He sexed up Gucci, made his own label a multibillion-dollar success, and has become an unlikely toast of Hollywood. Meet the one and only Tom Ford.
Words by Lisa Armstrong
Los Angeles can do strange things to people. It can have them rise and shine at 4.15am and get on a treadmill at 4.30. It can see them eating supper at 6pm and tucked up in bed by 10, when they used to be a wild party animal. It can make them buy a flamboyantly twirly-fronted ‘Hollywood Regency’ mansion when they’re a confirmed minimalist. It can prompt them to pin a photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe by their bathroom mirror to remind them – when they might be tempted to get a facelift or a plasma infusion, or have some of their skin lasered off – that growing older is not always such a tragedy. And it can make them embrace colour, when normally the zappiest they’re prepared to go is navy.
I’ll have to take Tom Ford’s word for it that he wears colour now, since he is actually dressed from head to toe in black when we meet in London, where he’s temporarily touched down to check in with his menswear team – who still work out of a studio here – and have dinner with his old friend Stella McCartney. The only real note of colour in his sleek master-of-the-fashion-universe office comes from a small plate of Percy Pigs – pig-shaped, fruit-flavoured gummy sweets that he professes to love but, needless to say, doesn’t touch. You don’t look the way he does at 57 – slim, tanned, eternally youthful – if you chow down platefuls of bright pink sugar.
“It’s good genes,” he says solemnly. “I don’t do anything.” “Nothing?” “Okay, Botox, but that’s nothing.” In LA maybe. Above all, LA can make a person happy – nine out of 10 happy – even when they’ve had a terrible year. Tom Ford is, he declares, nine out of 10 happy. He definitely looks it, and he sounds it too – his voice skittering up and down several octaves during our interview. Yet he has certainly had a terrible year – his husband, journalist Richard Buckley, was dangerously ill. There is a reason, beyond fondness for the Bee Gees, that the soundtrack to his autumn/winter 2019/20 show in New York last month featured the 1977 disco hit, Stayin’ Alive.
The two have been together for over 30 years and have a six-year-old son, Jack. It was because of Buckley’s health that they left London in 2017 for the kinder Californian climate. None of this is to invite sympathy, however – neither from the outside world, nor from each other. “Are you kidding?” Ford asks me with a snort. “Richard is still my harshest – and I mean harsh – critic. I can put on a show that everyone says is incredible and Richard will say, ‘Outfit number three, the blacks don’t match’ – and I will crumble.”
I don’t think he is exaggerating his hurt feelings. Ford, for all his bluff and charm, is a sensitive soul. He has been known to call up journalists, not to scream, like some designers – he’s too civilised, too intelligent and enjoys living on his wits too much for that – but rather to explain, painstakingly, why their review is wrong. And, okay, maybe he might spar with them a bit, but never menacingly. At one point, Ford removed himself from the bear pit of criticism altogether, banning mobile phones from his shows (he says it was mainly to beat the copyists, but sadly they’re unbeatable). Sometimes, notably after an especially savage review, he will bypass journalists too, going straight to the fans. A couple of years ago, instead of a show he simply engaged Lady Gaga and some models to gyrate across a studio in Tom Ford, and then put the film on YouTube. Who needs critics these days anyway?
He does. Sooner or later, he returns, like the prodigal student, for approbation. Indeed, for someone who seems rather thin-skinned, he puts his work out there to what some might consider a masochistic degree. After leaving Gucci following a business disagreement in 2004, he set up his own luxury fashion and accessories label when, as an exceedingly wealthy man, he could have just luxuriated in an easy life as the power behind other brands. (Ford has good form as a talent spotter and mentor, having financially backed Zac Posen and Jeremy Scott, and given Christopher Bailey, Clare Waight Keller and Alessandro Michele their big breaks.) Then he launched a career in film. This is not a normal trajectory – and even the fashion industry, with its inflated sense of grandeur, was sceptical.
Key looks from Tom Ford’s Autumn/Winter 2020 runway show.
A Fresh Direction
A Single Man (Ford’s first film, which starred Julianne Moore and Colin Firth) was released in 2009; his second, 2016’s Nocturnal Animals was nominated for nine BAFTAs. “Nine,” he reiterates, banging his fist on his desk. I note he doesn’t mention the Oscar nominations and Golden Globes both films racked up – an Anglophile, even in his current self-imposed exile. “After A Single Man came out, people kept saying to me, it must feel so good, because … everyone was laughing at you. I hadn’t realised any of that.”
