NEW YORK — Tom Ford: Film director— check. Fashion designer — check. Entrepreneur — check. Is he also this decade’s Helmut Lang? That’s Helmut as in the man who single-handedly changed the international fashion system because its then-current schedule didn’t work for him.
This story first appeared in the September 14, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In a conversation on Monday, the morning after his no-photographers-allowed show (except those hired by the house) that nevertheless had the entire industry buzzing as instantly as one can say tweet, Ford looked as handsome as he did the night before. Then, he had stood next to one of the pair of huge dark vases, his soldierly posture in counterpoint to the perfectly meandering tree branches (bare magnolia branches with pink cymbidium orchids individually attached, to be precise) that flanked the modernist fireplace of his Madison Avenue store, the spot from which he narrated the fashion show that marked his return to the women’s arena.
Ford is well known for his savvy, but even by his sky-high standards, this was a coup: a genuine hot ticket filled with magnificent clothes that felt like the party of the season. It ran completely counter to the more-is-more, huge-venue, any-and-all-celebrities-welcomed, beam-instantly-around-the-world current that defines so much of fashion today. And everyone lucky enough to be there lapped it up.
Yes the clothes were news: gorgeous, commercially viable, unmistakably Tom Ford sexy. Karen Katz, who assumes the chief executive officer slot at Neiman Marcus Group Oct. 6, called it “amazing.”
Though the collection will make its debut for spring only in Tom Ford stores, Neiman’s and Bergdorf Goodman have secured it for fall 2011. “It was more than we could have ever imagined,” Katz said. “The suits were remarkable; the fabrics and details, just beautiful. The special evening pieces were extraordinary, but as a retailer, to see the suits is so important. The presentation was unique and so special — I’m just sorry more of our team didn’t get to see it. We were overwhelmed. It exceeded our expectations by a lot.”
Unlike those collections of Ford’s legendary Gucci/YSL reign, this was not of the single-focus school of staging a show. Rather, it celebrated individual style, a point Ford made by casting a lineup of real women. Make that “idealized versions” of the real customers he’s targeting (not even he can convince you completely that Beyoncé Knowles is just BeBe from the block), a lineup that included a rainbow of ages, ethnicities and — drumroll — body types. (Mind you, he didn’t exactly cast a house, but not everyone had the body of Chanel Iman.)
But if you’re reading this now, chances are you already knew all that. The bigger news is that Ford plans to put the X (as in X, you’re out) back into the notion of exclusivity. Thus, while he has released a few stingy ambience photos, including the one seen here, that’s going to be it for months. Save for phone photos his guests may have gotten away with, he will remain in complete control of all images until he deems their release in the interests of the consumer.
• No full-look photos to run alongside fashion reviews. And, by the way, he no longer gives a hoot about fashion reviews.
• No complete run-of-show anywhere on the Internet.
• No magazine coverage until January issues, to whet the consumer appetite for February deliveries.
• No celebrities wearing the clothes until December.
“This fashion immediacy thing…if you can see them and press a button and they can be shipped to your house, I get fashion immediacy.…I don’t get the need for this immediacy. In fact, I think it’s bad.”
Here, Ford elaborates on why he’s back on the women’s circuit.
WWD: At long last, Tom Ford’s return to women’s.
Tom Ford: When I first got back into fashion with fragrance and eyewear, I wasn’t sure I was going to do anything more than that. The whole thing has developed organically. Men’s developed organically because I didn’t have anything to wear, and still at that point I didn’t think I would ever do women’s [again].
It wasn’t until probably two years ago that I thought, OK, I will actually do women’s again. To tell you the truth, I was watching a film with Tilda Swinton — I’m not going to say which one — and she had some good clothes. It was Christmas. I was in Mustique and I get all the Academy screeners. I was watching films and I picked up the phone and called Domenico [De Sole] and I said, “I want to do a women’s collection. I’m ready to do it.” And I thought he was going to jump through the roof with joy. But I had started working on my film and I knew that it would take time to set up manufacturing and all that because we are doing this all ourselves. This is not a licensee. We’re manufacturing and producing everything ourselves with factories in Italy.
I was doing the film and I actually thought that I could sort of throw together a design studio in L.A. really fast, sew these clothes up really quickly and get them out. Then I really quickly realized, no. As of March, I didn’t have a design team. I hired my entire design team in March, set up my design office in London, signed some manufacturing deals with the factories in Italy and produced this entire collection between April and July — shoes, bags, clothes, jewelry, every single bit of it. We’re moving into new offices in London next week. I’ve taken a great 10,000-square-foot space, which will be my design studio and selling showroom.
