When Tom Ford left Gucci in one of fashion’s biggest break-ups ever, his response was to fall into the arms of a new mistress – Hollywood. One year on, his movie-mogul dreams are still very much alive, but in the meantime he is playing the field. Interview by Sarah Mower
I’m interviewing Tom Ford in bed. It’s six in the morning, and fashion’s most suavely notorious designer is lying naked between pressed white sheets in his 1950s-Moderne Richard Neutra house in the foothills of Beverly Hills.
Tom Ford: ‘I love beauty as a commentary on our times’
He turns on the pillow and groans slightly. Ford is in LA, and I’m several time zones away in London, I should add. Still, even gravel-throated after a sleepless night, he cannot resist setting up a scene. Within four whispered words – ‘Hi, I’m in bed’ – he has already managed to turn this conversation into a potential bout of faux telephone sex. There he goes again. Incorrigible.
What were we talking about? The knowing, teasing, flirtatious, startlingly intimate Tom Ford isn’t lying a-bed because he’s lazing around. Far from it – he’s a self-confessed workaholic. By some estimates, his fortune tops $200 million, made for the most part in the 13 years (aged 28 to 41) in which he and his boss Domenico De Sole transformed Gucci from a bankrupt shell into a multi-brand cash-generating machine.
Famously, it all went wrong for ‘Tom and Dom’ in 2004, when they unexpectedly clashed with PPR, their new owners, and left in a firestorm of drama. ‘I still don’t know why it happened, and I don’t think I’m really over it,’ he says. ‘It was as if my whole life had been ripped out from under me. It was really like a death.’
But now Ford has shot back to visibility with a vengeance – allowing himself a length of leash he couldn’t afford when tethered to the public company that was Gucci Group. Last night, he conspiratorially confides, he was on set directing an ad campaign for his new sunglasses collection. ‘We shot it with porn stars,’ he chuckles. ‘Two men and two women. And we paid them to have sex on set. You don’t see it in the shot, but you feel it. You wait!’ (I’m sure I can.)
This latest incendiary episode (due to break next January) follows the 20-page W magazine photo-story, depicting Ford in various activities with a set of identical-triplet male models and a cast of female sex-dolls, which has just reverberated around the world. In one, he is sandwiched naked – in bed, again – between two dolls in white evening gowns. ‘Did you see me? I unfold three times!’ Hard to believe, but this story was his main way of getting over the news that he now has a deal with Estée Lauder – which, though undoubtedly America’s most prestigious cosmetics company, is one that has managed to exist for almost 60 years without a whiff of controversy.
The W photographs – a study in social satire and sophisticated repulsion along the lines of the late Helmut Newton – was his commentary on the state of beauty today. ‘I think it’s always hard to stop and see where we are in the look and aesthetics of things. We’re living in a world of perfection and extremes. Everything is pumped up and cartoon-like. There are no nuances. We’re becoming these plastic creatures. And when you get that plastic, there’s a certain dead quality to it.’
Ford with business partner Domenico De Sole
But hold up there, Tom. Are you not part of this? ‘That’s why I’m in the story!’ he exclaims. ‘I’m a master of beauty, with these weird creatures. I’ve often objectified women in my work, and so I thought I should objectify myself, too. And I do have mixed feelings about it. In our business, we manipulate. We make people feel insecure. I don’t think it’s a good thing to turn into plastic! We have to stay in control, not lose sight of what we look like. Let’s just be careful. There’s a point where you have to stop and think, “Hey! This is all looking a bit creepy.” ‘ (As a sidelight on what those automata – available in the US for £3,000 – say about male sexuality, he offers this: ‘Leave any man alone with one in a room for an hour, and he’d have sex with her.’)
Entering the cosmetics business is, of course, a chance for Ford to make a second fortune. It is part of his masterplan, an intricate jigsaw puzzle of a strategy, put together with De Sole, to leverage the latent power of the Tom Ford name into a brand that will ultimately finance his obsessional ambition to make movies. ‘One of the things I decided this year, after leaving Gucci, and everything that had happened, was that I will only do what I really love,’ he insists. For the moment, that means that womenswear – with its relentless cycle of six-monthly change – is out. ‘I’m avoiding it, the stress of that seasonality.’
