Tom Ford holds your gaze. While in conversation, and definitely while offering “cheers” in a restaurant. He stares into the eyes of first one dinner partner, then another, each time moving his glass toward the merry clink. The power stare might be unsettling, but for the twinge of humor, self-mockery, even, in its intensity.
These days, Ford toasts with water only; he stopped drinking a while back. More recently, he ditched Diet Coke as well. Whether or not rejecting even the occasional alcoholic or faux-sugared, carbonated indulgence makes Ford physically healthier, it fuels his psychological mettle. Discipline and control are Ford-ian obsessions. They’ve propelled him through an audacious career path: the legendary ascent from SA nobody to international fashion superstar. The ugly dissolution to his Gucci Group tenure. The celebrated, told-you-so directorial film debut. The return to fashion with men’s wear, an unusual beauty concept, his own stores and, lastly, women’s.
Now Ford is officially doing double duty, simultaneously in the early stages of casting his second film, a thriller adapted from a novel he refuses to name, while planning his fall fashion show, which he’ll show in Los Angeles on Feb. 20.
When we think of the fashion-Hollywood fusion, we think first of the front-of-camera types who have crossed over to fashion rather than those who’ve gone the other way. Yet more than anyone else, more than very committed and talented Olsens and Victoria Beckham, certainly more than the myriad celebrities who put their names on projects with varying degrees of involvement, Ford embodies that fusion; he could be its poster demigod.
He thrives on syncing two careers, each distinct, yet one sometimes informing the other. (Was there a review of A Single Man that didn’t list visual splendor among its strengths?) The movies allow the complete creative control that’s in his nature to crave, but that fashion ceded to the battery of phone-wielding guests who have themselves become part of the show; fashion provides the speed and immediacy he didn’t know he’d miss until it was gone.
“I would go crazy sitting around waiting for this movie to be made if it was the only thing I had going on,” he says. “I guess if I were in Hollywood making movies, I might be making more of them.”
That crossover will be apparent at Ford’s show at Milk Studios.
After his spring 2011 return to the runway with a genuinely intimate (the word is often misappropriate in fashion) show in New York for the then-nascent Tom Ford brand, Ford has shown his collection in London where he, husband Richard Buckley and son Jack live, and where he maintains his design studio. The decision to show now in L.A., where he and Buckley have a home, a beyond chic Neutra gem, was made for a simple reason. His name is Oscar.
From New York, the first stop of the primary fashion show circuit, through Paris, the last, the schedule is more or less fixed, save for the small/new/quirky people who meander in and out, particularly in New York. For brands with any degree of profile, your slot is your slot. If last season you showed on Monday at seven, that’s when you’re slotted in this season. A move by a major (see: Marc Jacobs, from Monday night to Thursday, fall 2013) generates news, gossip and twisted knickers. But this season, Monday at seven wouldn’t work for Ford.
To be successful in fashion, confidence is a must, as well as some degree of ego. For sophisticated fashion customers to buy into a designer’s sartorial prescriptives, that designer must himself believe in the veracity of those prescriptives. This, dear client, is what you should wear. Ford’s sense of self takes root in surety and a core lack of delusion. In a face-off with Oscar for international attention, he knew who would win.
“My show was going to be the morning after the Oscars and how much global press am I going to get?” he posed. “Because for two or three days in every newspaper all over the world, there are [Oscar] pictures.”
We’re talking in his square, grandly proportioned London studio, a few hours before meeting again for dinner, with Buckley. The space marries chic and function; neither the artwork, including a large framed campaign photo and a larger Anselm Reyle work in Mylar, nor the impressive furniture (he loves a Lalanne alligator table) trumping the sense that work happens here.
Given that Ford has a Los Angeles home and office, that he often dresses people for the Oscars and typically spends two weeks in L.A. immediately following his fashion show, this one-time switch seemed a no-brainer. Exactly how it will play out is more open to question.
The pragmatic showman in him plays to his audience with clarity of message. Yet with three weeks to go, he’s grappling with exactly what he wants to say. At this point in any season, with the clothes designed and in production, Ford typically takes mental notes of his decisions, examining and questioning the choices he’s made. This time, he will present to a very different audience than that of a typical show—fashion press outnumbered greatly by entertainment press and social, celebrity and other industry guests—onto which he projects very different expectations.
