OFFICIALLY, the rose garden belongs to Richard Buckley, Tom Ford’s husband. It’s the product of the only sort of deal that Ford—among the shrewdest businessmen in the history of fashion—would ever make, one whose terms were highly favorable to himself: Buckley could have his roses, and in exchange, Ford got to make every other decision on their new house in the Holmby Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, which for more than half a century had belonged to Betsy Bloomingdale. Ford does not cede control willingly. “I can’t help but assert myself,” he says. “That probably makes me very difficult to live with.” He blames his Virgo nature: precise, methodical, relentlessly observant, playfully naughty if he trusts you. (The designer Stella McCartney, one of his closest friends and another Virgo, says that any understanding of Ford and of their friendship begins with this astrological detail. The stylist Carine Roitfeld, his longest creative collaborator and another Virgo, concurs. So might have his late friend Karl Lagerfeld, a Virgo, too.)
On a warm evening in June, the flowers are in abundant bloom. Buckley, a writer and Ford’s partner of more than 30 years, consulted a rosarian in Santa Barbara who had helped Oprah Winfrey and Barbra Streisand with their roses. They excavated six feet and welcomed 10,000 earthworms, to the giddy delight of Jack, Ford and Buckley’s son, who turns seven in September. Ford has a penchant for orchids—flowers of heat and dark—but in fact it was he who arrayed the garden in a perfectly gradated spectrum, the way some obsessives organize their books or their apps. Red roses, which he can’t abide, crouch in the back. A few ambitious shrubs stand taller than the others, balancing on stakes. The asymmetry troubles him; symmetry is very important. It is not surprising to learn that his favorite rose, Koko Loko, is beige.
“Beauty gives me great joy, but it also gives me great sadness,” Ford explains once we’ve returned to the living room. We sit so that I can see mainly the right side of his face—the side you will always see in pictures. He says that he has come to think of himself as an image, a product, and over time you learn how to display the product at its most favorable angle. Kate Moss will give you only one side, he says. “When I see the rose, and I smell the rose, all I can think of is that the rose is going to wither and be dead. But that’s one of the things that endows it with its beauty. If it were permanent, you wouldn’t even notice it.”
Ford has often spoken of his preoccupation with death, the clock incessantly ticking in his head, and he has also often spoken of his dependence on alcohol, a palliative for his natural shyness. (In May, he celebrated 10 years of sobriety.) Perhaps these two things above all—the morbid cast of his temperament, his brain’s constant thirst for dopamine—explain why, at 58, Ford is busier than he has ever been. The brand he launched only 13 years ago now earns $2 billion in annual retail sales across men’s and women’s ready-to-wear, accessories, fragrance, cosmetics, and eyewear, a legitimate rival to 100-year-old French houses. The writer-director-producer of two films, he has another two in the works. And this spring, he succeeded Diane von Furstenberg as chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, or CFDA.
“I’ve always been somewhat dysthymic, you know,” he says. “I sort of operate at a slightly lower mood. I always felt that if you’re happy, you’re just stupid. I still think happiness doesn’t exist and that if we all didn’t expect it to exist, we would be a lot happier. Drinking and drugs fueled many of my most creative moments, and I had an incredible fear that once I was sober I would not be able to create. It takes some time to get yourself back. We shift our addictions, and now my addiction is work, but it brings me enormous pleasure. And it keeps my mind from the fact that we are this tiny speck of a planet in the middle of an infinite number of other planets, and everything we have, what does any of it mean? Why do we struggle, why do we suffer? If I start down that road, it’s like, guess what? I think I’ll do something really important and choose the new lipstick colors for 2021.”
Ford opened an office in Los Angeles 15 years ago, shortly after he and his business partner, Domenico De Sole, left Gucci Group amid a bitter power struggle with its new owners. At the time, he thought he was walking away from fashion altogether. He and Buckley owned a Richard Neutra house in Bel Air but were splitting their time between the West Coast and homes in London, Paris, and Santa Fe. Architecture has been a more salubrious addiction for Ford, though lately he hopes to do some deaccessioning: The Regent’s Park townhome designed by John Nash is for sale, and so is the Tadao Ando–designed Santa Fe ranch (the ubiquitous rattlesnakes making it unwise with a young son). Earlier this year he bought a Paul Rudolph house on New York’s Upper East Side that had belonged to his hero, Halston—the only house that he would ever want in New York, a city he romanticized in his early 20s but has lately avoided. Holmby Hills started off as a 1927 Mediterranean Villa, but in Bloomingdale’s tenure it was reimagined as high Hollywood Regency, an effusion of chinoiserie wallpapers, dark Chippendale furniture, and green silk swags. Ford has done a deluxe dial-down, unifying its jumble of styles, introducing his favored monochrome palette, and imposing a tactile minimalism of velvet and lacquer, pony and cashmere. “I love people’s houses that are incredibly colorful and patterned,” he says. “But I can’t think in them. Color distracts me.”
