After a nasty split from Gucci, the fashion house he turned into a super-brand, Tom Ford has made a film starring Julianne Moore. And no, he says, it won’t be all about sex.
Not so long ago, when Tom Ford was planning his funeral — he is very meticulous about everything — he thought that he might like his ’n’ his matching sarcophagi for him and his partner of 23 years, the fashion journalist Richard Buckley. So he asked the architect of his Santa Fe house to draw up some plans. But now he’s thinking maybe no to the sarcophagi and that a more stylish solution might be “simply evaporating”. . .
Anyway, the point is, he’s very comfortable talking about death, which brings us neatly — if I may say so — to all the people who rushed to read the Last Rites over his career after his departure four years ago from that which, I assumed, must not be mentioned (Gucci).“You can imagine what it was like when I left,” he says,seeming totally at ease with the subject. “Even though I could see that the writing was on the wall a good two years before I went. I was suddenly negotiating my contract with people I didn’t know [the billionaire François Pinault’s luxury holding company PPR bought Gucci in 1999]. I had nothing lined up. Literally nothing. You don’t when you’re working on 16 collections a year. It was like a divorce. I was bereft. But I’ve done a lot of work on myself and I’m through it.”
Still, it seems tactless to return to Gucci as though it still defines him. Since leaving he has launched perfumes, eyewear and, two years ago, an exceedingly upscale menswear line that he introduced from an exceedingly upscale wood-panelled store on Madison Avenue. He’s also just finished editing his first feature film, A Single Man, with Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode and Nicholas Hoult, late of Skins, performing a screenplay that Ford himself adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel.
It’s because of the latest perfume, Bois Maroccain, that we’re here in the personal shopping salon at Selfridges in London, as the crowds gather down on the ground floor waiting for him to appear and sign their bottles.
Perhaps he’ll never break completely free from the Gucci legacy. The mass hysteria that his departure provoked in fashion ranks — where Ford’s good-natured, pheromone-sozzled image and imagery had turned him into a sort of George Clooney figurehead — lead, about two years later, to quite a backlash.
He was vilified for having fired the Yves Saint Laurent creative director Alber Elbaz (who is now a star at Lanvin) when the Gucci group bought it in 2000, and installing himself in the position. “But the board weren’t going to approve the sale unless I was at the helm,” he says now.
Then two years ago, when Ford launched his cherished Tom Ford Menswear line, The New York Times slated it and the new store concept — as in, pelted it with boulders the size of meteorites. “You have to laugh,” wrote Horacio Silva. “An unintentionally hilarious parody of a pretentious Madison Avenue boutique, the store reeks of arriviste Anglophile posturing dressed up as gentlemanly refinement.”
Naturally, Ford looks incredulous when I ask him what it was like living through the backlash that began to loom over any conversation about him approximately two years after he left Gucci. “There was a backlash?” he asks innocently. It’s almost plausible, too. This is a man who could sell merkins to a nunnery — and let’s face it, he made a pretty good fist of doing just that in those infamous Gucci ads where the model’s, um, nether topiary was shaved into a G. I should say at this point that Ford’s shirt is unbuttoned only four buttons instead of the usual five, there is a notable lack of prominent chest hair and all in all, he looks comparatively chaste and butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth.
Even so, the “What backlash?” shtick isn’t entirely convincing. When I saw him at a party two years ago he launched into an extended, if characteristically amusing rant about certain fashion journalists and their inability to “get” him. “True. And I wasn’t even drunk.”
Thing is, he reads everything. Not just Isherwood and Sartre, but every review. And they niggle him. And it niggles him that they niggle him. Or it did. “I had a mid-life crisis for about seven years,” he says. He’s almost 48 now and wearing ridiculously well. Actually, not ridiculously: the Botox is down to a minimum and although he says he’s 5lb overweight (he ate a lot of doughnuts during filming) he looks uber Tom Fordish. But then his mother, Shirley, in her 70s, is still feisty and now has a husband who is 15 years her junior. “She got sick of her husbands dying on her.”
Ford’s business model since leaving Gucci, while unconventional, is a clever one. As he puts it, he worked backwards. “Of course I knew that there were people laughing and saying ha-ha look, he’s doing eyewear now and he used to be the big ‘I am’, but I knew where I was going and it didn’t bother me.”
Most designers slog away building their own brands and then, when their name has sufficient traction in the marketplace, broker lucrative licensing deals so that they can finally make some serious money. Ford, despite never putting his name over the door at Gucci, already had the name. Plus he’s done what few dare — trespassed from fashion into film. That’s brave. Or insane, as he knows. He told Moore, whom he’s dressed for years, that she was sweet do his film. “And she said, ‘I’m not doing it to be sweet. I like the script’. I’m sure she called her agent though to check it wouldn’t be career death.”
Well, the Last Rites-readers should see the hoards of customers who have queued patiently in Selfridges, some for hours, to see him. The men are dressed identically to their hero — black suits with big shoulders, slim waists and narrow sleeves, crisp shirts unbuttoned enough to invite comment and stares, careful lack of tie (they give Ford headaches). His bodyguards and the male models, with their obligatory Fordian deep side partings, are all in black. But so are the women. They’re wearing heels, too — in the middle of a Tube strike.