WWD: For everything — men’s and women’s?
T.F.: No, just women’s wear. I’ll be selling and showing men’s in Milan, but I’m going to be selling women’s in London.
WWD: Why did you decide to do that?
T.F.: Because this is the next 30 years of my life. I’m tired of flying around all over the world. I live in London a good part of the year. My design studio is in London. I’m migrating my showrooms to London. That way, I can make a movie in London, I can edit in London, I can have my design studio in London, I can sell in London, I can put the collections together in London and I can have a real base and a real life and spend less of my time on an airplane. Obviously I’ll keep my L.A. and Santa Fe [N.M.] bases. I’m expanding my offices in Los Angeles. We’re opening our L.A. store Oscar week. I’m expanding my store in Las Vegas. All of our free-standing stores, including our franchisees, are right now being converted to hold this women’s collection for spring 2011.
WWD: How many freestanding stores?
T.F.: Twenty-eight. There will be, like, 30 by the time we open, and I own a good deal of them. For example, we had a partnership in Asia and that didn’t work out as well as we wanted so we took it back. So when I sold my nice big Warhol at Sotheby’s, I paid for Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai. I built the stores and own them.
WWD: What was the Warhol?
T.F.: I sold a big self-portrait that set a record for $32 million. I took it off my wall in London, sold it, and with that money built those three stores. I think it will be a better investment over the long haul.
WWD: You’re not at all sentimental about that?
T.F.: I am sentimental about paintings. I happen to have a lot of Warhols and I happen to have a really good friend who said, “Now’s a great time to sell a Warhol.” I actually do have sentiment about those things. But we’re all on this planet for a short time. We don’t really own anything. We get to enjoy it. I enjoyed it. It’s gone. Fine. I’ve got three stores and they’re beautiful.
WWD: Back to this women’s launch.
T.F.: It happened organically. I told myself I would not come back to women’s until I felt I had something new to say, and I decided I’m only going to do it if I have fun. Which means I’m going to do it my way. If it’s successful, great. If it’s not, I’ll close it. But I think it will be successful. I’m probably not going to show [on the runway]. I will do just what I do with men’s — showroom presentations for magazines. I don’t want to design collections for newspaper reviews. I want to concentrate on real women and the real customer. That was also one reason last night I showed on idealized versions of our real customers, all different women of all different ages. It was all about individuality, individual style, different body types, women who have their own style.
WWD: What is it that you want to say in clothes? What is the new?
T.F.: I’ve been watching fashion for the last five or six years, obviously on the side, but I think we’ve strayed away from real clothes. I think that there are fashion designers who are artists. Alexander McQueen was an artist. He was a breathtaking, spectacular, go-down-in-history artist. What I do, and I’ve always said this, is commercial design. I want to make beautiful clothes for women and men who appreciate detail, quality. That’s what I do. I felt that I wasn’t seeing that coming from anywhere else. And I wanted fashion to be fun. I think all the fun’s gone out of fashion.
WWD: What is fun to you?
T.F.: Last night was fun. I had so much fun and I think the audience had fun. I think the girls had fun. I think that people need to smile, I think people need to laugh, I think fashion needs to make you enjoy life.
WWD: Are you saying that girls showing clothes should smile?
WWD: You never had smiles on your Gucci runway.
T.F.: Different time, different thing. I used to do one look and that was the look — the hair, the shoes, the bag. Also, you know, shows slowly evolved into that thing of a bank of cameras at one end of the room. If you look back at shows from the Seventies, they looked like what you saw last night. I wanted that intimacy. My clothes — some of them might not have held up on a runway. I wanted everyone to see the details.
WWD: But you don’t want anyone who wasn’t there to see the pictures.
T.F.: Nothing until December. This fashion immediacy thing — yes, if you can order the clothes immediately, if you can see them and press a button and they can be shipped to your house, I get fashion immediacy.…I don’t get the need for this immediacy. In fact, I think it’s bad.
