A biography of one of the top fashion designers of the world.
Tom Ford (Thomas Carlyle Ford) was born in Austin, Texas in 1961 (August 27), but spent most of his childhood years back in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His mother was a colourful Southern lady who had 6 husbands and a cupboard full of Courreges suits. She taught him that being badly dressed was disrespectful of others. He spent most of his childhood worrying about how he looked. At 12 she bought him a pair of Gucci loafers.
He enrolled on an art history course at New York University and was also trained as an actor. It was there he discovered the seminal Studio 54 nightclub and Warhol”s Factory, where he met pop artist Andy Warhol for the first time. From then on, school was out and partying was in, in, in. Signing up as a model - at one point he had no fewer than 12 TV commercials running at the same time - he dropped out of NYU after his freshman year. He transferred to Parsons School of Design in New York studying interior architecture. He later moved on to finish his studies at Parsons in Paris, France. By the end of the course, he realised that he wanted to work in fashion. As soon as his studies were completed in 1986, Ford quickly returned to New York where he began his professional training.
In 1986, he joined the creative staff of the American famous designer Cathy Hardwick. Then, in 1988, a big career move came up when he made the transition to Perry Ellis where he took on the position of Design Director under Marc Jacobs. Tom didn’t make a name for himself in the business until he relocated to Europe in 1990 and landed a position with Gucci. His partner, journalist Richard Buckley, had become ill with cancer and, after he was given the all-clear at the start of the Nineties, the two decided to leave the stress of New York and important learning period of the 80s fashion behind and head for Italy.
He was hired by Gucci’s then creative director Dawn Mello (previous head of purchase with Bergdorf-Goodman) as chief women’s ready-to-wear designer. A few years passed, and in 1992, he moved up the corporate ladder of the fashion world and once again took on the role of Design Director. Business went bad for Gucci and he was almost fired by Maurizio Gucci in 1993, but this was counteracted by Domenico de Sole, director of Gucci America Inc.
When, in 1994, Gucci was acquired by a Bahrain-based investment firm called Investcorp, Ford was promoted to creative director. This meant that he was responsible for the design and conception of all product lines within the company; clothing, perfumes, and more. He also had to create and carry through the company’s image, its advertising campaigns and store design. He went on to become arguably the most influential designer of the last decade.
In his first year at the helm, he was credited with putting the glamour back into fashion introducing Halston-style velvet hipsters, skinny satin shirts and car-finish metallic patent boots. Gucci became a byword for desirability, offering the most aspirational and hedonistic kind of fashion.
In 1995, he brought in French stylist Carine Roitfeld and photographer Mario Testino to create a series of new, modern ad campaigns for the company. In March 1995 when Amber Valletta sauntered down the catwalk in blue velvet hipsters and a skinny apple-green satin shirt, the lights went on in the house of Gucci. She personified Gucci glamour, dangerous, sexy, modern and slightly rough. Madonna wore his outfit to the MTV music awards.
By 1999, the house, which had been almost bankrupt when Ford joined, was valued at about $4.3 billion. “We didn’t even have a photocopier at one stage,” he admits. “We didn’t have any paper.”
After Gucci bought a controlling stake in Yves Saint Laurent in 2000, Ford was appointed creative director of YSL, too, and communications director of the house’s ready-to-wear business, while continuing to design for Gucci. A mighty challenge certainly, but he was adamant, he could keep the two labels distinct. “Historically, [Gucci] is Sophia Loren. Yves Saint Laurent is Catherine Deneuve. They’re both sexy,” he told British Vogue in February 2001. “It’s just that Gucci is a little more obvious than Saint Laurent.
Essentially a monochrome man – his Paris apartment has been described as a three-dimensional photographic negative -Tom brings a hard-edged look synonymous with 21st-century glamour to his clothes. In 2000, the Gucci group added Yves Saint Laurent to their stable and, unsurprisingly, his first collection for the French label was a study in black and white. In that year, Ford was named Best International Designer at the first VH1/Vogue Awards in New York.
“I am a perfectionist,” declared the designer from Texas. “This job is a total ego thing in a way. To be a designer and say, ‘This is the way people should dress, this is the way their homes should look, this is the way the world should be.’ But then, that’s the goal: world domination through style.”
Ford believes that he owes his success not to talent, but to his energy. He admits to sleeping just two or three hours per night, keeping post-it notes beside the bed in case he wakes up with an idea. “There are many more talented designers than me,” he once told an audience at the V&A in London. “But I have a lot of drive and won’t let it go.” He also credits his “mainstream” appeal. “I’m lucky, I have mass-market tastes,” he says. “When I say I like a shoe, generally thousands of people will like it. Thank God, because I would have been a very unhappy person if I hadn’t had this kind of success.”
But others see it quite differently, saying that Ford’s secret is the combination of a fine commercial sensibility and a genuine feel for fashion: in his present role at Gucci, he designs shoes, watches, luggage and men’s and women`s wear as well as planning the company’s advertising campaigns and overseeing the development of their two new fragrances, Envy and Rush. Tom caused a bit of an advertising stir with the promotion for his M7 fragrance. The campaign featured n.ked model Samuel de Cubber in a full-frontal pose. But as he says: “Perfume is worn on the skin, so why hide the body? The M7 campaign is really pure, it`s a very academic n.de. I wanted to show a man who represents a natural and relaxed image of male beauty”. Tom also hit the headlines with his sensational Gucci ad, featuring a n.ked woman whose bikini line has been waxed into the shape of the letter `G`.