It would be easy to laugh at the entourage and the blacked-out Bentley in which I saw Ford arrive. I confess that I did have a little fond chuckle, especially when he told me about the lecture he delivered two years ago to his fellow luxury purveyors on the importance of green issues. He is a star in a (fashion) world of diminishing figures. He’s clever and witty and he always laughs at himself. Yes, he got on his private plane after the conference. “But look, if they did hybrid Bentleys I’d be the first to get one.”
The fact that men still want to dress like him and women wish he was still making clothes for them suggests that, verily, the cult of Ford lives on. So much so that his one perfume counter in Selfridges generated £1.5 million last year, more than any other perfume counter in the department store. He hasn’t even been around to plug the perfumes lately, having been sequestered away in Los Angeles since October making A Single Man.
Mind you, placing the bottle of Tom Ford for Men scent between a pair of breasts in the ad campaign probably didn’t hurt sales. It always comes back to sex with Ford. “No it doesn’t,” he says, looking just a teeny bit injured (although under the subtle lighting of the personal shopping salon, it’s hard to be certain). What about the pictures of him in Out magazine, showing him naked in a shower with a bevy of other buff male bodies? “Probably shouldn’t have done those,” he says. Or the Vanity Fair cover that he art directed, of him sandwiched between a naked Scarlett Johansson and a naked Keira Knightley?
“How else are you going to sell perfume to heterosexual men?” he asks, sweetly side-stepping. “Put the bottle where they want to look.” He sighs. “I hate talking about sex.” (News to me. He’s a latter-day compendium of smart-aleck aphorisms on everything from genitalia to how we are all on a sliding, shifting scale of gender bias). “Thing is, people look much better naked. They’re all the same colour and they can’t screw up. You see someone at the gym and they look great. Then they put on their clothes.”
There is precious little overt sex in A Single Man, the film of which we must not talk, but do anyway. Ford would like to make a film every three years. It’s very compatible with designing, as he sees it, because it’s so slow. “And a lot of the processes are the same.” Years of directing ad campaigns and styling shows meant that he knew how to frame a picture. And his years as an actor (“a terrible one. I got about as far as TV commercials”) helped him to understand characterisation. How he resisted interfering with the costumes — it’s set in 1962, for God’s sake — I’ll never know, but he promises that he left Arianne Phillips, the Oscar-nominated costume designer of Walk the Line, to get on with it. Colin Firth is wearing Tom Ford menswear, however. At a minimum of £3,000 for a suit, Firth presumably enjoyed every moment.
Now that Ford is back in London, where his design team is based, he’ll be concentrating on his designer wear for the next year. “What I’m doing with the menswear is the opposite of what we did at Gucci, where we democratised luxury. But it stops being luxury when it’s available in every airport. This is about the highest quality, incremental changes each season and the best service.”
It seems to be on an upwards trajectory, notwithstanding the current economics. One Brit recently ordered 23 suits from the Madison Avenue store and there are more Tom Ford for Men stores popping up around the world like floating champagne corks.
There are still those pesky reviews, however. “Do you know a journalist from L’Official asked me this morning why I thought I had had such a lack of success at YSL and I said, ‘Where did this myth about lack of success at YSL start?’ We were doubling sales each season. Any losses were calculated because we were opening up stores all over the world.” Oh, well. He says the only validation that counts now is his own — and Richard’s. “Unfortunately, Richard hardly ever has anything nice to say about my work. It’s my mother all over again. In psychoanalytic terms, it’s called the horrible familiar.”
He’ll see a lot of horrible familiars in the front row if and when he does womenswear, I say. (Obviously he is going to do womenswear, but he’s being uncharacteristically coy about it). “Hah, that’s just it. I won’t be doing shows. Ever. Again,” he says triumphantly. “I don’t want my designs to be shaped by journalists any more. Do you know why I launched this menswear line? Because I couldn’t find anything to wear. That whole obsession with youth, with new, new, new — it’s giving us clothes no one can wear. As for the business model that I followed at Gucci — the new this, the It that, the let’s get it on a celebrity and shoot her in front of a logo, it was getting old then. Now it’s really old.”
The question is, I suppose, why, with so much critical and commercial success, does he care so much about negative reviews — and why, if they make his stomach churn, as he says they did when he was designing Gucci and YSL, is he launching himself at the mercy of film critics ? “Some things you do for money. Others you do because you have to. It was only when I left Gucci that I realised how much I loved creating and having a forum for my ideas.”
I think too, that although he says breezily, “I’m not the most creative designer, I’m intuitive,” it probably irks him that others sometimes take him at his word. At Gucci and YSL, he was at times, a great designer, and never less than interesting. Don’t underestimate intuition either — it enabled him to deliver the right look at the right time for a decade. When he arrived at Gucci, the company was barely able to scrape together the cash for a new photocopier; by the time he left, it was one of the most critically and commercially successful labels of the Nineties. But for Ford, whether it’s perfumes, clothes, sex-drenched ads or films about existential crises, he still feels that he has something to prove.
Source: Women.timesonline.co.uk Written by: Lisa Armstrong