Tom Ford didn’t intend to take his pants off, but the guy just can’t help himself. “When I saw how I looked in a dressing gown in the showers with the guys it didn’t look right,” recalls the designer of the cover shoot he did for Out. “It was like, Why would I be in the shower with those guys popping my towel in a dressing gown? so I just said, ‘We have to reshoot this and I have to get in there with them, because otherwise it’s not right.’” His lips purse into a small, compressed smile that suggests that it wouldn’t be the first time in his career that a shot needed sexing up. For years sex and Tom Ford have been synonymous, a combination of his blistering good looks, his notorious ad campaigns (his latest shows his new fragrance nestling in a woman’s shaved crotch), and the nonchalant ease with which he addresses it. “Sex is just second nature with me,” he explains. “It’s not like an obsession or anything.”
Maybe not an obsession, but definitely a guiding principle. He recalls strolling along the beach in St. Barts stark naked early in his career and sailing right past Vogue editor Anna Wintour. “I said, ‘Hey Anna,’ and then thought, Hmm, maybe I ought to start putting on my clothes. That was about the time his star was beginning to rise, and although he doesn’t do nude beaches any more (“As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized a tan line makes your butt look higher”) he clearly loves the human body, just not in a Diane Arbus kind of way. For Ford, the body is a canvas on which to project a fantasy: his. This can be disconcerting. You imagine that when he looks at you he is seeing not who you are, but who you could be, given the right nips and tucks. His story of meeting the artist Georgia O’Keeffe in Santa Fe, N.M., when he was 12 is instructive: “I was like, What’s wrong with her? She’s wrinkly; she doesn’t have any makeup on. Why doesn’t she paint her fingernails?”
Years later, the man who made over the American woman — painted fingernails, makeup, and all — returned to the O’Keeffe estate after her death to see if he could buy a sculpture by Alexander Calder that she’d owned and that he’d seen in a book as a 10-year-old. “Like everyone from my generation, when I made enough money to start buying art, I bought iconic things that meant something to me as a child,” he says. These days he’s grown bolder, willing to take bets on artists of his generation, but then it’s his generation that is now in the driving seat. At 46, Tom Ford is no longer using older, more established names—Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci — to help make his own. Having opened a luxury menswear store on New York’s Madison Avenue earlier this year, he plans a rapid expansion, with 14 more outlets around the world scheduled to begin opening in 2008. Does flying solo, after so many years as a copilot, give him sleepless nights? Of course, he says — but not that many. “I think sometimes I look so pulled together people think things are effortless for me, and they’re not,” he says. “I spend an enormous amount of energy and time thinking and worrying about all these things so they can appear effortless. It’s a constant fight to stay on top or get back on top, and I like to win, and I like to be successful, which is why I like the boxing motif for this story. Every day you go to work is a fight, and you have to be ready for it.”
For a fighter, he has impeccable control. He says a lot during our interview, but only as much as you feel he wants to give, mindful of how his words will read in print, or whether they’ll come back to haunt him. He likes to differentiate between Tom Ford “the product” and Tom Ford “the human,” about whom he says, “I’m extremely private.” His 20-year-plus relationship with former Vogue Hommes International editor Richard Buckley, 14 years his senior, suggests that his playboy demeanor is strictly for show. When he talks about their life together, it sounds as domestic and cozy as an episode of The Honeymooners: “He’s my family now — it’s different than it was when we first met, and why would I throw that away?” They’ve even designed sarcophagi in which to be buried “because we’re all going to die, so why not have fun with that? Why just be in a dull casket when you can be in a fabulous rosewood-and-granite sarcophagus in the middle of New Mexico?” Why, indeed.
Although not afraid of death — “I can totally imagine the world without me; I’m so unimportant” — Ford thinks a lot about the futility of life. He recently emerged from a midlife crisis that engulfed him on his 40th birthday. “All of a sudden I realized that 40 years had gone by and I had everything that I ever wanted, and yet I wasn’t completely, deeply inside, happy or satisfied. It was like, Is that all there is? I had success early, and I had someone I loved already in my life, and dogs and family and houses and things, and yet I felt a little empty and I’ve just recently come out of that. It’s a process. There’s a great quote comparing midlife to reaching the top of the ladder only to realize that you’ve had it against the wrong wall. It wasn’t so much about changing my outer life; it was a question of changing my inner life and living in the present.”