In 2001, the designer from Austin won the CFDA Womens wear Designer of the Year award, and TIME magazine named him the Best American Designer. His visionary look of the fashion industry has been the center of attention as he has won many awards like the Council of Fashion Designers of America award for International Designer of the Year in 1996. That same year, he also won the International Designer of the Year – Fashion Editors Club Japan 1996; Menswear and Womens wear Designer of the Year.
He also owns four VH-1 Fashion and Music Awards and a Fashion’s Future Best New Designer prize that he was awarded in 1995. His list of awards also includes a Womens Wear Designer of the Year in 1999, an Elle Style Icon Award in 1999; and a Commitment to Life Award from AIDS Project Los Angeles for Gucci’s charitable work in support of people with HIV and AIDS.
He has made profits soar at Gucci, which was faltering when he took over. During this year there seems to have been some disagreement between Yves St. laurent and Tom Ford about the way YSL was proceeding. This led to the resignation of Yves St. Laurent in January 2002 from the company he had built. Gucci bought out YSL Rive Gauche and appointed Tom Ford to take up the design responsibilities of YSL Ruve Gauche ready-to-wear. His collections Spring/Summer 2003 for Gucci and YSL during Paris Fashion Week in October 2002 has concentrated on animal prints on caftans and flowing gowns, pants and tops.
Tom divided his time in true jet-setter style between Milan, Paris, London (now home to the new Gucci design studio) and Santa Fe, Texas, home to his terrier John who has his own Gucci dog basket.
In November 2003 it was announced that Tom and chief executive Domenico De Sole would be leaving the Italy brand in 2004 “with great sadness” but Ford said he was “confident that we are leaving behind one of the strongest teams in the industry.” Then in March 2004, he presented his last collections for YSL Rive Gauche and Gucci, amid very emotional farewells. Both collections were smash hits.
At the end of March, Los Angeles feted him at an event attended by 800 of the Hollywood personalities with whom he has built up a personal following over the years, and he was awarded the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Award. It is rumoured that Tom is planning to move into the Film Industry.
Ford once claimed that he thought models had “the most horrible, tough job in the world”, adding that Caroline Ribeiro was his favorite model (“Her face is an unusual blend of cultures”). He also revealed that he doesn’t expect to be designing forever. Included on his list of lifetime to-dos are having children (although work commitments and his longtime partner Richard Buckley are currently conspiring against him) and making a film. “That is the ultimate design project,” he says. “You don’t just get to design what people wear, but you design the whole world and whether characters get to live or die. There is a permanence to film that fashion lacks.”
One of his first new activities, in May 2004, was to join the famous auction house of Sotheby’s in Paris where he will advise on a broad range of strategic matters such as business and marketing opportunities. He also presented his book later that year which is a complete catalogue of his design work for both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent from 1994 to 2004.
Celebrity fans of Ford’s style include Madonna, Bianca Jagger and Trudie Styler (“Well, he’s perfect, isn’t he? He’s like Sting, he doesn’t do small talk. He doesn’t always give very much of himself, so you want more.”). But Ford’s ultimate sign of approval came from his mother, who was heard to demand her YSL discount card after watching his first runway show for the house.
He and Domenico de Sole, his colleague who left Gucci with him, set up a new company called just “Tom Ford”. As the first major initiative, this company has now collaborated with cosmetics giant Estée Lauder to create beauty products and fragrances. No financial figures have been revealed about the deal. We saw the beauty line and sunglasses by the end of 2005, also a woman’s fragrance ‘Amber N.de’ and ‘Youth Dew’. For his eyewear collection he made an agreement with the Marcolin Group in Italy. Last spring, though, the designer announced a return to fashion with a signature ready-to-wear men’s line. The clothing line, which will be produced by European manufacturer Ermenegildo Zegna, is expected to cater to a high-end clientele, with a men’s suit fetching up-wards of $2,000.
Starting from Madison Ave, Manhattan, Mr. Ford plans to open stores in Milan, London, Los Angeles and Tokyo over the next three to four years. Ford’s first ‘Tom Ford’ flagship store opened on April 12, 2007 on New York City’s Madison Avenue. In Spring 2008, Ford opened his first boutique outside of the United States in Zurich, Switzerland located at Munsterhof 17. In September of 2008 Ford opened a boutique in Toronto, Ontario, Canada at the Harry Rosen store on Bloor street.
For female customers, add “strong women,… intelligent women who know their own style.” Many well-known celebrities have been dressed by Tom Ford, both men and women, mainly, but not exclusively, from the worlds of film and music – note that Michelle Obama wore a floor-length ivory coloured Tom Ford evening gown to Buckingham Palace in 2011 although Ford maintains a policy of not dressing politicians of any persuasion. Picking up on the James Bond theme light-heartedly hinted at in the title of my topic, Tom Ford designed the suits for Daniel Craig in the James Bond films, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and Spectre.