He turned Gucci from a dying fashion house into a billion-dollar brand, the mega-rich love his own label and Daniel Craig has asked him to dress 007. How does Tom Ford pull it off? Hadley Freeman asks him
How long should you wait before asking if someone’s had Botox? This was just one of several questions that crossed my mind when menswear designer Tom Ford, 47, very handsome if suspiciously unlined of face, arrived for lunch in Beverly Hills on a bright Monday afternoon. (Other mental queries included, were those glinting chest hairs, visible thanks to the almost half-unbuttoned shirt, specially oiled for this occasion?) It felt a little intrusive to ask a man about his medical procedures before he’d even had his iced tea. So I waited until he finished his drink.
“I haven’t had any plastic surgery – despite what people think, this is my nose,” Ford replied, as smooth as his face. “I have had Restylane and Botox, but I don’t think of that as plastic surgery any more. It’s true I can’t really frown, but I can move my eyebrows, so…”
As well as designing and expanding his eponymous menswear line and getting ready for his first foray into film directing, Ford has been busy this year designing suits for Daniel Craig in the soon-to-be-released James Bond film Quantum Of Solace. But all this multitasking has not muted the man. During the 90s, when Ford rescued Gucci – shepherding it from near bankruptcy when he arrived in 1994 to fashion monolith status, with annual sales of more than $3bn, when he left 10 years later – he was credited with, as one fashion critic put it, “bringing sex back”. His overtly sexy clothes – LBDs and tight trousers for all aspiring Linda Fiorentinos – brought blatant, confident sexuality back after an era dominated by grunge.
Ford, who has been with his partner, former fashion editor Richard Buckley, for 23 years, revelled in his role as the King of Sex, obliging journalists with deliberately provocative comments and commissioning an infamous ad that featured a model’s pubic hair shaved into the Gucci logo.
A decade on, he has moved away from the high-octane glamour he brought to Gucci and later Yves Saint Laurent (for four years he designed for both, making him arguably the most powerful designer in the world). Instead, his own menswear line, which he started in 2006, is classic and more mature. He has rejected the fashion merry-go-round and trend-chasing that may have left him briefly “burned out” but also made him very wealthy (when he left Gucci and YSL in 2004 he allegedly had £90m). If a man wants to know how it feels to wear, and buy, couture, he can now go to Tom Ford: this is a label where five-figure price tags are the norm. Yet Ford is a far cry from a traditional Savile Row tailor. He has multiple homes in multiple countries; he hangs out with “lots of actors you’d have heard of”, and he is still happy talking about sex, even if he does claim he is “much less overt than I was”. “Honestly,” he insists at one point, “I never set out to make anything sexy.” At this point he had to apologise for eyeing me up – “Sorry, I keep looking at your body because I like how people’s bodies look”.
If ever there were a designer made to make suits for James Bond, it is surely Ford. Hell, the man even looks like Bond. He first met Daniel Craig through artist Sam Taylor-Wood, “who’s a good friend” (this phrase comes up a lot), “at a party” (as does this). Craig then asked him to make his suits for Quantum Of Solace. “A lot of people think if you wear classic clothes you’re dull. Bond dresses that way, but he does not lead a dull life – not sexually and not in his career,” Ford says, with delightful understatement. “And with Daniel, you have someone who looks classic but leads a very exciting life.”
Ford has been described as “the straightest gay man in the world”. Maybe this refers to his fondness for making appreciative remarks about women’s bodies. Maybe it’s a faintly homophobic comment about his tough business mind, as though a gay man couldn’t possibly do spreadsheets. In any event, if he seems straight, then Graham Norton is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Think Cary Grant in Studio 54 and you have some measure of the man.
But this overlooks his corporate nous. At Gucci, Ford wasn’t just the label’s creative director, he was also the company’s vice-chairman. In between designing the multiple collections each year, he contended with shareholders and corporate affairs. Under him, the company invested cannily in young designers, including Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen. Though Ford insists he takes “absolutely no credit” for the success those three have had since, Ghesquière nearly welled up when I asked about Ford and said the designer “taught me everything”. Ford also bought the then waning Yves Saint Laurent and installed himself as the label’s designer, with similar success.