“This one in particular is haunting me,” Ford says. “I’m trying to decide, how does [the audience] affect the show? Do I let it affect the show?”
He wonders if the Hollywood set will expect a casting of conventional beauties as opposed to some of the quirkier types to whom he’s drawn. Then there’s the time factor. To the fashion crowd, a good show is invariably a short show. Very short, these days, sometimes single-digit short. “Is that enough when people have come for cocktails and gotten all dressed up and been standing around for half an hour? They get led to their seat by someone handsome, and everything is nice and beautiful. But is it enough? It will be nine, 10, 12 minutes.
“I think you decide what you want the outcome to be,” he continues. “What is my goal? Is my goal to worry about the fashion journalists and create something that, in their world, is of maximum relevance? Or is my goal to create something relevant yet also successful in the room? I won’t do something that’s only successful in the room and isn’t relevant. I don’t actually know [yet] what the answer is. I’ve already done preliminary casting and I’ve started to think about the hair and makeup. As it all starts to come together, I will find my answer.”
One of his considerations is crossover impact, specifically, the impression on actresses in the room whom he may want to cast in his film. “It’s impossible not to think, ‘are they going to be bored?’” he says. “What are they thinking? Are they going to think, ‘oh my God, [he has] no taste?’”
Though Ford won’t discuss title or plot lest he divulge secrets too early and bore himself along the way, he provides snippets of insight. He wrote the screenplay himself, finishing it in September. It’s an adaptation of a novel for which he bought the rights, not a well-known book and all the better for that. At this point at least, he has little interest in taking on material pre-loaded with audience expectations. He has changed the title and made considerable revisions to the story. As planned, the film is in two parts, the first faithful to the original material, and the second, completely new.
“A book is a book; a film is a film,” Ford says. “They are totally different things. Sometimes things are subtle in a book because there’s an inner monologue with the character, and turning it into a film, you don’t have that inner monologue—unless you do, which I don’t love.…You have to have something personal; you have to take what speaks to you about a book and amplify that. It’s impressionism, in a way.”
Unlike most directors, whose schedules and deadlines are project-based, Ford must work around an intractable fashion calendar. His narrow shooting window runs from Sept. 15 through December. If for some reason the film doesn’t come together in time, his next opportunity is the same time, next year. “I only need six weeks,” he says, noting that editing will be more flexible; he can set up a room in London. He shot A Single Man in 21 days: “I paid for it myself.”
What he will never pay for: the celebrity red-carpet get. “No, I have never paid anyone and no, I wouldn’t,” he insists, while acknowledging that, “Yes, generally they get it for free if it’s an amazing celebrity.”
He typically dresses several men and one woman for the Oscars, though given all of the paid brand ambassadorships out there, the good ladies are increasingly difficult to secure. Whether or not he scores a nominee or top presenter (he’s got something in the works, but in the spirit of you-don’t-know-until-her-car-door-opens), he accepts the ongoing importance of this ultimate in product placement.
Still, he doesn’t love that the red carpet has become a feeding frenzy of mermaids, crystal-encrusted nude mesh and Charles James homage. Thus, he’s become a little more willing to compromise than back in his Gucci Group days, when he rose to fame on a sartorial platform of slick, brash sensuality. Shortly after he left the group, we had a conversation in which he told me he’d never do an Oscar gown he didn’t feel was appropriately on-brand. Now, though still on that page philosophically, he’s less strident.
“It’s different than when I left Gucci,” he notes. “It’s true, what you end up doing is not what you’d send down the runway at all, at all, at all. You mostly try to make sure they don’t look bad, that they look slim.”
And that the look somehow reflects the brand identity.
As for the lack of real fashion on the red carpet, Ford concurs, but argues that too much fashion—read: silhouettes that don’t suggest the waist—is asking for trouble.
“You have to have a waist,” he mandates. “You can be big, but you need to have a waist that has something to do with our standard of beauty. Women have curves, hips, a waist. It isn’t about being thin, it’s about having a waist. And there’s a reason for that. Look at a photograph against a wall. You can look wide with a head on it, or you can have a human shape.”
