NEW YORK — Whether describing his briefcase-carrying 7-year-old self, his overextended days at Gucci Group or why he likes to bathe four or five times a day, Tom Ford was unapologetic and entertaining Tuesday night at the 92Y here.
When his interviewer Fern Mallis ran through a checklist of Virgo traits — precise, affectionate, everything is in order, sharp memory, attention to detail — Ford offered, “Anal retentive. But I don’t like that term.
This story first appeared in the May 10, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“You know, the world might be a very scary place if it were only run by Virgos. Perfectionists — I don’t know if there are any psychologists in the room — are more prone to depression because perfection is not achievable. Imperfection is perfection but that goes so against the grain. Fashion has a lot of Virgos — Stella McCartney, Karl Lagerfeld, Carine Roitfeld — there are a lot of us. To really obsess about a millimeter on a shoe, it helps to be a Virgo.”
He was also quick to turn the tables when Mallis asked him about being 50. “Fern was born on March 26, 1948. She is on the cusp of an Aries and she just turned 64. I Google my interviewer right before I come on. Then you have to disarm them.”
When she started in about aging, he said, “Am I aging? You are freaking me out — I’m gay, I’m aging, what is this a roast? Am I gaining weight?”
While the Tom Ford-isized Gwyneth Paltrow at this year’s Oscars was one of his proudest fashion moments, he sounded even more excited describing how he bumped into two of the “Downton Abbey” actresses at Monday’s Met ball. And the fact that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos wore a Tom Ford tuxedo was an added bonus — and “he paid retail.”
Quick-witted as Ford was, he broached more serious subjects, like the fallout at Gucci Group and Yves Saint Laurent, how drinking was once an escape and why he does not carry a cell phone. Judging from his rapid answers and insistence that you tell people repeatedly you love them, the Texas-born, London-based Ford appeared to be in a very good place. Three films are in the works, but shooting won’t start anytime soon now that he is doing women’s ready-to-wear, has 20-plus fragrances and a thriving men’s business.
“In general, I am the most comfortable and happy that I have ever been in my entire life. I feel very satisfied. It doesn’t mean I want to die tomorrow or anything, but I feel very much myself,” he said.
Here, a recap of some of the many opinions he shared with Mallis during a 100-minute conversation in front of a sell-out crowd.
Bullied for Carrying a Briefcase as a Kid
The big thing was to put rocks in a sock and swing it around — “Whack!” And of course they slit my bike tires. I didn’t want to carry a bookbag. I thought it looked messy. And it was a real man’s briefcase. When you’re 7 years old, a real briefcase is like luggage.…I am working with Brett Ratner, judging some antibullying films. Individuality is key. We should all be able to be who we are.
Whether he Recognized he Was Gay as a Child
No, am I gay? First of all, I hate that word. Of course I’m gay, but I don’t like these labels. It’s not how I define myself. Yes, I’m gay, but I’m also known to be anal retentive, a pain in the ass.
On Making it
You never make it, especially in this industry where you constantly churn out stuff, things. You never finish. In the last year, I’ve had a comeback, I’ve been finished, I’ve come back again. You can’t rest.…I bought a house and then another house and another house. I bought great art and a lot of material things which did not make me happy. Sometimes you have to be lucky enough to be given all those things to realize that.
Dawn Mello’s Words of Wisdom
Dawn taught me one of the great, great lessons in life: “Only hire people you want to have dinner with.”
This Is Your Final Answer
As a designer, design director or any creative person, you have to hire great people, support them and make them feel comfortable so they can contribute and give you their best. You have to have a vision, inspire them and lead them slowly towards your vision. But in the end, this is not a democracy and you may say, “That is a great thing but I don’t want to do that.”
Adding Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Nicolas Ghesquière to the Gucci Group
I took my job very seriously. I was a good corporate soldier. When François Pinault invested $3.3 billion in our company, I was the only creative designer and I thought it was very important that I was not the only creative designer sitting in this company. So I thought, “All right, who do I admire, who has potential and who doesn’t conflict?”
How Domenico De Sole and the Inner Circle Dealt With the Prospective Takeover
We were like the cast of “Friends.” You couldn’t separate us. We stuck together. We spent a good part of every morning talking about what happened the night before, what should we do…and then we would try to design. It was very, very stressful and it was tough. But we stuck together and the company stuck together.
Falling Out of Favor With Yves Saint Laurent
He was very friendly at first. We knew each other and he very much wanted me to design the collection.…As things started to go well and we started to get good reviews, he was no longer my friend. I actually have some wonderful handwritten letters, very beautiful handwriting. “In 13 minutes, you have destroyed what I have worked for for 40 years.” I didn’t take it very well while he was alive. He was very pointed about me in the press. I haven’t seen or talked to Pierre [Bergé] since then but I have to say one of the reasons I wanted to work at Yves Saint Laurent is that, like most people, I was an incredible fan. I was a little devastated that he felt that way, but then our sales were great, our reviews were great and more and more people were wearing our clothes.