Ford wrote, directed and financed the film himself. It cost him US$7 million (which suggests Moore and Firth must be very good friends) and made a respectable-for-art-house $25 million – of which, he says, he never saw a cent, as he sold the distribution rights to Harvey Weinstein and a load of other people. Not that money was the point. It was a critical smash, the best calling card in the world for a man who’d been feeling lost.
Maybe the reason Ford is so happy is not that he plays tennis in the sunshine three mornings a week (his explanation for the feeling – and, okay, it probably helps), but because he has authorship over his own life: plenty of money and the imagination to know how to spend it. “Yeah, money does that,” he agrees. “That’s what it’s about – freedom.”
He’s just optioned a novel – he won’t jinx it by revealing its title just yet – for his third film and is currently trying to work out how to turn 600 pages into a two-hour film. Why not a Netflix show instead? He doesn’t want to, even though he and Buckley spend their happiest evenings sitting at home watching “everything. You name it, we’ve seen it”. The challenge isn’t so much condensing the material as finding the time to do it. “The trouble is,” he says (semi-jokingly), “my other business is just too successful.”
In a way, the success of Tom Ford, the label, is almost as unlikely as his film career. Lightning doesn’t usually strike twice. And yet, post- Gucci, Ford presides over a brand that now enjoys a $2 billion a year turnover. If some pundits argue that the majority of that revenue comes from eyewear (1.8 billion pairs of glasses sold last year at around £350 each) and highly lauded beauty and fragrance ranges … well, that’s just the way fashion works. “The ready-to-wear absolutely anchors the look and feel of my brand, so in that sense it’s paramount,” says Ford.
It’s true too, in a sense, that Ford isn’t setting any new agenda with his clothing the way he did back in the ’90s and early 2000s at Gucci (The New York Times said of his show this year, “You’ve got to hand it to Mr Ford, he knows how to spin familiarity”). But for those who have a fondness for peak Ford-Gucci moments, those purple satin trousers and lavender tops in his latest collection look grown-up and fabulous. And maybe new versus old is actually a false dichotomy in fashion these days. Balenciaga and Off-White – two brands most often cited as edgy – actually make most of their money selling trainers.
“I understand cerebrally what’s going on in fashion now,” says Ford, of the deliberate ugliness cultivated on many catwalks and fashion shoots. “But if you tell everyone it’s fine to look like sh*t – as long as it’s ironic and they’re in on the joke – then you hit the end of fashion, which I think some brands have. If you tell people you don’t need to put things together in a thoughtful way, and it works commercially for a while, then you create a monster. It’s like The Hunger Games, where they’ve reached a level of wacky that’s hard to relate to.”
One senses this is a conversation he has had more than once at home. His last few collections have seen him channel his inner classicist – featuring great tailoring and boardroom-sexy slinkiness – after a period in which he too reached a certain level of wacky. “And guess what, they’ve been my best received by the retailers. But not Richard. Ever the journalist, Richard says, ‘Yes, they’re beautiful but there’s no news there.’ And I say, ‘Well, beautiful is the news.’”
His mother, now into her eighties (“She wouldn’t thank me for saying that”), would agree. Shirley Ford is a Texan rose who never answered the doorbell without first reaching for her lipstick – and her son turned this shared passion for make-up into an extraordinarily lucrative business. But it would be wrong to suggest Ford is sinking gently into some ‘good night’ where he only dresses stately Texan matrons. His celebrity fans include Rihanna, Julianne Moore, Gwyneth Paltrow and Beyoncé. “Although not often on the red carpet,” Ford comments. “Even my best friends – actors who I go on vacation with – can’t wear me on the red carpet or even come to my shows, because they have contracts with other brands, and I won’t pay people to wear my clothes.”
On the other hand, given how bad Ford thinks most red-carpet dressing looks these days (“Last year, when they all wore black for Time’s Up, was the one time everyone looked good. You cannot go wrong in black”), maybe that’s not such a tragedy. He seems reconciled to his position as one of the industry’s éminences grises. Not that there is any trace of gris on his head. At any rate, he relishes seeing women of all ages enjoying his designs. He explains, “This idea that a woman becomes invisible when she gets older … it’s all about how you carry yourself. You can walk into a room at any age and command it.” What about all those alumni of his, now so advanced in their careers – does that make him feel like Father Time? “Nope. It makes me proud – and really happy that I own my own company so I can’t be kicked out of the door if I have a bad season or two. I don’t understand this revolving-door policy. It would be interesting to see if ultimately it destroys the brand value – because you walk into a store and everything’s different from the last designer. The decor, the clothes…”
“Actually, Alessandro [Michele] is what helped me get over Gucci, as he’s doing such a great job there. It’s completely different from what we did when I was there, and yet there are some [common] threads.” Ford has been quite vocal about how hard it was leaving Gucci, but it’s surprising to hear that he still felt raw when Michele became creative director in 2014 – a decade after he left. “Oh my God, I don’t miss any of it now,” he says, “but [leaving] threw me into a midlife crisis. Who am I? What am I going to do? The drinking.”