So no fan of the fashion trapeze or haute sack? Not unless she walks the carpet with her own personal wind machine—he jumps up to imitate a Pat Cleveland-esque twirling and gyration—“and then it will be, ‘she’s on drugs.’”
He’s only half-joking. The red carpet has become a walk of treachery, rife with on-air critics who know fashion, on-air critics who don’t know fashion and millions of couch-potato critics, devices in-hand and ready to rant. Ford maintains his actress friends hate the red carpet, and why wouldn’t they? “I do not know an actress who likes it,” he says. “They’re fearful of what’s going to be in reviews that wouldn’t have been there 25 years ago. They’re fearful of the glam cam. It’s like being on a global game show, and it’s horrible. They’re terrified.”
His advice: “You’re an actress. Play a part. You’re in a movie now, and you’re a major actress stepping out on the red carpet and you’re one of the most beautiful women in the world. Just play the role. Get out of the car.”
During awards season, Los Angeles gets its fashion close-up, on Oscar night squaring off against the ready-to-wear shows for attention and winning. Asked if there’s an overall ascendance to L.A. style, Ford drops the qualification. “There’s an ascendance to L.A.” Yes, he pays attention to the work of Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent—“everyone does,” though he doesn’t like talking about other designers. (He admits to amusement at speculation that arose following Frida Giannini’s departure from Gucci that he might return to the house.) He sees Los Angeles as a bigger picture, a city aging into interesting, while beckoning all kinds of young creative types, those priced out of Brooklyn, to come hither.
“Now parts of Los Angeles are old, parts of it are run-down, it’s starting to feel like a real place and not just a set,” Ford explains. “Because it’s really a 20th-century city, it felt like a set for a long time. It’s developing culturally, physically and metaphorically.”
As for whether he and Buckley would return long-term, right now, they’re happy in London, Jack’s school situation is all set, but “you never know.”
Ford feels very much at home in London, but some home-grown traits linger. He launched the Tom Ford brand with the goal of making it one of the top five luxury brands in the world. That goal receded a bit after Jack was born, but now, the burn is back. “I’m American,” Ford says. “Maybe that’s it—bigger. And I’m from Texas—big, bigger. Why would you not want to be the biggest?”
He stops to qualify his own ambition. He wants maximum scale “without compromising what I do. I don’t want to not be proud of something with my name on it.”
The word compromise has infiltrated Ford’s conversation, a relatively new addition. He invokes it sometimes in passing, and at others, stopping to qualify or explain, lest one infer that he’s relaxing his aesthetic standards. He’s not. Rather, he uses the word in the context of adjustment; the fashion world today is very different from the one Ford exited in 2004. That took some getting used to. Case in point: the pre-seasons. Ford does them but doesn’t show them to editors. He wants them “to stay a delivery, a really nice peacoat, a really good pair of pants. That’s why they’re 60 to 70 percent of the season. Because they’re real.”
The obvious inference is that what Ford puts on the runway is something other than completely real. Yet in the mid-Nineties, a moment of glorious theatricality from the likes of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, Ford made his name as the consummate commercial designer. For all their steam and editorial bravado, his Gucci and Saint Laurent runways featured real clothes.
That was then. “I have this issue with fashion shows and reviews and press,” Ford explains. “I almost wish I were brave enough to send down the runway the clothes that I would order for friends or [tell people] to buy. I believe in everything I send down the runway if Rihanna is wearing it to the Grammy Awards. I believe in it if Miley Cyrus is going to wear it to [something]. I believe in it if a magazine is going to shoot it for their androgyny story. I believe in it if …I am quite torn about that. So how do you resolve it? I don’t know. It’s not the world I left in 2003-04, where you really could do a beautiful show like I did at Saint Laurent and they got good reviews and sold well. I don’t know if that world is still here. Maybe it’s just me.”
