Bare with me

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 June, 2011, 12:00am


Designer Tom Ford likes to get naked. Apparently he once conducted an interview with a journalist entirely in the buff and has been known to appear in magazine shoots in nothing but his birthday suit.

Then there are his sexually charged and provocative ad campaigns that feature models in various states of undress. They have included Sophie Dahl lying naked across a fur rug, her back arched and cupping one breast in her hand (Yves Saint Laurent, 2000); a woman pulling down her underwear (2003); and a couple covered in soap suds frolicking naked (Tom Ford, 2011).

For someone who has made his name dressing men and now women in his beautiful clothes, it seems ironic that he loves to take them off. But when it comes to Tom Ford, everything is about making a statement of some sort.

I am set to meet the designer at his newly opened women's store at IFC Mall. I arrive early, and everything looks immaculate. The scene could be taken from an Architectural Digest photo shoot - cushions on the light-grey sofa are plumped to perfection as assistants adjust vases containing fresh orchids to the exact millimetre.

You can also feel the tension. The salesgirls hurriedly fix their hair and make-up in the back, and the men stand erect holding their breath, waiting for the arrival of the man whose name is emblazoned in huge letters above the shop door.

'Mr Ford is here,' the PR whispers, almost 30 minutes later than scheduled. Suddenly the crowds part as I am rushed through the store and brought to a room where a single man (pardon the pun) is waiting alone to welcome me.

'I apologise profusely for being late, I am terribly sorry,' Ford says, extending his hand out with such charm and grace, he could be mistaken for Cary Grant.

His voice is melodic, with a slight American accent that has been softened from many years of living in London. He is as handsome as any Hollywood star, with dark, chiselled features and a perfectly trimmed beard that glistens under the soft lighting. Then there are his clothes - which today he has on - a flawless hand-stitched black suit, freshly pressed white shirt and black tie, all by Tom Ford.

'I only ever wear a suit. I have never worn sweats, although I wear shorts when I play tennis or am at the beach. But if you think you will catch me walking around the shopping mall in shorts, it's not going to happen,' he says, referring to a recent controversial statement he made admonishing men who wear shorts and flip-flops.

'I really said it because of the flip-flop thing. I hate it when men wear them and don't get a pedicure. They don't quite get that - grooming seems to stop there. I have to teach them.'

Ford has been educating the masses about fashion since he joined the Gucci group in 1990 and hasn't looked back since. Today he is at the helm of his own fashion brand, which in just six years has grown to include beauty, eyewear, accessories, menswear and, most recently, womenswear - with a network of stores that spans the globe from New York to Beijing. It's difficult to believe Ford didn't want to acknowledge his future career in fashion when he was younger.

'Funnily enough, it was harder to admit to myself that I wanted to be a fashion designer than it was to admit that I was gay. It was even harder to tell my parents, because a lot of people thought [fashion] was trivial. But when I finally admitted to it, I was very pragmatic. I had all the classifications to do it well and I was very particular about everything, so it really made sense in the end.'

Having already relocated from his hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico, to New York to study architecture, he decided to tackle the cutthroat world of Seventh Avenue's garment district. He landed a job with sportswear designer Cathy Hardwick (where he also met his partner of 24 years, journalist Richard Buckley) and later at casualwear company Perry Ellis. These jobs taught Ford all he needed to know about the business and took him all over the world - including Hong Kong, where he remembers spending three to four months a year going back and forth between factories in the New Territories and his room at the then Regent Hotel.

After four years he began hankering for something new. The answer came in the form of a design job at Italian house Gucci, which was known at the time for its bad management and equally bad taste.

'When I got there, it was horses and hunting. It wasn't appealing. But I was 28 years old, I had worked on Seventh Avenue, and Richard and I wanted to go back to Europe.

'I didn't like what was being done at the time, but [the then designer] Dawn Mello was really an icon. I thought if she's there, she knows something I don't know.

'My plan was to go there for two years, figure out how everything works, find manufacturers and start my own collection. Plus, if you were well known in Paris or Milan, you were globally marketable instantly. I wanted to be globally marketable,' he says matter-of-factly.

Armed with a determination to succeed and a keen business sense, he quickly moved up the ranks to become design director and then creative director when Mello left. In 1995, things changed overnight when he debuted his now infamous hip-hugger collection on the catwalk featuring skinny tailoring, 1970s-inspired satin shirts and velvet hipster trousers. It was high glamour, sexy, modern and, above all, sellable.

