It was a golden moment for Gucci and all of fashion.
The Tom Ford era at Gucci was remarkable in a way not at all diminished by the cool distance of hindsight. Rather, those who attend the collections and sit through the endless Milan schedule feel Ford’s absence acutely and now realize just how much one designer can bring to a season.
Of course, what Ford brought most spectacularly, and most obviously, was sex. When, in his fourth season for women’s at Gucci, he exploded into superstardom with Amber Valletta under a spotlight in her shiny shirt and low-slung velvet pants, he forged a new path with blatantly sexual style. This was a major departure in an industry still reeling from the impact of AIDS and mired in a conglomeration of antifashion movements — grunge, deconstruction, the waif, heroin chic — all editorial delights and box-office poison.
Ford had arrived at Gucci five years earlier, hired by creative director Dawn Mello to work under design director Richard Lambertson. Their departures left Gucci’s creative direction in Ford’s hands, and at the still-young age of 32, he didn’t quite know what to do with it. But a ditzy teacup print or two aside, it didn’t take him long to figure it out. He studied paparazzi photos from the Seventies of Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn decked out in Gucci this or Gucci that, although, truth be told, he made much of the house’s fabulous past that, arguably, erred on the side of embellishment. He decided to play to a woman — or perhaps, more correctly, to create a woman — who lived a latter-day Studio 54 lifestyle, one of wild nights, high-gloss lips and seriously premeditated chic.
The attitude stunned from the start. Although the early impact proved most dramatic — those first few collections, according to Ford, when all that runway sex felt so daring and new — it continued to captivate throughout his takeover of Yves Saint Laurent, where he depicted a slightly more smoldering type, and right through his final blockbusters for both houses.
Nevertheless, to equate Ford’s designs primarily with sex is to miss the larger point: They were also about power. His was a woman in control until she decided to run out of control. She chose her aggressive sexuality, she chose to perfect every last element of her hair and makeup and she chose to be noticed. In a sense, Ford took the cartoon power woman of the Eighties, unplugged her palette, de-spiked her hair and granted her vastly more options. This time, she might as well have been a kept woman as a boardroom bitch. He made no judgments, as long as she was fabulously put together. Looking good, he always maintained, takes work; he had only disdain for wash-and-wear types.
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