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If you were on the show circuit during Tom Ford’s first fashion life, his hiatus from the runway left a big fat void.
This story first appeared in the April 15, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
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.
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.
WWD: Were you stung by that review?
T.F.: Virginie got personal. Her review was only a little about the clothes and a lot about me. That’s what I had a problem with, and that’s what I think is wrong. Really wrong. Say the clothes are the worst clothes that I’ve ever seen, but you don’t need to start talking about the person or their personal life. It was wrong. But, I didn’t ban her. I’ve never banned a journalist in my life. That was her opinion. Whatever, she’s entitled to it. She was invited back next time.
WWD: Back to the most recent collection, did you intend to reference the Eighties so strongly?
T.F.: There’s certainly an Eighties mood to it, but it wasn’t intended. It was more intuition. I wasn’t looking at a lot of pictures of the Eighties, I wasn’t thinking, “This is the Eighties.” It was, in retrospect, very much the kind of clothes that we saw in the Eighties. And by the way, the pattern mixes—and somebody will read this and say, “Oh my God, his ego is giant,”—but Lacroix used to mix up crazy, wacky things you just would never [think would look right together]. And Lacroix, I think, was absolutely one of the most brilliant designers. My God, when I was in design school and I used to go to those Jean Patou shows, the little ones.
WWD: Lacroix’s couture collections were some of the most amazing moments that I’ve had in fashion.
T.F.: Oh, he was incredible. If I could aspire to even a little bit of that, that would be a great thing. He was a great designer and I miss him and I don’t know where he went.…So anyway, yes there was definitely an Eighties feel to [my show].
WWD: In my memory, you’ve never been this flamboyant. You used to say, “I am a commercial designer; these are clothes meant to be worn.”
T.F.: I am still a commercial designer. Every single piece on that runway is being sold and every single piece on that runway has been selling really well and every single piece can be found in black on black on black. I believe that every single woman can wear almost every single piece of that collection if it’s in black, or even if not.
Like I said, if you take the little pink patchwork bomber jacket and put it on with a pair of jeans and strappy high-heeled sandals, your daughter can wear it, if she can afford it. There are a lot of 25-year-olds who are married to someone really rich or are the daughters of someone really rich. They’re our customer, and they’ll look great in them.
WWD: All of that said, are you happy to be on the runway or is this what you didn’t want to have to worry about?
T.F.: I have to tell you—I really resisted it, and then I got so into it. And then the fact that I didn’t get the response that I wanted has only made me more determined to get it next season. I realized actually I’m a showman and I felt a little sad maybe without a show.
WWD: That’s a great line. That should be on a pillow.
T.F.: But it’s true! And also the fear factor, knowing, “OK, sh-t. Everyone’s going to see this. And everyone is going to see it immediately. It has to be good.” That’s a driver for me. Jumping through a hoop has always been a major driver for me. I get a great deal of pleasure. I was a little depressed, sad for about five days, but then I was like, “OK, that’s over. What was wrong? How can I make it better? What can I learn? What am I doing next time? Next season?” And I just go again.
WWD: Will you change the show approach next season?
T.F.: Yes, I have to. I have to move forward. It’s very interesting for me and I’m not quite sure what I’ll move forward to, but because of the way [shows] are photographed and put online, they are almost more of an installation.
It’s interesting. Marc’s [spring 2013] show, which looked so interesting visually, the black-and-white show with everyone standing, and then his other one from the same season [for Louis Vuitton] with the checkerboards coming down the escalator—those were almost art installations, as opposed to what I’m used to, which is a runway show of girls walking down it in clothes. So fashion has moved in the way of fashion presentations. I look at these shows as sort of installations, whether it’s Raf’s or Karl’s, I mean, my God—and the Vuitton sets. These things are so much about an installation. It’s very interesting.
WWD: The clothes have to live up to the set.
T.F.: Oh, absolutely.
WWD: Are you considering a big installation next time?
T.F.: I don’t think an installation—I still want to see the girls walk and I still want to see the girls move. It’s more about the kind of light I use and the kind of runway that they’re on and the room and the space. You have to take into account what people go through before they get to their chairs because that says a lot. What’s your experience from the time you walk into the door until you sit down? That sets the stage, literally, for what you’re about to see.
It’s a message, as well, and it may be even more a message now than it was in 2004. I missed a big chunk—and you have to refind yourself. I’m in a totally different place. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. I’m not the guy who’s designing clothes for someone who is doing lines of coke off the table, like I was when I was at Gucci and Saint Laurent. But anyway, I love these clothes and I believe they will sell at retail. As I said, in our showroom, we just finished sales last week and we were three times higher than we had projected.
WWD: Are they selling universally?
