If you were on the show circuit during Tom Ford’s first fashion life, his hiatus from the runway left a big fat void.
During that heady span from fall 1995’s hip-hugger heat to his exit from Gucci Group in 2004, the invitations may have read “Gucci” and “Yves Saint Laurent,” but the swagger, the bravado, the breathy sexual tension were all Ford. The man didn’t invent sexy dressing and it will be around long after his best sexual fantasies are just that. But no one else in recent memory has steamed up the runway more convincingly than he; you typically left his shows more tingly than when you went in. And oh, yes, it wasn’t just for show. Together with Domenico De Sole, Ford built an incredible fashion business where one had not existed before.
These days, the label reads “Tom Ford.” So did the invitations that heralded the designer’s return to a full- scale show, this one at London’s heavily gilded Lancaster House. Though the runway itself was familiar territory, the reaction to the show Ford called “Cross Cultural Multi Ethnic”—code for head-spinning mashes of color, pattern, texture and all-around visual overload—took him by surprise. He expected people to love his Eighties-centric, antiminimalist manifesto. Instead, many in the audience— including critics charged with reviewing the collection—were at first shocked and then utterly perplexed.
Ford discussed that dichotomy and other matters with WWD. Among his points: his expectation that the Tom Ford brand will become a top-five luxury brand globally “certainly within the next 10 years, if not sooner.”
WWD: The audience reaction you felt backstage was very different than what you’d expected. How so? Tom Ford: I expected a very strong, positive reaction. That’s because I felt absolutely exuberant with that collection. I felt excited about the clothes in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time, and I felt excited about every single piece. I didn’t want to be bored with any single piece. If there was a piece that was even remotely boring, I didn’t want it on that runway. I wanted every single piece to be collectable.
And there is that customer now. There is that customer that pretty much just shops at our level for collectable, amazing pieces. They don’t want ordinary, and in fact, ordinary doesn’t sell for me. For example, the more expensive fragrances are the bestsellers.
WWD: So you expected a very strong reaction. T.F.: I expected a more positive reaction in a stronger way. And what I got was a sort of stunned reaction. I couldn’t read [it] when people started to come backstage—what they thought. But that simple fact was proof of not getting the reaction that I thought I was going to get. And the reviews were lukewarm. They were not “Oh my God, those are the worst things I’ve ever seen,” but they also weren’t “Oh my God, that was great.” They were sort of old-fashioned reviews, like “Well, there were pink jackets.”
WWD: Descriptives aplenty? T.F.: I thought, “Are people just trying to be nice because they like that I’m showing in London? Or were people just stunned?” Then when people started to get to Milan, I started to get e-mails from fashion-editor friends, or editors that I’m close enough to that have my personal e-mail address. Some of them were extremely positive. But the whole thing felt a little more silent than I expected it to, because the clothes are not silent. WWD: Certainly not—at least from the pictures. If you could do it over, would you? T.F.: I think that I chose the venue inappropriately. It’s hard to not fall back on things that have worked for you in the past and to make those steps toward moving forward. The way I show—I have got to move forward. The space, the room, the boys, the champagne… WWD: Boys and Champagne. T.F.: The place that we showed was so opulent. It was a royal palace and Queen Victoria was said to have been jealous of it. It’s in immaculate condition with every bit of gilt in place. That wasn’t enough—I had to line the steps with 75 boys. I had their hair all cut the same way. We had to line them up and cut their hair; of course they had been cast. There were waiters and ushers, and the waiters were all in white jackets and white gloves serving Champagne, serving gin and tonics.
It was in the evening, so when you drove up, the facade was amazing; there were flaming torches. And then the opulence of the rooms, which have amazing chandeliers, which of course we spot-lit, and gilded ceilings. The opulence of the room with the opulence of the clothes, I think it was ultimately just too heavy. Had I shown those same clothes in a stark white environment, I think they would have had a very different reaction.
WWD: But the clothes were shocking in themselves, don’t you think? There was so much going on. T.F.: There was a lot going on, which I wanted. I did put a card in the seats which no one really read, and some reviewer said she sat on it. WWD: “Cross Cultural Multi Ethnic?” T.F.: Yes, which is what it was. I’m not going to say there weren’t any failures. There were maybe two outfits that if I were doing it over again, I would change.