The Final Bow at Gucci in 2004
We were no longer a public company. We were not going to be able to run the company with the autonomy we had. I flew to the Oscars but I was not there very long. I got right back on a plane and flew to Paris for my last Yves Saint Laurent show. In a lot of ways, I feel I willed my departure from Gucci. I knew in 2002 I couldn’t keep going. I had everything I wanted in my life. I had a wonderful person in my life. I had so much and yet I was not happy.
Gone Too Far
I had been drinking always but I started drinking more. I was no longer drinking to relax and to be social. I was drinking to escape and that is a very different kind of drinking. I knew had to quit.…That rapid swing — trend after trend, season after season and the globalization, which we helped create in the world where all of a sudden everyone was buying the same thing — was draining. We were producing 16 collections a year as well as going to business meetings because I was on the board. It was too much. I really couldn’t take it anymore.
The Easy Life
I really thought I was going to retire and I was never ever going back to fashion. I hadn’t played golf in years. I bought some new golf clubs. Can you imagine me golfing? I was pretty good as a kid. Now golf shoes have changed. They don’t wear steel cleats any more so I had them custom made. I also insisted on still playing with wooden clubs. I was bored out of my mind.
How Film Differs from Fashion
It’s very, very different. The film industry is slow and I would lose my mind. You can really only make a movie every couple of years. I love to design. I am a commercial fashion designer. I always design jackets with two sleeves. I don’t design jackets with three sleeves or the layers and layers come off like little dolls from Russia. Fashion for me is a creative endeavor but it is not art for me.
Making Design Your Own
If you’re going to be a fashion designer and you’re going to be relevant, you have to be part of the time. You also have to have a sense of history and pick up the spirit of those who came before you and then make it your own. Coco Chanel once said, “Creativity is the art of concealing your sources.” Now we all suck up inspiration from everywhere. You can take a direct line from me to Halston but you can take Halston back to Madeleine Vionnet right back. Open a Vionnet book and you will see a lot of things that Halston took.
The Road Not Taken
In another life I would love to be a cosmetic surgeon because it’s architectural. You know, you are trying to figure out where the seams go. Can I do it in one piece like Halston? Can you formaldehyde DNA?
Following Other Designers’ Work
[I follow] every other designer’s work. I admire so many young designers. I met Joseph Altuzarra last night [at the Met] and he sent me the sweetest e-mail this morning. It is so wonderful watching somebody’s career take off. And Joseph is such a nice person. I admired him before I met him.
Advice for Aspiring Designers
It might be the same thing that people used to tell me when I said I wanted to be an actor, which is, “If there is anything else in the world that you would be happy doing, do that.” I’m serious. This is the harshest industry. I have worked in the film industry with people like Harvey Weinstein, who is a great man but he is also very tough. But, I’m telling you, that industry is easy compared to what we do.
On Dropping Out of NYU and Acting in Commercials
I was going to Studio 54 a lot.…I had 12 national commercials running at the same time. Half of them are under different names and you will never find them. There was a Tom Ford in SAG when I joined. I didn’t really want to be an actor. I kind of wanted to be a movie star. But I was also very insecure. I was doing this Prell shampoo commercial. This hairdresser was brushing my hair, I don’t want to do the lisp and then I will be the next stereotype, and he said, “You’re losing your hair.” I just panicked and started to obsess that my hair was starting to recede.
Getting a B.A. in Environmental Design
It was a combination of interior design and architecture. I wanted to be an architect. I transferred back to Parsons in New York. I took all of my electives in fashion. In 1984-85, I worked in the press office at Chloé in Paris. I packed up shoes, sent back clothes, organized the Chloé sample closet — the same things everyone does when they start out.
Deciding on Fashion While Sick in Bed on a School Trip to Moscow
I was stuck in my room, it was two in the morning and I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ I literally sat up in bed and thought, “Fashion. I have always been obsessed with fashion.” It was just, “Ping,” which is how things happen with me. I just think about things and then the answer comes.
Landing the First Job
I drew up a fashion portfolio. I wanted to get a job with this lovely woman, Cathy Hardwick. I went outside 575 Seventh Avenue with a bunch of quarters — this was before cell phones —and I just called and called and called every 10 minutes. She finally saw me. I showed her my portfolio. I had graduated from Parsons and she assumed since I was showing her a fashion portfolio, I studied fashion. Anyway, I got the job. She then said later it was because I had pretty hands. The first day on the job she said, “Draw some circle skirts.” So I went downstairs to the double R train, went to Bloomingdale’s, found a circle skirt, looked at how the seams were made, ran back to the office, sketched the circle skirts and put them on her desk. So I learned on the job.