Buckley believes that, for a while, at least, Jack had a transformative effect on Ford’s relationship to color. “I think his fall-winter 2013 collection, with its clashing colors and patterns, was a direct result of Jack being in his life,” he says. “The thought of brightly colored plastic toys in his house was nothing Tom wanted to see, but it’s what children like.” Order has since been restored. “Now Jack tells people that his favorite color is black. At the Hammer’s K.A.M.P. in 2017”—an annual family fundraiser at the museum—“one artist asked the children to paint rainbows, and Jack painted arc after arc in black.”
Ford wears a black suit, though he does not want to create the impression that he is overly formal at home. “I often feel like I’m dressed like I work in a shop, but I don’t have the energy, believe it or not, to put together a new look,” he explains. “And I know what works on me. Black, brown, gray. White for tennis. And by the way, these pants have probably not been dry-cleaned in months. I wear the same things day after day, I take them off at night and hang them up on a thing that nobody uses anymore, a valet de nuit. I put my jacket on it, I flip my pants over it, I dump my pockets out, and then the next morning, I get up and Jack’s running around, and I’ve got to get him to school. And so I just put it all back on.”
The house’s grisaille calm is offset by a sense of high stakes. The things that remain are great things, particularly the art: Andy Warhol, Franz Kline, Morris Louis, Lucio Fontana. Apart from a Cindy Sherman photograph and the toys tucked away in Jack’s wing, deep pink roses and wine-dark dahlias bring in the only color, just one or two of each in squat vases—Ford hates large flower arrangements. Critics of his second film, Nocturnal Animals, have asked whether its main character, a gallery owner living in stilted isolation, surrounded by trophies, is a stand-in for Ford himself. The answer is yes.
“Making other people beautiful, the search for perfection, the need to see women look like elegant beings—that drives him,” says his old friend Elizabeth Saltzman, the fashion stylist. “But I think Tom suffers from a lack of freedom. You put yourself in your ad campaigns, and you’re no longer free. Wherever we go, women come up to him and say, Tell me what color lipstick I’m wearing! Smell my neck—what fragrance is it? He’s kind enough to pay attention. I think he adores freedom but has so much less of it. He likes quiet, and he looks for quiet. But this is what happens to people who become larger than life.”
Ford recently took Jack to Disneyland, and he was pleased to notice that, for a change, no one seemed to recognize him. They are likely to return. But on most days he is wrestling with how to raise a child in the rarefied air of his life in Los Angeles, in a milieu of movie stars and moguls. A few days before we met, he opened the refrigerator in the poolhouse, where typically there is a single box of the basic Popsicles that Jack enjoys. On weekends at home, when there is no staff, Ford and his son like to play Monopoly or float in the pool eating Popsicles. They have other simple rituals: Jack likes vanilla wafers because Ford—a vegan who cheats on sweets—likes vanilla wafers, old-fashioned and plain. But now the freezer was stocked with 20 or so boxes of Popsicles, the refrigerator lined in deep rows of Evian and Perrier and Hint Water and Diet Coke. “The idea of a childhood where there’s just an endless supply of Popsicles! It’s tricky,” Ford says. “What I sell is happiness through a new pair of shoes, and of course that’s not really possible. However, we are material creatures. Jack gets a dollar a day. He saves that money, and no matter what he wants, unless it’s Christmas or his birthday, he has to buy it. It’s very cute: Whenever Jack’s done for the day, he has a chair next to his bed where we sit, and I read to him at night, and I’ll go in later to make sure everything’s OK. Tuck him in again. Sitting in the chair will be whatever thing he has made that day, found that day, been into that day, right there so he can see it. I remember doing that as a child with new shoes or whatever it was that I had bought that I was so in love with. Those material things can bring you a sort of happiness.”