T.F.: Yes, but I have to say this collection sold like crazy to our Russian stores. Not surprising. Not surprising because of the way it was presented, because that is the way our customer will wear it, whereas maybe it takes a little more understanding of what you’re seeing on the runway to know, “OK, I can break this down and wear this jacket,” which is how it will look in our stores, by the way. When you walk into the showroom, there’s a big section of black, then there are two pink jackets, then there’s a section of black, then there’s a purple jacket, purple skirt, purple boots. And that’s what it will look like in stores. Pieces that were on the runway. Why show a plain pair of pants on the runway? Unless we are at a moment when everything is so flamboyant that it’s amazing to see a plain pair of pants on the runway.
WWD: You sound sick of minimalism.
T.F.: I am. I’m sick of it in everything. The art I’ve been buying recently is much more colorful and completely contemporary, generated by artists who are in their 30s right this very second. Before, I was quite a classicist and a bit of a throwback to a different era. I bought a lot of Warhols. I was lucky; I bought a lot of things at the right time….But anyway, there was a relevance to this season in what you just asked. Why did I go off on that tangent?
T.F.: I am sick of minimalism. I’m not only sick of it in clothes. I’m color-starved. I don’t want to do the obvious thing and all of a sudden attribute it to having a child [Alexander John “Jack” Buckley Ford, born in September.] But having to decorate [Jack’s] room in a color was really hard and now that he’s here, I find that I don’t have nearly the aversion. There’s a hot pink room in one place, a bright orange in another house, a chartreuse room in another house.
But there have been moments in my career when I was very much about color—the velvet hip-hugger collection was a lot of color. I fluctuate between a lot of color and black and white. This season I was in the mood for a lot of color.
WWD: Unexpected reaction aside, being a showman without a show made you sad. Would you suggest to other show-weary designers that a few seasons off might renew the love of the show?
T.F.: I just don’t know. I didn’t realize that I was suffering psychologically and creatively by not having a show until I had one. And I had one because I was forced to have one. It wasn’t that I said, “Oh I’m in the mood for a show.” It was that standing there, doing 30-minute private shows for two days and staying up until 3 a.m. to shoot the look book and still no one seeing the actual clothes, I realized, “I can’t do this anymore,” and there is nowhere to go for me if we continue growing, because we’ll have 100 stores by the end of 2014.
WWD: How many do you have now?
T.F.: Oh, 60-something and we’re opening London. We just opened two in Paris. I mean, I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but it’s very impressive. We’ve built a distribution network that’s huge and the company is doing very well and growing and growing and our sales have been very strong.
WWD: Are you surprised by how much the company has grown since the beauty launch?
T.F.: Yes and no, because it’s nowhere near where I want it to be.
WWD: Where do you want it to be?
T.F.: I want it to be one of the five largest, most developed luxury brands in the world.
WWD: Is that your goal?
T.F.: Yes, absolutely, if not number one, then number two. [However] by the time you get to number one or number two, you have to start to make a ton of stuff you don’t like, and you sort of have to be making ugly $300 bags that are selling in China. And by the way—they are. The top three companies, let’s say, in terms of volume—they are. You’d be really surprised at some of the frightening products that you have to generate if you want to go to that scale.
WWD: The current luxury leaders have had a giant head start. Could a relatively new luxury brand break into the top five?
T.F.: I could and will, certainly within the next 10 years, if not sooner. But I think there are very few people in the world that could. I say that in the most humble way, meaning that I’ve had every advantage that anyone could possibly have. I had enough money to self-finance. I had a well-known name. I had 20 years of experience working for very big companies with no fear of scale, meaning when I was at Gucci I had a $70 million advertising and communications budget that I oversaw. The scale of things—I mean we were a $3 billion company when I left, and the entire Gucci group was bigger than that. I have no fear of scale.
WWD: You say in 10 years, you’ll break into the top five. Joining whom?
T.F.: Well, I think we all know that LVMH is top in terms of volume, I believe. I’m sorry—Vuitton. I would think Gucci is a very close second, I would think that Armani is right up there. Then Chanel. Prada is probably a little ways down. Does this all sound terribly egotistical?
WWD: You just said you’ve had advantages that no one else has.
T.F.: Advantages that I don’t think anyone ever maybe had.
WWD: Your situation does seem unique in fashion. You’ve come from a major brand that had roots and a name and a major group behind it.
T.F.: A major group that we built, by the way. François Jr. [François-Henri Pinault] was not very kind to me in a recent New York Times article, and this is on the record by the way. All I can say is it’s much easier to wind a watch than it is to build a watch. You have to be careful because if you wind it too tight, it stops. He was incredibly rude about me in this piece. I couldn’t believe it. We had a non-disparagement agreement in place and I have to say, he basically threw it out the window. That may sound like bitter grapes and I’ll regret having said it to you, but whatever.