He is, he says, “innately a fashion designer”, but the business side clearly interests him at least as much as the clothes. He enthusiastically discusses the new global markets (“The next century belongs to China, Russia, Brazil and India”) and flits easily between fashion fabulousness (“Menswear in France does not exist. What do they have? Pink socks? Please”) and business speak about networks and brand identity.
Ford was born in Texas, and grew up in New Mexico and Houston. The son of two realtors, he was a self-described “spoiled child” who went to New York to study art history. He quickly switched to theatrical studies to fulfil his ambition of becoming an actor. He became so successful in commercials – at one point starring in 12 at the same time – that he dropped out of college. “I’m not going to tell you which ones, because I don’t want you to look them up,” he says, but then proceeds to re-enact them, showing the moves one makes when advertising anti-acne cream, shampoo and, to the bemusement of our fellow diners, deodorant. But he soon realised he would never be happy as an actor, mainly because he resented being told what to do. “I did not like having to read a line the way a director told me to when I thought it was stupid. Or not being able to rewrite the line myself.”
While he was a student, he fell in with Andy Warhol’s gang (“It was very easy to meet Andy and get into Studio 54 if you were a cute 17-year-old boy”) and it was then he realised he was gay. He’d had girlfriends in high school, “and was very satisfied, but then it was suddenly like, oh!” he says with an easy shrug. He returned to school and got a degree in architecture, but realised he wanted to focus on fashion and slowly worked his way up the ladder. When he was named creative director of Gucci in 1994, few had heard of him.
Ford credits the instant appeal of the sexed-up Amazonian look he brought to Gucci as it “simply coming at the right time. Fashion in the early 90s was very depressing, after the stock market crash in the 80s, then Aids ravaging the industry. It was time for a change.” It’s hard not to wonder if his embrace of the image was something of a pose. Ford nearly spits out his salad in shock at the suggestion, although he soon relents: “In the mid-90s, when advertising was less overtly sexual, maybe I did it to provoke a little. But there had to be a message. When I shaved the G in the girl’s pubic hair, that was a comment on the ridiculous lengths we’d gone to with branding.” It’s a fair point, but considering Ford was at the forefront of so-called logomania – peaking with the £505 monogrammed Gucci yoga mat – the words “cake”, “having” and “eating” come to mind.
In 2004, Ford was unexpectedly forced out of the Gucci Group after negotiations broke down about his contract with Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, which owns 70% of Gucci. Although he puts an all-for-the-best spin on it now, he was stunned at the time and had “something like a midlife crisis. While I realised I had an identity without Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, my life and work had become so meshed. I’m always trying to make things better, make myself better, and I had a sudden panic of, well, who am I?” Ford took three months off, quickly realised he hated not working and returned to plan his own label.
Part of the problem was that Ford had so embodied his brands: he was frequently photographed at parties wearing Gucci and played the sexual provocateur role. “I actually hate being in the spotlight, but no one ever believes me,” he insists, the latter part of that statement at least being true. When Ford edited an issue of Vanity Fair in 2006, he was on the cover, nuzzling a naked Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley. “Honestly, I was not supposed to be on the cover.” He sighs. “That picture was taken when I was showing Rachel McAdams [an actor who left the shoot because she felt “uncomfortable about being naked”] what to do. But, of course, I liked the picture…”
For someone who “hate[s] promoting things with my face”, he must be unhappy much of the time. Adverts for his cologne feature Ford staring straight at the camera. “I understand that I have a certain look that can be used to my advantage. I know the power of that when I walk into a room and talk to people, and I can use it as an advertising tool. Now I am actually selling me, my face, my thoughts. So I am my guy,” he says.