Meeting his Life Partner, Richard Buckley
I went to a fashion show and this silver-haired guy was staring at me with these piercing water-blue eyes. It scared me because I absolutely saw and knew my entire future. At the end of the show, I just bolted. About 10 days later, Cathy asked me to pick up some clothes at Women’s Wear Daily. Richard was…at Women’s Wear Daily…He was standing on the roof — I’m telling this from Richard’s vantage point now — and someone asked if he was seeing anyone. He said, “No, there was this guy I had seen at a fashion show” and at that moment the elevator door opened and there I was. Richard jumps in the elevator and he’s practically tap dancing.…We had three dates. We were living together four weeks later; he gave me the keys to his apartment and we have lived together ever since.
Love and Marriage
I would absolutely get married to Richard [Buckley.] By the way, the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages.…I have always wanted children, but I think I’d better get busy soon because I still want to be able to pick them up.
Taking Four or Five Baths a Day
If I’m sending e-mails and I get all wound up and stressed and don’t know what to do with myself for 20 minutes. I just go soak in hot water and lie there, thinking, “What should I do?” So it’s meditative.
Walking Around at Home Mostly Naked
Yes, don’t you walk around your house naked sometimes?
The Digital World
I live on the Internet, absolutely. I do not carry a cell phone but I am on the computer eight hours a day. I feel like if something really happens, somebody is going to get to me. I want to be looking and living and engaged. It’s just a personal thing and I can’t stand to talk to someone on a cell phone. If someone calls me on one, I will say, “Let’s talk later when you are on a hard line.”
Keeping up With the News
I read The Daily Beast, Cheat Sheet and The International Herald Tribune. I live in London and it takes me exactly the time from my house to my office to read it. I am very much an American but I do miss the international take on the news when I am here — rather than “Live at 5: Five New Ways to Reduce Cellulite.”
Leaving New York
I loved New York when I was young. I used to hate to even go to the country for the weekend because I was afraid I would miss something. But at this stage in my life I feel as though…you probably notice maybe not that I close my eyes a lot when I talk because I get overstimulated. Everything is so stimulating in New York. Even when I was trying to sleep, I could feel the vibration.
On the Influence of His Many-Times-Married Liz Taylor-Inspired Grandmother
She was one of these Texas women — big hair, big makeup, big Cadillac El Dorado, she always had gifts and presents. She used to say one thing and I don’t know if she stole this from Auntie Mame: “You have one decision to make in life. You can either be happy or not be happy.”
Anything on the Bucket List?
Just to have maybe 40 more years of this.
Tom’s Bon Mots
Maybe it has something to do with his Hollywood connection, but Tom Ford delivered his lines — one-liners to be precise — like a pro. So many people wanted to hear what he had to say that the event sold out four months ago and upstairs seating had to be added for live-stream viewing. (The only other luminary who required a second round of seats at the Y was Woody Allen.)
Here, some of Ford’s ad-libs:
“It’s funny because my family has been in Texas since the 1840s or something. I put on a cowboy hat and I don’t look stupid. Most people look stupid and, with me, it’s like it just grew there. It’s very bizarre. I actually look surprisingly good in jeans and a plaid shirt on my horse in a cowboy hat.”
“I was one of those kids who was never comfortable being a child. I wanted to hang out with adults. I wanted to listen to what they were saying. I wanted to go to cocktail parties. I ended up mixing a few too many in my time.”
“Moving to Santa Fe coming from Texas was very exotic. I mean, Charles Manson was living there. Many of the roads were dirt. There were hippie communes.”
“Azealia Banks right now is amazing and Lianne La Havas is also great. But, c’mon, I grew up in the Sixties and the Seventies. Put on the Bee Gees and immediately I’m ‘Staying Alive.’”
“We are on camera so, yeah, there is a little powder there. Yes, of course, I do not come out fully made up every day but if I have a little pimple or something I am going to get a little concealer to cover it up.”
“A man can’t have a facelift very well because they cut here and then you have your sideburns in your ear. I quite like my beard. There is this little gap here. I am always looking to see whose got the hairs growing out of the side of the ears.”
“I relax by skiing, riding and playing tennis. And I figured out why. When you’re involved with any of those things, and other sports as well, you can’t be thinking of anything else.”
“My grandmother was married six times. She liked husband number three the best. His name was Hal. By the time she married the last time, she was 77 and she just called him Hal and he didn’t seem to mind.”
“I want to hear everyone’s opinion, I want to digest all of it and then I make a decision. And I usually don’t waiver once it’s decided.”