While during his fashion hiatus, Ford spent a good deal of time in L.A., he made London his base, following work tenures in Milan and Paris. His long expatriation has provided a perspective on just how different America and Europe are. He’s shocked by what passes for news in the U.S., by how under-informed Americans are of the world. Conversely, he’s moved when visiting New York for fashion events, most recently when he won the CFDA’s Lifetime Achievement Award last year, to experience the industry’s warmth.
“People like each other [in the U.S.] You don’t get that here. Maybe Franca [Sozzani, editor of Italian Vogue] has done it a little.” He’s developed “a nice e-mail friendship” with Joseph Altuzarra, after the young designer self-introduced. On the flip side, perhaps the lack of Euro camaraderie heightens the creativity there. In Hollywood, “No one ever burns any bridges because you’re just forming little things all the time. It’s fascinating.”
He singles out one Brit fashion friend, Stella McCartney, “but we’re real friends.”
Being Ford’s friend means being needled now and then. At one point, the conversation turns to fur, spurred by a reference to the breathtaking mink-trimmed Dior couture dress Nicole Kidman wore to the 1997 Oscars. Ford notes that today, no actress would dare wear fur on the red carpet, yet designers today show more fur than ever before.
“Stella McCartney is showing fur,” he deadpans, referring in deliberate error to her real-looking fakes from pre-fall with prominent outside labels flagging their faux status. “No,” he says, elevating his voice and moving demonstratively into the tape recorder. “I know for a fact it’s real because she’s a really good friend and I’ve seen the pelts.”
But then Ford is an insatiable provocateur. Just as reference to fashion’s most passionate anticruelty advocate results in a fur jest, a question on whether developing his jeans business has impacted his own casual look—suede jacket and “perfectly coordinated double-denim” shirt and jeans—leads, as naturally as day into night, to penis talk. The jeans are doing beautifully and “I’ve got a TF on my crotch.” A glance downward displays a discreet TF embroidery on his fly.
Speaking of crotches, it’s less than a week since Rick Owens showed his men’s collection featuring men in skirts that flapped open to reveal the full monty. While Ford might have cast different penises and would not have gone the erect route, he admires the effort. It irks him that full-frontal male nudity is our last taboo.
“OK, I’m not going to wear it, but I think [Owens] is an artist in the way that McQueen was an artist,” he says. “As an artistic statement—equal opportunity objectification.”
Ford gets up from his chair to grab a framed picture from a cabinet. It’s a full-frontal shot from his 2002 campaign for Yves Saint Laurent M7 fragrance, shot by Sølve Sundsbø. It ran only in Europe. When it did, he received a note from Victor Skrebneski with a print of a photo he’d taken in 1976. It, too, featured a man in full-frontal glory, and was shot for a Saint Laurent fragrance. “I’m sending you a photo I did as a bid for their men’s fragrance,” Ford quotes the photographer’s missive. “They thought it was vile and crap” [even though Saint Laurent himself had posed naked five years previously]. “Congratulations. You’ve broken the male barrier.”
It’s a subject on which Ford is quite serious. A few years ago, he penned a piece for GQ, “a really serious article” for which he interviewed and photographed 10 men naked on the assurance the magazine had secured Condé Nast clearance to run the photographs as-is. They ran with yellow censored bars across them. Ford was furious.
“We use women’s bodies to sell everything, but we have a weird hang-up about naked men,” he offers. Which brings him full circle back to the merch. “Why not put a TF right here? If people are going to stare at my crotch, they might as well see the logo.”
Parenthood hasn’t diminished Ford’s comfort level with nudity on display. Well, maybe a little. Not surprisingly, the Buckley-Ford homes feature plenty of art, including some of the au natural variety. On a corner table in Ford’s office stands a sculpture by Jake and Dinos Chapman of a naked, wild-eyed, long-haired boy. His penis is hardly unsettling; it has nothing on the boy’s second set of legs that fly out from his hips in a perpendicular frenzy. The lad once resided at the house, but no longer. “I thought it might scare Jack,” Ford said. “It’s a bit ‘Chucky.’”
And these days, Jack is the center of everything, including Ford’s renewed commitment to break into that global luxury top five. One day, it will be Jack’s. “If he wants it, he can do it,” Ford says. “If he doesn’t, he can sell my name.”