He is now teetotal. Is that more LA influence? “It doesn’t hurt. I mean, can we talk about the drinking in London? The two glasses at lunch. The three vodka tonics you have in the evening at the office – ‘cos you’re there until eight? The two you have in the bath. Then you go out to dinner and they bring you more teeny-tiny drinks. So you’re now up to 10 and then you go to a party and you’re in your forties, drinking 12-13 glasses each day. And eating lettuce to stay slim. I spent so many days writing apology notes and sending flowers. It had to stop.”
They certainly had their moments though, those peak Gucci years. The celebrities. The private jets. The head-spin of being king in an era that somehow seemed more permissive. The Gucci logo that was topiaried into a model’s pubic hair for an ad that was splashed across magazines. “It was the year of the logo. Marc had them over everything at Vuitton… but you probably wouldn’t do that now,” he remarks wryly. This was the period when Ford worked constantly with Mario Testino (who has since been accused of sexual misconduct – though Testino denies all allegations) to create memorable Gucci images that helped make the brand the hottest and most sophisticated in the world.
“Did Mario climb on top of the models? Yes, but come on, you’re shooting a fragrance ad. It’s got to look sexy and Mario’s an exuberant kind of guy.” Ford launches into Testino’s flamboyant accent and starts crawling on the carpet of his office. “Darleeeng, you’re so sexeee…” It’s not a bad impersonation actually. He resumes his position back on his seat and becomes more serious. “Yes, he flirted. Yes, he was silly. He was Mario. I’m not saying that I know what went on behind closed doors. I’m just saying that I don’t think I saw anything untoward on set.”
In LA, in the Hollywood Regency mansion (for which, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Ford paid $39 million) all is propriety. It has an amazing, sweeping staircase. “Very Fred Astaire – it’s definitely a white tails house.” Most importantly, it has all those acres for Jack and his English nanny to play in. “I’m hoping she’ll help him keep his English accent,” Ford says. “So far, so good.” He’s a polite child – “at least, polite by LA standards” – who had to pay for the zip-line that was installed in their garden out of his own pocket money.
Jack also thinks that the most heinous word in the English-American dictionary is ‘awesome’. His teacher had to have a word with Ford about this, as it seemed rather eccentric, especially given how often Jack’s classmates use the word. “Well, it is awful,” states Ford. Worse than swearing? “Jack doesn’t know any yet.” Amazing, given that Ford’s most successful perfume yet is boldly entitled F-ing Fabulous.
Ford is currently reading a self-help book, The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k. “Don’t bother,” he says, when I ask whether it’s any good. I’m interested that he still thinks he needs a book like that, after all of his life experiences and all of the therapy. “A lot of it is actually Buddhism.” (The last time I met Ford, he was waxing lyrical about the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text.)
Is Buddhism why he turned vegan? “No, that happened two years ago after I watched [the pro-vegan documentary] What the Health,” he says. “That part when they chop up the dead pigs for the living ones to eat…” He misses his British friends – but says that now he’s living in LA, he finds London formal, and out of sync with the rest of the world. “All that business of having to wear a suit and tie…”
Yes, well maybe that is the case, if you always eat at [Mayfair private members’ club] Mark’s Club – which he did when he lived here. At some point, he explains, the family will probably move from LA to somewhere “there’s more culture, for Jack. He’ll need to know what it feels like to put on a jacket”. Ford loves a project. “I always had a five-year, a 10-year, a life plan. I was always aware of the clock ticking. I’ve been aware of mortality since I was eight. All I want is to stay alive till Jack’s 21.”
And to convince his son not to paint his bedroom black. The family is in constant dialogue about Jack’s interior décor proclivities, which sees Ford – whose natural preference would also be for black walls “but not for a child” – playing devil’s advocate. It’s a losing game. You can lead a child halfway round the world to sunshine, it seems, but you can’t necessarily make them sunny. Even in LA.