With a kiss for Jennifer Lopez and an arm round Naomi Watts, Tom Ford was back in his natural habitat: the limelight.

Two and a half years after leaving Gucci Group and his starring role, the designer has rekindled the fashion flame. Or, more precisely, he has donned sexy 1970s-inspired shades and splashed on his new Black Orchid fragrance, at least until his men’s store opens on Madison Avenue next spring.

Ford is the first designer to have actively planned brand-building from the neck down. Instead of celebrating his name in fashion and then adding on accessories and fragrance, he has turned that 20th-century tradition on its head, by first forging a license agreement with Estée Lauder for beauty and fragrances, then with Italy’s Marcolin for eyeglasses and a menswear line with Ermenegildo Zegna.

“It’s by design for two reasons,” says Ford. “I realized that I wanted to come back [to fashion] but I was a little shell- shocked – and I didn’t know how far back.”

On a personal level, he made a vow that he would not do women’s fashion until he had made his first movie, a project that he had hoped Hollywood would greet with open arms. But he received only dubious movie proposals from people who had seen his infamous ads he describes as “shaving a ‘G’ in a girl’s pubic hair.”

“I was a little naïve – coming from an industry where I could do anything I wanted,” says Ford, who is finally realizing his dream with a “tight, independent film” he starts shooting in July.

That will be after the launch of his self- funded New York menswear store, one of a trio with London and Milan that will carry everything from luggage and jewelry to tailoring and tuxedos. He is being helped and encouraged by Domenico De Sole, his teammate at Gucci.

Ford is wearing a pinstripe suit with sharp shoulders, a fitted waist and the slightly louche air of a British gentleman morphing into a European roué. He would surely have been wearing the sculpted sunglasses, but for the low lighting at the Carlyle Hotel – his home- away-from-home from his residences in London, Los Angeles and Santa Fe.

“I have always loved the night – I’m not sure why, but as a kid I was fascinated by vampires,” says Ford. “My natural biorhythm is to sleep until 5 p.m. and then have a cocktail.”

His penchant for the dark included last week’s late-night party at Rockefeller Center to launch “Black Orchid.”

He has a passion for orchids, even to the extent of “building greenhouses in New Mexico” with his partner, Richard Buckley. The fragrance was created by tracking down – via a Swiss orchid expert and a grower in Santa Barbara, California – one of four existing black orchids. Experts then caught the “head space” of the single flower that has so far bloomed and created the rich scent that he is himself wearing. The ribbed black Lalique glass bottle has been captured by the lens of the legendary photographer Irving Penn.

“It has a slightly old-fashioned glamour,” says Ford. “My woman is a hybrid – she is a hothouse plant – not a gardenia, a daisy or a rose.” Next spring he will bring out for “fragrance connoisseurs” 12 unisex fragrances with heady scents and headier price tags.

The essence of Ford’s Gucci was a raw sexuality with a decadent aura that invaded the grungy early 1990s and re- launched the brand.

Ford says he now prefers to talk about “sensuality,” although he himself exudes a stagy glamour. (“Well I did go to acting school.” he says, “Even if I did ads and TV sitcoms.”)

He calls the Marcolin eyeglasses, for which he carried off an ACE award from the Accessories Council of New York last week, a product “that can convey everything about a particular era, like the tail fins on a car.” The sophisticated collection has a hint of the 1970s pimp that was always Ford’s signature.

How easy has it been to get over Gucci and start afresh?

Ford describes it as “like a death or a divorce.” And the wounds may not yet have healed. When he spotted the Texan socialite Lynn Wyatt last week in a golden Gucci pantsuit, Ford lost his cool, refusing to be photographed with his former friend in front of dinner guests, who included the former president Bill Clinton on his 60th birthday tour.

“Can you imagine that man – what he must have suffered – the depression, the despair,” Ford said later, imagining Clinton’s post-presidential experience after leaving the world stage at a young age. The designer might have been describing himself.

“I was probably speaking anecdotally in my small way,” said Ford. “I was depressed. I wallowed in self-pity. I drank way too much, although that happened while I was still at Gucci, living in London where everyone consumes quantities of liquor.

“I had therapy for the first time in my life and that helped me to realize that the greatest pleasure in my life comes from making, building and creating things. It is the process that I love.”

Ford is now concentrating on his flagship store in a building with the formal elegance of his favored decade, the 1930s. It can be no coincidence that he has picked a site at East 70th Street almost opposite Gucci, with Yves Saint Laurent (his other former day job) in part of the building and with Ralph Lauren on the next block.

Ford’s strategy in creating luxury menswear, rich in quality, fabric, cut and details, is based on the fact that “Giorgio Armani and Ralph [Lauren] have both dominated but they are both 74 years old – and who is behind them?” Ford, at 45, believes that he has “something new to say.”

Yet his problem is that he gave his powerful and particular persona to Gucci. That brand may be changing, but, significantly, two almost identical invitations arrived on fashionistas’ desks last week: both square, black and shiny with insets of gold. One was celebrating a new Gucci book being released on Wednesday; the other was inviting guests to the Black Orchid launch on Thursday. What was the difference? One was for the 85th birthday of a two- billion-dollar brand; the other was, even accounting for Ford’s proven talent and name recognition, a start-up.

“I feel confident, but I feel fear – and I think that anyone who isn’t afraid is a fool,” says Ford of his new venture. “Nothing is ever certain – until the doors open to the store and the cash registers keep ringing. And I have never worked so hard in my life.”

By Suzy Menkes

Source: International Herald Tribune

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