'I decided to step out on the runway, which was against my contract at that time,' he remembers. 'I thought, I love this collection, I am behind it, I take credit for it. The next day the showroom was mobbed.'

And so began what insiders call the 'Tom Ford decade' at Gucci Group, where he became as known for his slick marketing skills as he did for his designs. Within five years the company was worth about US$4.3 billion, as Ford also acquired new labels and designers, such as Alexander McQueen, Nicolas Ghesquiere and Tomas Maier.

When PPR took control of the company in 2004, Ford, along with mentor and Gucci chief executive Domenico De Sole, decided to leave. Leaving a brand he'd practically made his own was difficult, he says.

'I was very isolated at Gucci. When I left, I hadn't flown in a commercial plane in 10 years, except for the Concorde. But it was a needed and helpful wake-up call. I created that company and isolated myself that way. I was like a racehorse; I had so much to do that I literally had no time for life other than to be fed and exercised. I couldn't have done it much longer,' he says.

Within three months he set out to fulfil the original plan he had hatched when he joined Gucci - to start his own line. He tested the waters by launching fragrances and sunglasses. Once those were a hit, a menswear line was launched in 2007 along with luxurious boutiques complete with in-store butlers and a made-to-measure service.

'Seventh Avenue taught me an important lesson about the business of fashion. If you had one collection that didn't sell, you were fired,' he says. 'I didn't develop in this bubble of fashion designers that don't care about sales.'

He finally launched his women's collection last September, to much anticipation. But unlike the large, commercial shows he was known for at Gucci, he hosted an intimate invitation-only presentation for 100 guests at his New York store. Video and photography were banned as a star-studded cast of Ford's closest friends - including singer Beyonce and actresses Rita Wilson and Julianne Moore - walked the floor in his tuxedos, tailored leopard-print suits, fringed dresses and python-print sequinned cocktail dresses.

On the media reaction, Ford says: 'It's so funny, because I didn't think the collection was remotely 70s, so when I read that, I was like, 'Really?''

While many critics thought the closed presentation was a one-off marketing gimmick, Ford did the same thing again when he launched his autumn-winter collection in London in February. While some editors and bloggers were up in arms, Ford says his decision was purely a business one.

'I don't want to design the collection for journalists; I want to design it for women,' he says. 'Our customer does not want to wear something she has seen every Hollywood starlet in the magazines wearing for the past six months. It's too exposed. She's tired of it already.'

So Ford is also changing other things around, including the practice of dressing celebrities. This is a bold move, considering that almost every luxury house in the world views celebrity endorsement as a valuable marketing tool. And who more than Ford, the very man for whom the term 'celebrity designer' was coined?

'I am so tired of making a beautiful dress and seeing it ruined by a stylist who accessorises it the wrong way. It always makes me sad.

'Does it really do our business any good to make special things for celebrities at this point? Often what they want isn't really what you'd do, or doesn't say anything about the moment. They all want the same thing: those red-carpet dresses with trains,' he winces.

One thing that hasn't changed is his drive to be successful. Last month he launched a new cosmetics line under Tom Ford Beauty, featuring an extensive range that will launch in Europe this year. He also plans to open more stores in Asia this year, including boutiques in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo.

And then there is his true passion: filmmaking. 'What I do in film is completely different from what I do in fashion. I am sure there are some related things, but fashion for me is a commercial - artistic, yes, but a commercial - endeavour.

'Even though I financed my film [A Single Man] and it did well, I didn't do it to make any money or make a blockbuster. I did it as a form of expression. You can only express so much in clothes - you can express a lot when you tell a story on film. And it lasts forever.

'If anyone ever wants to know what I am about, watch that film, because it was an extremely personal film. I hope they all will be.'

Ford is in no rush to make the next movie, although he says it's good to go and could be cast immediately. Instead he wants to focus on perfecting his women's line. Besides, he has bigger fish to fry. 'I want global domination. I do, and I will get it,' he says.

'I don't want to be mean, and Karl Lagerfeld is a great friend of mine, but he is 77 years old. Ralph [Lauren] is 71, and Giorgio Armani is 76.

'Miuccia [Prada] is fabulous, but who is the next global brand? Who has the ability to design - and I am not boasting - the breadth of product that I do? I'm known all over the world for that, and I think it's fun.

'Besides, I will work until the day I drop dead.'