The first push will be carried out in alliance with Lauder. To begin with, Ford has revamped Estée Lauder’s classic perfume, Youth Dew, and designed a range of cosmetics to match – all ready for Christmas. ‘Youth Dew meant something to me,’ he says. ‘It was my grandmother’s scent. She wore it till the day she died. When it was invented, it was very sexy. The advertising image was of a nude woman towel-drying herself behind a shower door – it had originally been a bath oil. It was quite provocative. But it had been somewhat in a corner for a while.’
Reinvention of neglected ‘sleeping beauties’ – using powerful marketing – is, of course, exactly what Tom Ford did at Gucci and YSL; it is his area of expertise. He looked at the Youth Dew bottle – a ribbed hourglass-shaped flacon with a grosgrain ribbon and a gold stopper – smelt the fragrance and, like a deft surgeon, gave the lady a full body-lift. ‘I took the bottle, which was the shape of a woman, and made it longer and slimmer – as women are now. And I diluted the fragrance by 50 per cent. It was like maple syrup – a little strong. The heart of it is patchouli, but we have different patchoulis today, less icky. And I changed the colour to amber. So it’s a derivative of the original.’
If that seems like a tame project for such a grand provocateur, there’s something much bigger in the pipeline. Next autumn, he will launch a stand-alone Tom Ford beauty range, manufactured and distributed by Lauder. In spring, there will be the Tom Ford sunglasses collection, manufactured under licence with Marcolin. Following that, there will be an exclusive chain of Tom Ford menswear shops, planned for London, LA, New York and Milan. ‘I’ve had all my clothes made since I left Gucci Group. Suits, shoes, shooting clothes, tennis shorts… but nothing’s ever quite right. So this will be the ultimate luxury store for men.’
Still, the life he has configured for himself now – split between his Mayfair townhouse, Beverly Hills ‘Fade to Black’ film production office, and his ranch in New Mexico – is a far cry from the certainties Ford had mapped out in front of him 18 months ago. Several months before his and De Sole’s contract negotiations with Gucci Group collapsed so catastrophically, I interviewed him on his ranch and at his grandmother’s house in Santa Fe. He strongly hinted at the next step: De Sole wanted to retire, Ford would take on the role of CEO of Gucci Group, delegate design to others – and start making movies on the side. (De Sole himself, after agreeing that Ford was more than capable of doing his job, quipped, ‘I look forward to calling him up from my yacht!’)
Even at the time, the grandiosity of Ford’s ambition sounded unnervingly unrealistic. How could a CEO, however talented, run a group of seven fashion brands and find time to make a movie on the side? Perhaps, I ventured, he was thinking of something small and arty to test the waters? I’ll never forget his incredulous stare when I said that. Standing in his grandmother’s living-room, he threw his arms out wide and declared, ‘No! If I do it, it has to be the biggest and best movie ever!’
The problem was, Ford had no Plan B. When François Pinault, the French billionaire ‘white knight’, completed his agreed takeover of Gucci Group, he preferred to control things his way. Such a thing had never occurred to the mega–successful Ford, who by then was not just a fashion designer but a celebrity equal to Nicole Kidman,
Tom Hanks, Gwyneth Paltrow and all the others he dressed.
Until then, his entire life had always gone according to his rigidly accomplished 10-year plans. His boyfriend, Richard Buckley, the fashion journalist and publisher, told me that on their first date, in New York in the mid-1980s, the young Ford (then a backroom boy at the fashion label Cathy Hardwick) told him that, within 10 years, he would have a fashion house in Europe and make a million. ‘I thought, “Ah, how sweet!” ‘ Buckley remembered. ‘But he did it in nine.’
Moss, legendary photographer Mario Testino and Ford at a London Fashion Week party
So when the crash came, it was on an almost mythic scale: a case of fashion hubris never before witnessed. ‘I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do. I left my office in Grafton Street on April 30 at four or five, came home and took a nap and had a terrible nightmare,’ he remembers. The fall from omnipotence – a state of success in which he had created and directed the seamless illusion of an entire, sybaritic Gucci world, and lived it out – left him incapable of sending his own e-mails (someone else had always done it for him) and experiencing the novelty of doing his own grocery shopping for the first time in years.
Another person, cushioned by wealth and in possession of a ranch on which it is possible to ride from horizon to horizon and never see a soul, might have disappeared into the hills to lick his wounds. Or retired, even. Not Ford: he kept on running. I saw that coming after I had spent a sad afternoon on his Grafton Street couch knocking back vodka and tonics with him in a last interview just before he left Gucci, and felt worried for him.