When he launched his label in 2006, it looked like self-indulgent folly to some. Why would someone with such a talent for giving mass appeal to luxury lines run into the narrow niche of, to use Ford’s favourite word, exclusivity? Now, however, when most designers are worrying about the economic downturn, Ford’s business model looks downright prescient. It’s not that he believes the nonsense touted in many fashion magazines that the best form of economising is to buy expensive things because they are “investments”. Instead, it’s that the customers Ford has targeted are people who won’t be affected by a recession or, if they are,”they’re buying fewer Warhols but still buying suits”. Currently there are stores only in New York and Milan, but by this time next year there will be 16 more.
If Ford defined a new image of women in the 90s, what does the success of his label, with its $17,000 jackets and $4,000 blazers, say about 21st-century men? Well, it certainly says something economically. As Ford puts it, “Because of the increase of wealth in this world, it is possible to have a new business model where you can reach a very healthy scale of business catering only to a smaller percentage of people – people with, let’s be real, a lot of money.”
Ford admits the one thing he missed when he left Gucci was “not having a voice in popular culture”. Surely, by making his brand so expensive, his influence is somewhat limited? He argues that it’s not necessarily the clothes themselves that reflect culture, but the whole concept of the brand. “I think people are sick of trends changing every six months – not because we’re tired of them, but just for the sake of change. There is so much junk in the world: junk TV, junk movies, all those junk magazines with the same people on the cover. Our clothes are about quality and making the man’s body look good, which is not something that a lot of menswear designers think about any more.”
Ford, a vocal Obama supporter, ties this proliferation of junk and dumbed-down culture to the current state of US politics: “We’ve been in a downward spiral of culture in America for a while. So we’ve created an ignorance, and I’m just hoping there are more people who [will vote in the US election who] are enlightened than not. I don’t mean it to sound arrogant that I call it enlightened: it’s just an awareness of the outside world and of the true meaning of religion and not the meaning that has been pushed by the religious right, which is really twisted,” he says. When Bush invaded Iraq, Ford told a journalist he was “ashamed to be an American”, a comment that got him a lot of flak but of which he is “still very proud… I genuinely believe that with Obama we have a chance to undo some of the terrible damage we did under the Bush administration. America is in the position that Britain was a century ago: we will no longer be the economic leader in the world but, with Obama, we can become the moral leader again.”
Does he worry about McCain and Palin’s anti-gay rights stance? “It’s more the mind-set that worries me: anyone who is anti-gay rights shows an intolerance of other humans and their needs, so what worries me more is how that mind-set would filter into other issues.”
Ford and Buckley have been in a happy, stable relationship for almost a quarter of a century, “and it’s been a very nice life”. They are not planning to marry, simply because, Ford says, suddenly becoming very passionate, gay marriage is still not recognised by the US government. “Even though the California government recognises it, if I died tomorrow my estate would be taxed as if I were single by the federal government. That is not right! Until that changes, gay marriage is just a symbol.”
Before meeting Ford in LA, I went to his store in New York. “Obsessively detailed” doesn’t begin to describe this giant luxurious uptown temple. Put it this way: there is a man who just looks after the bonsai trees. “Absolutely. Each tree goes to the countryside every seven days for a month to get some sun,” Ford says proudly. But the store was packed. Yes, some were window-shoppers, but there was one man ordering his winter wardrobe and another getting a $7,500 suit. The obsessive detail and bonsai trees seem to be working. “I probably do have an obsessive personality, but striving for perfection has served me well,” Ford says.
It is an attitude he also applies to himself. Ford, who once said he has been on a diet since he was 13, spends “a lot of time looking after myself”. He plays tennis at least three times a week; he does Pilates twice a week; he hikes; he swims; he rides horses on his ranch in Santa Fe; he skis; he watches what he eats and he tries not to drink too much, despite “loving it”.
When we leave, he, ever the gentleman, insists I walk in front and we march out together, him complimenting me on my outfit. It’s only when we get to the door and I turn to say goodbye that I see he has put on his sunglasses specifically for the walk past all the gawking fellow customers and assumed the stern “I’m a celebrity, don’t look at me but actually please do” expression familiar from photos of him on the red carpet. When one is selling a perfect image of oneself, there is no time off.
Source: Hadley Freeman, The Guardian, Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto, Getty