The psychologist D. W. Winnicott called these transitional objects—toys, dolls, blankets that make the absence of a parent easier to bear. If Ford has one of his own, it’s the Calder mobile hanging in the living room, the only artwork he could never imagine parting with. It belonged to Georgia O’Keeffe, whom his grandfather introduced him to as a boy outside the La Fonda hotel in Santa Fe. “I thought she was the strangest person I’d ever met in my life,” he recalls. “My grandmother was from Texas, and she wore makeup and always had her hair done. I didn’t understand this creature at all. If we were in Santa Fe, I’d lead you to my bathroom, and right there, next to my mirror where I get dressed, is a Warhol Polaroid of Georgia O’Keeffe. And she is fucking cool-looking, just covered in wrinkles. Hanging over her head in so many pictures of her is that Calder. It retains an emotional excitement for me.”
To McCartney, who met Ford more than 20 years ago, when she was designing Chloé and they were both living in Paris, the physical world around him is a meticulous externalization of his inner life. “When you go to his homes—it’s painful, the level of taste,” she says. “I joke, ‘Did you paint that rock black?’ He’s like, ‘Of course I did.’ The thing about Tom Ford is, he is Tom Ford. He represents a specific woman, and he has an emotional connection to who that woman is. He doesn’t miss any part of that woman. You smell it, you see it, you touch it, you hear it; it’s all around you. At the same time, Tom has a cheeky, childlike quality—there’s a need to rebel from all that. But he is first and foremost a gentleman. When he and Richard asked me to be godparent to Jack, they both got down on bended knee.”
Ford grew up reading his grandmother’s W magazines, from the days when they were still broadsheets. His eyes feasted on images of Babe Paley and Nan Kempner. “I think people today look at Kim Kardashian, and probably it feels the same to them,” he says. “That’s one thing I always like about Baz Luhrmann’s films—this is going to seem like a non sequitur, but it’s not. In Moulin Rouge!, that cancan scene. It’s totally contemporary, the music and the vibe, but it gives the audience the rush that you must have had going into the Moulin Rouge. Or the party scene in The Great Gatsby. I just want to live at that party.” That’s more or less what Ford did when he came to Manhattan and caught the tail end of Studio 54, in 1979, which has remained enormously influential for him. Fifteen years later, he was trying to immerse his own audience in this world when he reanimated Gucci.
“When, in 1994, I sent that hypersexualized Amber Valletta down the runway, it was very new,” he says, “because of AIDS. It was a reintroduction of the hedonism of the ’70s, of that sort of louche, highly sexualized, alcoholically lubricated, touchable, kissable, slip-your-hand-into-the-blouse thing that no one had seen on the runway in a long time. There had been a complete shutdown of sexuality after having sex in an era when you could die from it.” He believes his clothing hasn’t changed much since then, and that has been by design: Figure out what you do well, repeat it so forcefully that it becomes unmistakable. Says Roitfeld, “He’s never going to be a designer who does a jacket with three sleeves. He’s not trendy. He is interested in beauty.” Ford thinks that if you’re lucky, you get about a 10-year window in which what you do leaves people breathless. He knows that it’s been almost 20 years since his own window closed, and yet he has never been bigger.
“I have a very hard time taking compliments, or complimenting myself,” he says, “but I sometimes have to stop and think, Wow: How am I wearing Tom Ford underwear right now, a Tom Ford watch, Tom Ford cuff links, a Tom Ford shirt, a Tom Ford suit, Tom Ford shoes, Tom Ford glasses, Tom Ford moisturizer, Tom Ford bronzer? How is there a Jay-Z song called ‘Tom Ford’? In 12 years, how did that happen?” Ford has been a generous incubator of fashion talent; Alessandro Michele, Christopher Bailey, Stefano Pilati, Vanessa Seward, Clare Waight Keller are all former assistants. He takes great pride in the fact that most of the major European houses have been helmed by someone who once worked for him. As they built up Gucci Group, he and De Sole acquired brands like McCartney and McQueen. “All I had to do was say, Which designers am I jealous of? And then, boom-boom-boom, let’s buy those companies,” he says. “I don’t think I’m jealous of anybody now, and maybe that’s bad. It doesn’t mean that I don’t look at other collections and say, Okay, fuck—that was smart. I’m a commercial designer. My great skill is that I have elevated mass taste: Put five shoes in front of me, and I’ll tell you which is the best seller.”
