by Sarah Mower | photographed by Steven Meisel at Vogue.com
Tom Ford’s comeback to womenswear after six years—with a show achieved in spectacular style in New York on September 12—is fashion meganews, not that he’s been sharing it with just anyone. The newly elusive former idol and inciter of the sexed-up Gucci-YSL nineties is doing things differently this time. He objects to the way the Internet eats up fashion images before the clothes can be bought. He despises sections of the press. Private and formal are terms he favors now. And he’d rather people didn’t “Tom” him anymore. At 49, he lets it be known he prefers “Mr. Ford.”
And here he is, being photographed by Steven Meisel the morning after he delivered the anti-publicity coup that threw bloggers, Twitterers, and reporters into a quagmire of frustration. His plans for his debut were so secret, even Julianne Moore, his close friend and star of his movie A Single Man, didn’t really know what she was letting herself in for when she turned up at his men’s store on Madison Avenue. “He asked me to do this six months ago, but I thought we’d just all be standing around at a cocktail or something. So when I got there and he said we had to walk, I said, ‘Holy cow!’ ”
bonus video : Tom Ford Fashion Designer Profile
Ford’s most glamorous women friends and acquaintances, spanning Hollywood, music, society, and high fashion, had all dropped everything to fly in and model for him, no questions asked. With 100 guests seated expectantly, Ford stood by a mantelpiece, in black tie, with a mic, and introduced his cast as “many of the world’s most inspirational women,” proceeding to read out what they were wearing. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he declared, in old style–camp diction: “Please welcome . . . Miss Lauren Hutton, Miss Liya Kebede, Miss Rinko Kikuchi, Miss Rachel Feinstein, Miss Lisa Eisner, Miss Beyoncé Knowles, Miss Marisa Berenson, Miss Stella Tennant, Miss Amber Valletta, Miss Natalia Vodianova, Miss Karen Elson, Miss Lakshmi Menon, Miss Karlie Kloss, Miss Abbey Lee Kershaw, Miss . . . Julianne Moore!” By the time “Miss Rita Wilson” wiggled out, turned, and threw a lingeringly saucy, head-back, hands-on-hip pose in a “corseted fil coupe dress with thigh-high lace boots and black seamed stockings,” the atmosphere was “getting a little giddy!” she says, laughing. “I sensed people really enjoyed it.”
Critics searching for recurrent Ford-isms could have traced them in the flared pantsuits, soft trenches, unbuttoned silk blouses, animal prints—but it was more the chic of his years at Saint Laurent than Gucci, and in close-up more couture-like. “There’s a continuity from what I was doing at YSL at the end; that’s the customer.” Still, it was the human aspect that let delight and laughter loose in the room: seeing women from age 67 (Miss Hutton) to 22 (Miss Joan Smalls), and of so many shapes and heights, having a hell of a good time. Except for the film Ford was making, and for Terry Richardson, hired to throw himself in the path of every woman, snapping away (to appear on the relaunched Tom Ford Web site), no cameras were allowed. Ford determined that the site’s debut would be in December, when the clothes are nearly in his stores (which is why you see them here for the first time in Vogue).
“I do not understand everyone’s need to see everything online the day after a show,” he says. “I don’t think it ultimately serves the customer, which is the whole point of my business—not to serve journalists or the fashion system. To put something out that’s going to be in a store in six months, and to see it on a starlet, ranked in US magazine next week? My customer doesn’t want to wear the same thing she saw on a starlet!”
So true. But the celebrity red-carpet fashion parade? Dresses flown fresh from runways to awards ceremonies? The whole degenerated step-and-repeat of it all? Mr. Ford, you started it. “Now I’m taking it back!” He relents just a little: “I’ll wait to see who’s nominated for the Oscars. Then I will offer to dress one person.”
What he wants to do now sounds almost like a volte-face from his brash, hot, logoed Gucci heyday. “It’s about individuality. Real clothes, real women. For a fashionable woman aged 25 to 75. That’s why I literally put many of my own muses in the show. I hear them say, ‘God, I can’t find that anywhere!’ ” Women friends had been “begging” him to make them suits as soon as they heard he was starting a menswear line; he couldn’t find anything to buy his mother; it all built up. “I want this to be somewhere a woman knows she can go when she wants a great jacket—not a fake expensive jacket, something that has intrinsic value. I don’t think fashion has to change every five minutes. I’d like these to be clothes you can wear for a long time—ten, 20 years; pass on to your daughter. Why buy vintage when you can open your own closet!” It’s not for the Gucci girl he left behind. “At this point?” he considers. “She’d be too trendy.”
