” said Ford, explaining the line’s look. “I also think that eyewear right now, and in other product categories, is in a moment where people want some authenticity, they want value, they don’t want to feel it is quite so transient and trendy and empty, as a lot of the things that all of us in the fashion industry were doing in the late nineties.”

Though to some it may seem a come down for the great Tom Ford, fashion’s most feted designer of the Nineties and a man whose runway shows were must-sees for any serious fashionista, to launch his own house at a booth in a trade show, the designer came across as very upbeat, ebullient even.

“It’s funny, yesterday when I left with the first pair of frames that I put on my face with the name Tom Ford I realized that it wasn’t just like my stationary that was engraved for me, it was actually a product that said Tom Ford!” he said. “I thought in the car on the way back into town that was kind of cool. Oh yeah, this is a little bit different…”

Ford’s next move is unveiling his revamped versions of Estee Lauder scents, starting with the label’s hard to pronounce Youth Dew.

“Then, it will be my own brand,” Ford said. “I signed a deal to produce and distribute Tom Ford cosmetics and fragrances starting in fall 2006. Before that, because it takes 18 months to make something new, they asked me to help revamp bits of the Estee Lauder collection and that is called Tom Ford Estee Lauder collection,” he stresses. Ford will launch that collection with Estee Lauder next week in New York at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Ford left Milan indicating he planned to devote the next stage of his life to cinema, but clearly the allure of fashion has proved too strong.

“I love fashion,” Ford said. “What I love is the ability to express yourself, to be able to make a product and shoot an ad campaign that tosses you out into the world and lets you have a voice in contemporary culture, iconography. I felt a little bit neutered not having that voice.”

“Gucci for me is finished, over and gone,” continued Ford, declining to comment on any of his successors. “That was another chapter in my life, it’s over. I am on to something else.”

Asked about progress in Hollywood, Ford, who owns a classic modern Richard Neutra house in L.A., responded: “I have a couple of things in the works that I hope to announce soon. I always saw people stand up and say when they won an Academy Award that their film took ten years to make this film, and I thought, ‘come on!’ But by the time you get the project together, and you organize the script, and you get your talent, and then maybe they are not available because of another film, and then you loose your financing because the talent is not available and you finally get them back… It’s the really the logistic of getting it all together.”

The Texan-born designer is clearly keener to talk about his own house, outlining his ambitious pans for a Ford men’s collection, which will debut in fall 2006.

“In terms of making an impact,” he said, “I have never been someone who liked to do things in a small way. So in terms of men’s wear at some point I certainly think I can rival, and I don’t mean this in an egotistical way, Armani and Ralph Lauren in terms of volume. I think I have a good rapport with the men’s customers. I love men’s clothes. I think there is a real niche in the market in between those two extremes. I have a strong voice in that, for so many seasons, what I did in women’s was often hinted at in men’s before.”

Readers, and Ralph and Giorgio, you have been warned.

Source: Fashion Wire Daily