De Sole, Ford’s cocaptain since the Gucci years, feels that what distinguishes Ford is how much more than merely a designer he is. “He may have a North Star, which is an aesthetic that appeals to a lot of people,” De Sole says, “but he’s also very careful about timing, and he’s an amazing marketer. He loves L.A., but he was an international designer from day one, and that sets him apart from other American designers.” Ford’s Los Angeles is also about moviemaking, though he acknowledges that it has sometimes come at a cost. He feels that his collections suffered during the period when he was promoting Nocturnal Animals. He’s currently working on the screenplay for a sprawling period piece, though he never reveals the details, even to friends. “Hold all that energy,” he says, “produce the damn thing, then unleash it. Domenico is going to shoot me for saying this, because he likes to tell people within the company that I’m never going to make another movie, but that’s not the case.”
Over the course of a decade, Ford has secured the status of a singular Hollywood auteur. His friend Lee Daniels, who was promoting Precious during the season when Ford was promoting his first feature, A Single Man, feels that if it weren’t for industry isolationism, Ford might have had to think about where to position a statuette in his otherwise tchotchke-less houses. “Had he not been Tom Ford, he would have been nominated for an Academy Award for that film,” Daniels says. “People take him seriously now. His moviemaking has the shock of truth. It has a wicked sense of humor. And like most great artists, I think, he’s working through his pain.” Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, are among Ford’s and Buckley’s closest friends in L.A. “A Single Man and Nocturnal Animals were, essentially, low-budget movies without any cheap aesthetics or sacrifices, which takes a strong hand and a soft touch,” Hanks says. “I’ve made a lot of films, but I find myself listening to Tom talk about directing a lot. Of course I still ask him fashion questions like a pilgrim who has climbed a mountain in search of wisdom, and he has imparted the most simple of answers: Button the jacket, as it slims your form. Use the pockets, as a jacket is like a man’s purse—just don’t get bulky. Cap-toed shoes go with everything.”
Ford’s clothing is not for everyone, something he readily admits. “It’s for a woman who wants a waist, who wants to show her figure,” he says. “She’s definitely wearing high heels; she likes a certain sort of sleek glamour. She could be 25 years old; she could be 75 years old.” And while leisurewear and streetwear continue to dominate the market, he wages his long war against the casualization of the culture. “Younger women don’t wear clothes anymore. When I was young, they had day, they had afternoon, they had cocktail, they had evening. Now, whether they’re a New York socialite or a movie star, if they have to go to lunch, they drop the kids off in leggings, then they put on a pair of heels, maybe a jacket. But they want a fucking amazing evening dress, and I have no problem selling $20,000, $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 evening dresses. But the strength of any brand that endures is a singular, very focused vision. If you stay true, your customers stay loyal, and eventually the world will swing back to what you do that resonates.
For a designer who brought an unabashed sexuality to fashion in the wake of grunge, this is a delicate moment. Definitions of glamour and sexiness have evolved since the Gucci girl, and the fact that Ford’s womenswear has yet to quite reach the same level of commercial success as his men’s may reflect this—though he would likely disagree. Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement has forced a reckoning in fashion, and Ford, for one, has had to think carefully about his branding. “I wouldn’t shave a G into somebody’s pubic hair anymore,” he says. “Political correctness has become fashion correctness, and you almost can’t say a thing about anything. But the bottom line is that I like the way women’s bodies look, I like the way men’s bodies look. My own persona remains sex, even if I’ve moved on to a different stage in my reality. The new me is 58 years old, with a six-year-old kid upstairs, a 70-year-old husband. Very different. But we’re human. Sex is a side effect of affection.”
The CFDA, whose mission is to enlarge the profile of American fashion globally, oversees a packed calendar of runway shows and seminars, not to mention the major awards night each spring that honors the best of American design. Having spent three decades working in Europe, Ford is in a unique position to consider the challenges that face the sometimes insular American industry. (As Diane von Furstenberg put it, “When I came in, they needed a mother. Now they need a statesman.”) He has been focused on condensing and decluttering the Fashion Week schedules to five days, and on consolidating the CFDA’s scattered calendar of events to a pair of conferences, one on each coast, where participants can engage the myriad issues facing the future of fashion: inclusivity, technology, sustainability, and globalism, to name a few. This month, he will kick off New York Fashion Week by hosting a dinner for 50 emerging designers, with American and international press invited.