The man in front of me—suit, beard, open shirt, tanned hairy chest, exuding debonair charm and maturity—is not so visibly different from the one I saw last time (he hastens to say the British dermatologist Nick Lowe, M.D., the man with the lightest Botox syringe in the West, has a hand in this). But chintz and sunshine at the Carlyle for this interview instead of grope-in-the-dark VIP room? Statements like “For my business, I have to be in the public eye. Is it something I’m craving? Maybe at one time I did. Now I’m more of a recluse”? What’s happened?
“I’ve never been happier in my life,” he says, and then adds one of his brutally honest zingers: “Maybe it’s because I’ve learned over the past five or six years that I do have certain talents and gifts I maybe wasn’t sure of before. That sounds crazy. But I think I had a deep insecurity that this was all really somehow smoke and mirrors.”
What helped (it took a shrink) was rediscovering how much he loves making things. (The day before, he reduced a handkerchief into a slice of cotton just wide enough to slip into his breast pocket with a pair of nail scissors, the minutest risk of jacket bulge surgically excised.) His turn for the better came while he made A Single Man—a movie about a suicidal, detail-obsessed middle-aged man either cursed or blessed with the ability to see the world in surreal hyperfocus. Ford’s dogs are in it; life partner Richard Buckley has a vignette. “Scenes right out of our lives, my sister, my mother, the emotions, the way I was feeling at the time. I didn’t know if I cared if I lived or died,” he says. That the movie was so well received, and lead Colin Firth was nominated for Best Actor at the 2010 Oscars, was a gigantic endorsement of Ford’s talent for making things: He not only co-wrote the script (based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name) but cast, directed, edited, and financed it.
“My soul was in that,” he says. “Where is the beauty of the world? And then, discovering the beauty of the world, having a kind of epiphany where you realize that I’ve actually had those moments where time stands still, and I think, This is OK.” Simultaneously, he also discovered the tenets of Daoism, the Chinese philosophy that emphasizes living in harmony with the world around you. Being pinned to the present, and finding it can be lovely, has been ideally health-giving for someone with a near-psychotic tendency to rush forward, planning every scenario down to his own death (in 2002, on his newly bought ranch in New Mexico, he was already describing the Tadao Ando mausoleum for Buckley and himself). “The movie was catharsis,” he says. “That was my homo-angst movie. Now I’m shooting another. I’m writing the script—a comedy. I’m in the mood to have fun and smile.”
Even though Ford has been designing menswear for his own line since 2007—two years after he and his former Gucci Group CEO, Domenico de Sole, set up Tom Ford International and launched fragrances, eyewear, and lipstick—it’s clearly taken time for him to want to go near womenswear again. Wilson (with whom Ford says he Skypes almost daily) says, “I thought he was done and wrapped up with it. But when someone has a pause like that, it can be a period alone to reflect on what you really love and want.” The enforced “pause” was Ford’s cataclysmic parting with Gucci Group in 2004, after Pinault-Printemps-Redoute gained control of the company. “There had been a creeping depression two years before I left, which had to do with that cycle I was caught up in, of working too hard and too much.” He was designing fifteen men’s and women’s Gucci and YSL collections a year, in addition to playing corporate titan who had reconfigured the fashion landscape at the turn of the millennium. He and de Sole had gathered an extraordinary stable at high speed: buying YSL, persuading Nicolas Ghesquière to come on board with Balenciaga, seeking out Alexander McQueen, courting Stella McCartney, and having the foresight to understand how Bottega Veneta would sell.
It was the pre-crash era of excess and extravagance. Almost anything could happen at Gucci: In 2002, I saw his team present Ford with GG wallpaper, pillboxes, a pipe, and a “Gucci spanker” (none of it got beyond prototype). On another day that year, press were invited to the Paris Bourse for the launch of a YSL fragrance, Nu, to be greeted with the spectacle of 40 near-naked men and women writhing in a glass tank. I’m not sure Ford regrets any of the outrageous sexual imagery he put into everything Gucci, because he’s still up to his tricks today, which a glance at where the bottle is placed in his notorious men’s-fragrance advertising will confirm. “I actually think it’s beautiful. She has a perfect Brazilian wax. We’re selling to men—put the fragrance where they want to look. I want to sell it!”
