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The Big Comeback: Tom and Dom Return in Deal With Lauder

Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole are to announce today they have formed a company that marks their return to the design-beauty arena.

NEW YORK — Get ready for Tom Ford the brand. 

Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole today will announce the formation of a new company to launch the label. The venture marks the first-ever Tom Ford brand, and the return of fashion’s so-called dynamic duo to the design-beauty arena they exited last year following their break from Gucci Group. According to sources, the company will be completely self-financed, with corporate headquarters in Los Angeles and a design studio in London.

The firm will launch with two deals, both of which are scheduled for signing today: a much-rumored pact with Estée Lauder and an eyewear agreement with Marcolin. Sources said these are the first two steps in what Ford and De Sole hope to develop into a major design enterprise.

Despite his impending return to design and beauty, Ford is said to remain serious about a parallel career in films. And he apparently has engaged in a bit of synergy: One Hollywood insider said Ford has incorporated his favorite color into the name of his production company, Fade to Black Productions. 

As for the new design venture, Ford will be president and chief executive officer and De Sole the chairman. The Lauder deal will be accomplished in two phases, according to several sources familiar with the terms. A limited-distribution Tom Ford for Estée Lauder collection will facilitate a relatively speedy — read holiday — appearance on the market. This should feature a tight product selection and will likely draw from Lauder’s history of marketing high-end specialty items such as compacts and other vanity accessories. The joint-label introduction would allow time to develop the deal’s ultimate goal, a stand-alone Tom Ford beauty brand, possibly premiering for fall 2006 with a women’s fragrance. This line would ultimately replace the joint-label collection.

Contrary to published reports, Ford was never in discussions to become creative director of Estée Lauder, sources pointed out. In fact, development of a stand-alone Ford line with Lauder was always the ultimate goal of negotiations. Also contrary to published reports, the prospective deal has stirred no rift within the Lauder family. One executive close to the Lauders noted that Leonard Lauder has given “an absolute 100 percent blessing” to the Ford deal and maintained that reports of a familial falling-out are fabricated, saying, “Leonard and William [Lauder’s ceo] are on the same wavelength.” William Lauder and John Demsey, the Estée Lauder division’s global brand president, were primarily responsible for putting the deal together after Leonard had an initial discussion with De Sole, his neighbor in Aspen.

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As speculation has mounted in recent weeks, Ford and the Lauder organization have been silent on the deal. A knowledgeable source said that ”Tom Ford will be working directly with the Estée Lauder brand, but not as creative director….He will not be employed within the brand.” Instead, Ford’s subbrand of beauty products will be marketed  parallel to the flagship brand.

Ford’s primary hands-on experience in beauty has been via fragrance. At Gucci, he launched Rush in 1999 and Nu at Yves Saint Laurent in 2001. Although he has never done color or treatment lines, he has long subscribed to the notion that beauty is as essential a component of fashion as the clothes themselves. “You can take the same clothes and you can give them two or three different kinds of hair and makeup, and they look radically different,” he told W magazine in 1996, a point of view from which he never digressed during his Gucci Group tenure. “You can take the same outfit and you can make it Thirties or Seventies or something else by changing the hair and makeup.” Overtly sexual makeup and hair looks became as much a hallmark of his iconic, high-heat Gucci Girl as her racy, take-no-prisoners wardrobe.

The Marcolin eyewear collection is expected to be shown to the press in October and available at retail in January. Marcolin currently has eyewear deals with Roberto Cavalli, Miss Sixty, Costume National and Kenneth Cole.

And by fall 2006, the Ford label could be back in fashion as well. If that happens, sources close to the designer speculate that he would move into men’s wear first, if not exclusively.

“I love designing the men’s collection because in the men’s business, people still respond to fabric, cut, the shoulder. In women’s, the overall image is more important than the actual clothes,” he said in the same 1996 W article. “With men’s wear, I’m very comfortable doing it myself because I am the men’s customer. Men are really weird: If you change a pocket a little bit, they can go crazy, something a woman just wouldn’t be conscious of.”

Ford and De Sole have more than enough money to finance their new venture. Their decade at the helm of Gucci Group made the two very wealthy men who, theoretically, never have to work again. Each man received tens of millions of dollars worth of stock options and salary during the boom years of luxury — and Gucci — in the Nineties.

As reported, De Sole is a close friend of Zegna co-ceo Gildo Zegna, and several months ago became a regular visitor to the house’s Italian headquarters. In February, an in-house source acknowledged an unofficial relationship between De Sole and Zegna — a men’s wear powerhouse — but insisted that he and Ford were “not a package deal.”

At Lauder, the marriage with Ford will represent the latest in a long line of designer alliances stretching back to licensing deals with Tommy Hilfiger and Donna Karan. The company has exhibited an entrepreneurial streak over the last decade. During that period, Leonard Lauder led the acquisition of a stable of indie brands, most famously MAC Cosmetics. Lauder steered the company with a low-key, hands-on style. And despite some published rumors, he does not own Brioni suits and does not fly on a Gulfstream jet.

When William Lauder succeeded his father Leonard as ceo on July 1, 2004, the company became even more aggressive in acquiring talent and creating new brands.

An initiative titled Beauty Bank was created as a think tank to develop brands in areas where Lauder did not previously do business. Out of this came a deal with Kohl’s in which Lauder created an entire beauty department for the midmarket retailer. That was a radical departure for the company, but it was no more startling than the announcement of licensing deals with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Donald Trump. In the Trump deal, Lauder threw the usual rules of fragrance marketing out the window. Only two months elapsed — instead of the usual two years —from the time of the announcement of the deal to the fragrance landing on counter.