WWD: What two? T.F.: I don’t want to say the model.…I probably would have recombined a couple of outfits, but I would say, 90 percent of that show I would send out exactly the same and I loved it. It was meant to be extremely potent. It’s the kind of clothes that our customer would collect, that I want someone to collect, to keep and be in their closet in 20 years because they are such amazing pieces. If you have the money, I think it’s sort of cool that your boots match your skirt match your jacket. I mean, who does that anymore? WWD: A bit more description, please. T.F.: Well, this was on a beautiful, beautiful black girl named Herieth [Paul], who is probably my favorite current model. She’s wearing pink patchwork boots—it’s patchwork pony, astrakhan, velvet—and a matching skirt and a matching jacket. Head-to-toe pink. One blogger wrote it was like Escada on acid, which actually I think is kind of a compliment, because Escada used to match everything. We haven’t seen that for a long time. And if you’re Rihanna, who is a customer, if you’re that kind of person who can pull off matching hot-pink boots, skirt and jacket, and patchwork multimaterials, I think it’s great.
For the average person, if you buy one of those pieces, everything else can be very simple and it will still be a very strong outfit, because every piece was meant to be hyper-potent.
WWD: Rihanna is not the average luxury customer. Should the runway be for the most extreme customers? T.F.: Yes, for me. You have to have a point of inspiration. At one point of my life, it would have been Grace Jones. At one point, it would have been Diana Ross—I did a Diana Ross collection at Saint Laurent. This is also one reason I didn’t do runway presentations for a while. A runway presentation, at least for me, it is reality, but it’s a hyped-up reality.
Whenever I’m working on a collection, everything does have to be real, and those outfits are real to me. If I think, “OK, who is wearing this and where is she going?” And I think, “OK, that’s Rihanna, and she’s going to her lawyer’s office in that all-black outfit and she’s hung over and that’s why she’s wearing those glasses. Yet she’s still a rock star.”
WWD: And the real woman? T.F.: She can buy just the jacket or just the boots, so that works. You have to think about how these things photograph. How do they look online? A black dress doesn’t look like anything online. A patchwork colored jacket does look like something. And there have been articles written about the sales of things online. Knowing that this was the first show [of mine] that was going to be photographed and on the Internet within minutes, I designed it for photography. I designed it for those media and I designed it for that kind of customer who can get away with wearing that. But we do have those customers. We have a lot of them. And it isn’t just Rihanna. I mean, Lisa Eisner would wear that.
There are women who have enough style and enough nerve to pull off some of those looks, and that’s what I’m in the mood for. I’m in the mood for that kind of woman and those kinds of clothes. Things that make me go, “Wow! What is that? Oh my God, look at that! That is insane! Is that mad? No! Really?!” That’s what I’m in the mood for. I’m tired of seeing all these very sad clothes where you have to be a breathtaking beauty in order to pull them off.
WWD: Some would argue that you have to be a breathtaking beauty to pull off this flamboyance. T.F.: I think you have to have amazing style to pull this off. Jolie laide, the French expression for beautiful-ugly. I think you just have to have style and a massive amount of confidence. WWD: When you did that very personal show in New York with Beyoncé, Marisa Berenson, Joan Smalls, you allowed only your own photographer, Terry Richardson. You criticized the current fashion system and said you didn’t want the show photos circulating so early. T.F.: And I don’t. A lot of the things I did—it’s not going to sound anything but egotistical—if I’m lucky and I did the right thing, they will be at Zara way before I can get them in the store and I don’t like that. [But] my company has gone to a point where I can no longer service the global markets that I need to service by doing one-on-one presentations. However, even if I’d been doing one-on-one presentations, I would have been doing a very flamboyant collection this season because that was what I was in the mood for.
WWD: Does your return to the runway indicate that you felt chastised by the press reaction when you didn’t allow photographers? T.F.: No, not at all.
WWD: Virginie [Mouzat] wrote a scathing review in Le Figaro. [Mouzat is now editor in chief of fashion, lifestyle and feature stories for French Vanity Fair, due out in July.] T.F.: To be quite honest, Virginie is to blame for that review. I wasn’t showing that collection on the runway and it was never meant for the runway. It was a showroom collection designed for the showroom. Virginie called our offices and asked to see it, and we weren’t showing it. She used several four-letter words to our p.r. department and got quite hysterical. We then all got a little panicked because she was so vehement and I thought, “God, maybe we do need to have a little runway show—people are starting to get a little angry.” So we did a small runway show. It was horrible. That was one of the worst collections I’ve ever designed in my life.
WWD: Really? T.F.: Yes and I’m happy to admit it. It had no focus and no point of view. It was a showroom collection of nice dresses, nice jackets, nice skirts that was never meant to be [on the runway]. It was not cohesive. My philosophy for a few seasons was to be individual about [the clothes] so that every single person could come into my store and find something that was right for her. It didn’t work because it didn’t give a cohesive point of view about what I believed in for the season. That was one of those collections. I was at that point still thinking, “OK, what’s Carine [Roitfeld] going to wear? What’s Marisa Berenson going to wear? What’s Lisa Eisner going to wear?” Without those actual women in the clothes, it looked disjointed. Like, this isn’t a collection, this is just some clothes. While there were some very pretty pieces and some things that sold well, it was a terrible collection.