In his PR’s office, faxes were spewing out copies of newspaper front pages all over the world, reporting his departure. But instead of viewing his legacy with a self-pitying eye, Ford sat there delivering a forensic evaluation of how long his fame would last, how steeply it would depreciate after three months, six months, a year, two years. He had calibrated it precisely, frighteningly.
I have never known a person more driven by the sense of finite time. The psychological consequence of his self-professed control-freakery is that Ford’s ruthless intelligence can’t help running through every story to its very end. It is a characteristic he will make fun of in himself, but even as he has you creased up with laughter at his ridiculous propensity for forethought, he can also chill you to the bone. That happened the time we stood on a mesa at his ranch and he described the ‘fortress’ he was commissioning the Japanese architect Tadao Ando to build on the spot.
Everything is planned, down to a mausoleum for himself and his family. He also said recently that he has even designed his own coffin (minimalist, I’m sure). I cannot pretend to know why Ford should be so conscious of death. It is strange, the way he wears his dark side on his sleeve like that, and then makes a big joke out of it. And at a guess, I would say it also accounts for the carpe diem vision of hedonism which he stamped on Gucci in the 1990s. Sex and Death. They have always gone together nicely.
Perhaps all that also goes part way to explaining what keeps this famous insomniac awake at night. ‘And so,’ he is now saying from his pillow (after two hours’ sleep), ‘when I left, I never really stopped.’ First, he put together a book, Tom Ford, which sealed up and signed off all his work at Gucci in one tome.
Then he went to LA, signed up with CAA (the Creative Artists Agency, which has the other Toms, Cruise and Hanks, on its books) and set up his movie-production company. He is developing several scripts, one of them ‘a book, written in 1982 and set in 18th-century Venice’. Everyone warned Ford that, compared with the frantic speed of fashion he is used to, movie-making is notoriously slow. ‘So far, I agree,’ he laughs. ‘But I’m sure we will start shooting within a year.’
His strategy for navigating into a new way of doing business is honed to a brilliant sharpness by bitter experience. De Sole and he will structure the Tom Ford brand with their own money, financed by income from outside licences, so that – bearing the scars of former wars – they will never need to mess with outside investors again.
Does that make his foray into beauty merely a cynical financial move? If it wasn’t for his almost scary passion for beautifying products, I would almost think so. But I have been around him long enough to know it’s personal: set him talking about beauty products and, because he lives the experience himself, he’s racing away thinking of new angles, categories, ways of selling things. ‘As a consumer, I love beauty,’ he says. ‘I love the ritual of it. Beautifying is the meditative part of getting dressed. When I get ready in the morning – brushing my teeth, putting my drops in, trimming my beard, putting on my cologne – I don’t like to be disturbed. It prepares you for the day, psychologically.’
Being a world-class dandy, immaculately groomed at every moment, his extreme sensitivity to everything connected with physical appearance is inextricably embedded in his constantly whirring brain. He once told me that he can’t have a face-to-face conversation with a woman without analysing her every feature and how to improve them.
Instead of thinking of beauty as a separate category from fashion – and design in general – he perceives it as part of a much bigger social continuum. ‘I love beauty as a commentary on our times, too. You can tell everything from what we want hair and make-up to look like. Is it set? Is it soft? Powerful? Feminine? Look at Angelina Jolie, the beauty of now, with her gigantic lips and breasts: she looks like a computer-generated Lara Croft!’
All traces of sleepiness have disappeared from his voice by now. ‘And everything else is pumped-up, too,’ he shouts excitedly. ‘Cars: SUVs, gigantic, inflated and fat! Electronics: fat, round, pumped-up stereos! There’s a graphic look to every period. There has never been a dividing line. Look at the 1950s: doe-eyed make-up with flicked-up eyeliner, tail fins on cars, conical bras, atomic bombs! Look at the 1920s: sleepy vaselined eyes, Orientalism, opium, the loucheness of it!’
Just listening to him, whole Fordian visual panoramas, built on faces, costumes, architecture, place and mood, come floating down the line from LA. Which, of course, connects us right back to what Tom Ford is about to do next – to what he actually wants most out of life. This is a man who can see a world in the way a girl does her eyeliner. To round things off, I think he really ought to get it all off his hairy chest by making a movie. I don’t doubt it will look amazing, but what with his interest in porn, his awareness of the corruptibility of human flesh – not to mention its nature – I shudder to think what it’s going to be about.