WWD: On the record?
T.F.: Absolutely. He started that little feud. He sent me a little apology note but I haven’t responded back to that.
WWD: You’re still resentful about what happened at Gucci Group?
T.F.: Resentful isn’t the right word because in the end, I also knew in some way that it was time to move on. When I read things where someone reinvented history and completely talks about my time and Domenico’s time at the company in a negative way and, still yet, they wanted to buy us—that’s different.
I’m talking about a particular article and some particular things that were said. That’s upsetting. Domenico and I and a lot of us at Gucci worked there as though it were our own company, and for a long time as a publicly traded company. It’s hard to leave a place that you invested so much time and energy and love in. But I don’t regret it at all. I’m actually much happier now. It’s a false security—and there are a lot of designers in the world who have this same false sense of security right now—if your name is not on the door, you don’t own the business. You’re probably not as secure as you think you might be.
WWD: After John Galliano, people seem to be more aware of that than ever. Especially now with this whole balancing act of brand vs. designer. Brand seems to have the upper hand.
WWD: A little sad, but maybe essential.
T.F.: It’s essential, but I also feel sad for so many young designers when I read they’ve been signed by bigger [companies]. It’s great for them because they wouldn’t be able to do the things creatively that they’re going to be able to do. But most of those deals are done in a way that you’re theirs forever. I think that unless you’re very, very shrewd and you have a very shrewd attorney and you’re careful…I feel happy for [the designers] and also sad.
WWD: Where is the money made today? The common wisdom remains that except for the very few—Chanel at the top of the list—no one makes money on clothes.
T.F.: I’ve never believed in any division that didn’t make a ton of money. You mean for me personally? I don’t want to talk too much about where I make my money. That’s the beauty of owning a privately run company—I don’t really have to talk about that. If you have ready-to-wear, ready-to-wear has to make money.
WWD: So you don’t believe that it’s the job of accessories and fragrance to make the money?
T.F.: No way. I think that’s an old-fashioned notion from the days when companies like Chanel and YSL existed purely on the royalties; Chanel would have been pre-Karl. But let’s just say pre-Karl, that company existed because of the fragrance. I think that every venture in this point in time has to make money. And at Gucci, everything that we did did make money. And at YSL, it was also starting to do quite well. Whatever, I don’t want to sound like sour grapes. But in my own company, that’s my same approach.
WWD: Were you surprised at how quickly the fragrance took off?
T.F.: I think it could’ve taken off earlier than it did. It took some internal convincing. Lauder is a wonderful partner.
WWD: You can love all of this, but it still doesn’t explain the out-of-the-gate success. What made it work?
T.F.: That I loved it. When you’re passionate about something, you make something good. It just speaks. Let’s also say I had wonderful partners, which is true. I had Estée Lauder with years of experience in every sector. The same with Marcolin for eyewear. I also had a very strong point of view, a very focused point of view and a very strong idea of what I wanted. And believe me, we aren’t done growing, especially in the fragrance and cosmetics area.
WWD: Is there an area that you’re passionate to get into that you’re not in yet?
T.F.: Yes, a few, but I’m so busy that I can barely keep my head above water. I spend two hours with Jack every morning and I’m home for bath and feeding him and putting him to bed and reading him his bedtime story.
WWD: Would you want Jack to become a fashion designer?
T.F.: I want Jack to do whatever he wants. I’m not going to live vicariously through our child.
WWD: Back to the Tom Ford professions—are you still passionate about filmmaking?
T.F.: Oh, I am so passionate and I am so sick that I don’t have time to make a movie right now. I’m afraid that until my women’s ready-to-wear business is well on its feet, that probably has to sit on the back burner.
WWD: Do you still have a project in mind?
T.F.: I have several projects in mind and I could make them immediately. I was offered a film that was all set up with a wonderful cast that I could have done something wonderful with. It was a real solid, “We want you to do this and here it is. Here is your budget, blah, blah, blah.” It was exciting, but I couldn’t do it.
WWD: How important is it to know what you can take on?
T.F.: I don’t know, maybe I’m still learning that one. I tend to take on too much. It deteriorates your quality of life. It’s like everything in your life is wonderful, but you have so much wonderful—this is all going to sound horrible—but when you have so much wonderful, it isn’t wonderful because you don’t actually have time to enjoy it.
I remember talking to Karl years ago when I was at Gucci, and we were having dinner, just the two of us. I said, “Karl, so many amazing things are happening, and they’re happening so fast and I feel like I can’t take it in.” And he said, “You won’t be able to take it in. But later you’ll look back at it and then you’ll be able to take it in and appreciate it.” We live at such a quick clip—I don’t just think it’s me, but pretty much everyone. In fashion, we live in the future. I’m designing for 2014. We live in the future, we don’t live in the now.