“I want global exposure to the creativity that is in New York,” he says. “Everything is too inward-looking in this country. So American star designers, they leave. Virgil Abloh, where is he? He’s at Vuitton. You go to Paris and you become global. You stay in New York, and you’re in New York.” Ford would also like to open up the CFDA Awards to the international design world, though he realizes it may be a hard sell with other members of the board. “If you go to the British Fashion Awards, they give the British prizes, and then they give Best Womenswear, period. Guess what? People are interested. You’ve got LVMH brands nominated, you’ve got Gucci nominated, and they all come, and it raises money, and they bring their celebrities and their models and the red carpet becomes bigger, and there are more pictures, and people start to care. By raising awareness of the CFDA, you elevate the global perception of American fashion.”
In his Gucci heyday, Ford had his share of classic runway moments. For his own line, though, he has experimented with intimate, photographer-free presentations and a video starring Lady Gaga; he has tried “See now, buy now,” with little success; and he has shifted his shows among multiple cities. The traditional format, he believes, is the relic of an era when long-lead press reigned supreme. “The point of a show now is to create an Instagrammable moment,” he says, “and the reason that you have to show in a Fashion Week, in a key city, is that you need as many of the people that people care about in one room at one time to shoot those images all over the world. The images of the show, the front row, the backstage, the makeup, the hair, the clothes, the people, the boyfriends, the girlfriends—and then have it reposted and reposted and reposted and reposted. That’s what a show is now.”
Ford watched the election returns in November 2018 from his home in London. He’s a news junkie, a CNN and MSNBC treadmill addict who says that he should probably take the advice of Eckhart Tolle and read the newspaper only once every few weeks. Since Trump took office, he complains of a near-constant tension. He tries to feel hopeful. He believes that the greatest legacy of the current administration will be a broad reinvigoration of interest in politics and government. He is a huge fan of Pete Buttigieg and met him at a small lunch early in his candidacy, where he felt he picked up on something: At the table, on the stage, Buttigieg, for all his silken rhetoric, seemed to look smaller than he was due to the generous cut of his suit. Ah, thought Ford—here’s something I can fix. After the event, he texted Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, and offered a bit of sartorial guidance to the campaign. They didn’t bite. “Obviously he can’t wear my clothes,” Ford says. “They’re too expensive, they’re wrong, they’re not made in America. And besides, whatever he’s doing is working. So does anyone need to fuck with it?”
In June, Ford attended the CFDA Awards in the soaring Beaux Arts atrium of the Brooklyn Museum under a vast skylight that filtered the dusk overhead. As always, his deep brown eyes conducted their swift and merciless appraisal: The lighting should have been lower, the tables might have been round, and why couldn’t people just sit still? (Roitfeld, his dinner companion that night, says that being looked at by Ford is like being set inside a scanner.) The young New York designer LaQuan Smith was wearing one of Ford’s suits—double-breasted, peak-lapeled, with the sleeves scrunched up. Ford regularly sends him things to wear, in part because he sees something of himself in Smith, who designs sleek, traditionally glamorous clothing and, for himself, has been known to pair a Tom Ford tuxedo with black patent women’s pumps. Among the evening’s honorees was Eileen Fisher, whose 35-year-old brand has sought to reduce fashion’s impact on the environment while supporting young women in leadership roles. Fisher herself cut an almost other- worldly figure as she walked across the stage, glitzless, in a white robe and black slippers, a silver bob, no jewelry. Roitfeld turned to Ford and whispered, “She’s so chic.”
“Totally, totally, absolutely,” he says, back in L.A. “Because she was herself, because she was simple, because she was genuine.” Ford, who has long felt that competition, not coziness, ought to fuel the fashion industry, is about to start looking at Fisher’s ideas and those of his other American fashion colleagues in a new light. “Fashion is a bubble,” he acknowledges. “Los Angeles and New York and London are bubbles. But this bubble generates an amount of content that wraps the planet—what we send down a runway, what we put in an ad campaign. We are, actually, a liberal society. I think all of us, by doing what we do and being who we are, are an example to other people: There’s nothing to fear.”