He concedes that in the wake of leaving Gucci he floundered for a new purpose, anxious that his old friends would melt away and that he’d be seen as yesterday’s man. “My life had been Gucci, and Gucci had been my life. I was working 24 hours a day right to the last day, and then — boom — my calendar was blank, like, forever, and I thought, What the fuck am I going to do? What the fuck am I going to do? It was a very hard transition.” Though he’d never imagined himself doing his own thing, he now recognizes that it was a natural progression. A brief stint in Hollywood in between has led to a promising movie project — he wrote the script and will produce it — but he worries he may jinx it with too much loose talk “because God knows it may never get made, and someone will write in [the New York Post’s] Page Six, ‘Tom Ford’s movie career fails…’ ”
Living in the present also happens to be at the core of his business strategy. A pragmatic man, Ford is in menswear because it’s less fickle, more reliable, than women’s fashion. “I didn’t want to do it the same way again,” he says. “I’ve done 16 collections a year and eight runway shows a year, where you constantly have to reinvent the wheel: the new shoe, the new bag, the new thing, and it’s so disposable. This is a different business, it’s a slower business, it’s less about fashion and more about quality, so I can have silver hair and still be doing what I’m doing and have it all make sense.” Although he doesn’t rule out introducing women’s wear, it would have to be strictly on his terms. “I do think someone needs to reinvent the way that women’s fashion works, whether I choose to do that in two or three years or not. I’m just afraid that once I stick my toe in that pond I’ll be sucked up and the next 30 years will whiz by and I’ll just have a bunch of dresses hanging in a museum, and I won’t have had time to have really lived.”
Who is likely to shop at the Tom Ford store, where a money clip might set you back a few thou and a top hat sits in a display case without apparent irony? When I walked around the store’s elegant dressing rooms I couldn’t help thinking of Tyler Brûlé, the jet-setting founder of Wallpaper magazine and Monocle, who is forever searching for the perfect this, the ultimate that, and who might well want a shirt in all 340 colors the store offers. (Who knew there were so many?). Ford describes the typical buyer as a man much like himself, although one suspects his eye is really on the booming Asian market. “I was in Beijing and Hong Kong and Shanghai in April looking at store locations, and I wish every American could go and stand on the banks of the Yangtze River in Shanghai and look across at the skyline, which is something from a science fiction movie. You feel so humble: Whoa, this is where it’s happening; this is the future. You get a completely different perspective of America there than we do here.”
Although he got into trouble at the time of the Iraq invasion for telling an Italian newspaper he was embarrassed to be American, Ford doesn’t disguise his despair over the Bush administration. A donor to Barack Obama’s campaign, he says he’ll probably vote for Hillary Clinton when it comes down to it. “In order to get things done in our system, whether we like it or not, you need to know how to operate in the system, and I think she’s quite an expert at that, and I think her heart is in the right place, I think her values are the right ones, and the more I’ve watched and thought, for me, I think it’s Hillary.”
Wary of identity politics — “I don’t feel defined or restricted by my sexuality” — he is nevertheless scathing about the political debate over same-sex marriage. He and Buckley even toyed with the idea of applying for British citizenship so they could register for a civil union there. “I love being an American, but it’s sick that if I died tomorrow, 50% of my property would go to the government and the leftovers would go to Richard, whereas if we were a heterosexual couple, that wouldn’t happen.”
Ford doesn’t take himself seriously enough to expect anyone else to, but his transgressive ad campaigns have a clear political subtext: We need to get over our sexual hang-ups. Like other designers of his generation, he extols the ’70s as a time of sexual license and liberation. “I remember when it was in vogue to have gay friends or to be at Studio 54 while two guys were fucking — fucking — right there in front of you, and there’s princess so-and-so smoking a cigarette and having a cocktail, and it was all, like, ‘I’m cool, I’m liberal, that’s OK, that’s great.’” He shrugs off critics who claim he objectifies women by pointing out that he’s an equal opportunity objectifier; he’d be the first to run more penises in his ads if he could get away with it. Certainly, the ease with which he interacted with the models for Out’s boxing-inspired shoot reflected a man who was supremely comfortable around other men’s bodies. “I complimented their cocks in the shower,” he recalls. “I told one guy, ‘Your cock is really good; mine is usually bigger than this,’ and he said, ‘Oh, it’s just the water — go stand under the shower.’”
This seems so breathtakingly audacious — imagine it tripping off the tongue of any other designer — that you wait a split second for the punch line or the wink that says “just kidding,” only to realize that Tom Ford, human and product both, is at once completely serious and utterly blasé. “If you behave that way and you respect people, I think they get it,” he says. “They sense from me that I’m not going to give one of them a blow job.” He shrugs. “I just don’t do that.”
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