But on a personal level, when he left Gucci Group, things came crashing down emotionally. “I had no identity. I had nothing to get up in the morning and do, other than play tennis. My values were in the wrong place. I think that I had got so caught up in being successful and making money, and making sure the company made money, making sure each quarter our share price went up.” He pauses. “This will sound so arrogant. I had become so isolated at Gucci and Saint Laurent. I was like a racehorse. I had not taken a commercial flight in ten years, except for Concorde. Now, this is my own company, my own money. So I’m taking United Airlines back to L.A. tonight.”
It is, of course, quite sobering when a person wakes up and has to dip into his own bank account rather than the fortunes of a giant corporation. But that independent responsibility is precisely what drives Ford now. In May, he made news by selling an Andy Warhol self-portrait for $32.6 million (more than double what it was expected to fetch), spending the profit on stores in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. He had met with—and rejected—outside investors. “What I want is the freedom to say, I really like fashion and I’m going to come back my way and never have some corporate person say, ‘But you can’t do it that way.’ My goal,” he enunciates with dead seriousness, “is to be like Armani and Chanel.”
His collection will be small and exclusive, and sold only in his sixteen menswear stores, until next season. There will be no repeat of the launch show; magazine editors (no news reporters) may view the next collection at his showroom in London. And next fall there is to be a major launch of Tom Ford makeup, designed in collaboration with Charlotte Tilbury, demand surely pent up in those who adored the vignette of Moore making herself up in A Single Man.
But what effects have the new independence, serenity, and movie experience had on his first women’s collection since his Gucci-YSL years? He framed the show in cinematic terms. “It was, Here is Lisa Eisner, but we’re making a movie out of Lisa, and she’s playing herself. And what do we do to Rachel Feinstein to make her the movie version of herself?” No wonder his subjects never asked what they were wearing. Who wouldn’t leap at the chance for a personal hair, makeup, and body makeover from the suave, wicked, gimlet-eyed Mr. Ford? Especially when he was actually making them all into a movie, thus closing the circle on the man’s legendary powers of image control?
But the type of fun now is more . . . what? Rarefied, richer, and behind-closed-doors—the sort of female
opposite of the image of the superwealthy titan of industry communicated in his menswear? Glamour is, after all, what Ford is for in fashion, and this is his new reading. In 1995, with his breakout collection, he wiped out grunge and minimalism at a stroke when he sent out Amber Valletta in velvet boot-cut pants, a GG hipster belt, and an unbuttoned silk shirt. (She remembers it well: “Oh! That Brigitte Bardot, tousled, well-fucked look! The way Madonna bought the whole thing!”) And now? With an age of beige suddenly blanketing fashion again, his timing feels right. “The seventies is what I love. Soft, touchable beauty is what I love. I want to be touching the skin; I prefer no bra—I want to be able to slip in my hand.” Ooh, stop!
The incorrigibility of Tom Ford is still intact. It is, however, now supported by multiple Diet Cokes rather than alcohol, because among many other did-I-really-do-that? mornings after, a hand-slipping incident was beyond over-the-top. “I used to think I was funny only when I was drunk. But inhibitions are there for a reason. Sometimes you’re not supposed to tell somebody that her tits are sagging. You’re not supposed to reach across and fondle someone’s breast in front of her husband and tell her that her implants are far too high and that if she massages them this way, they’ll go into the right space. A very famous person with a very famous husband, who did not speak to me for a long time.”
Once, he told me his greatest fear was having his name on his own label, because when he was an old man, he couldn’t bear the thought of driving past a store with his name on it and hating everything in it because he’d lost control (that was always Ford’s dark and chilling side, that terrifying habit of mentally rushing forward past life to death). “And now I don’t care!” he exclaims. “The day I don’t love to do it, I’ll sell it. Because we’re all only here for a little while, and nothing we do or make has any permanence at all. I care now because I’m doing it. I want to be proud of what I do. Which may be ten or 20 years; who knows?”