The way the system works now, you see the clothes, within an hour or so they’re online, the world sees them. They don’t get to a store for six months. The next week, young celebrity girls are wearing them on red carpets. They’re in every magazine. The customer is bored with those clothes by the time they get to the store. They’re overexposed, you’re tired of them, they’ve lost their freshness, you see somebody wearing it and you say, “Oh, that’s that jacket that was in blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Or [a] customer doesn’t want to wear that jacket that was in blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. In addition, all of the fast-fashion companies that do a great job, by the way, knock everything off. So it’s everywhere all over the streets in three months and by the time you get it to the store, what’s the point?
I’m holding everything back, controlling all the photography. I’m sure there were some leaks last night from people shooting with cell phones. I wish that that hadn’t happened. I don’t know if it did — I’m sure it did. I’m holding the photography back. I’m holding all the clothes back. The clothes are not going out to magazines before January issues. The clothes are not going to celebrities before December. The images are not being released online until December, when they’ll go online on my Web site. I’m putting together a little film. I had that thing so well covered last night, with video and film cameras as well as Terry [Richardson] and six of his team shooting all of our house photography.
It was very well covered, but I control all those images. I’ll select and retouch those images and then put those images out at the time that they serve the customer, which is December or January, when people are starting to think about their clothes, because these won’t be in store until February. This first season, it will only be in our own stores. Next season, it will go into limited distribution.
WWD: Meaning what?
T.F.: Bergdorf’s and Neiman’s, a few other select specialty retailers. That’s going to be it. And then we’ll continue building stores. The new stores that I’m building have been designed knowing that women’s was coming, so there’s a different power that’s lighter, cleaner. The second floor of L.A. was contemplated and designed to open with women’s. We’ll open L.A. during Oscar week. Let’s hope our construction is finished on time.
WWD: You said you’re not going to show.
T.F.: If I have a season where I feel there’s a major shift in fashion that I want to show, I’ll show. If I’m opening a new store in Tokyo and I want to make an impact in Tokyo, I’ll show. I’m always going to show, but in a showroom setting. In a way, like people show cruise — everyone says, “I love the cruise presentations.” Why? Because it’s personal, it’s small, you talk to the designer, you see the clothes. But in terms of doing a show, I don’t think I’m going to do this again next season. This was important to do to say to the world, “This is it.”
WWD: But however you show, no plans for outside photographers?
T.F.: Why? Why would I want to do that?
WWD: Expect a call from Donna [Karan]. She has said for years that “fashion immediacy” is dangerous, that all involved should agree to stop it.
T.F.: But Donna’s corporately owned.
WWD: Everyone has long told her, “You can’t get the horse back into the barn.” But that’s what you’re doing.
T.F.: I’m doing it my way or I don’t want to do it. I have that luxury.
WWD: Am I looking at the early 21st century’s Helmut Lang?
T.F.: What do you mean the 21st-century Helmut Lang?
WWD: Helmut Lang changed the entire calendar, a lone designer who said, “I’m not showing after Europe. It doesn’t work for me.” And the whole calendar moved.
T.F.: He made a mistake moving to New York.
WWD: He made a mistake moving to New York?
T.F.: I love Helmut. I think he’s very, very happy, from what I hear, and I don’t like talking about other designers. But I think in terms of his design he made a mistake in moving to New York. I think one of the keys to my success, and I think it will be the key to my success in the future, is that I’m a hybrid. I’ve lived 25 years in Europe. The world is now a hybrid. It’s a hybrid of race, it’s a hybrid of culture. What I do is partially European and partially American. I think it’s one of my greatest strengths.
WWD: I meant that Helmut did what was best for him and changed the way all of fashion operated at the time. Do you think other people will say, “Tom’s approach makes perfect sense?”
T.F.: I don’t know. It makes sense for me and that’s the way I’m going to do it. I know that sounds arrogant, but as I said, when you love what you do, it’s better. I think my last few collections at Gucci and Saint Laurent were some of my best. But I was really unhappy and I could not have continued. I needed to leave and I don’t want that to happen again. I got back into this because I love clothes. I love women’s fashion. I want to do it. I want to have fun and I want women who shop and buy the clothes to have fun and enjoy it.
WWD: How did your time away from women’s fashion inform your attitude and your clothes?
T.F.: It cleared my head. I was part of the fashion system like everybody. It gave me the ability to step back and say, “I don’t have to come back and do this. If I do come back and do it, how do I want to do it?” And personally, my life also has never been better. It has never been better with Richard [Buckley]. It’s never been better.
WWD: Why do you think that is?
T.F.: We’ve talked about spirituality before. That made a huge difference because I had the time to reevaluate everything in my life. I don’t do anything anymore that I don’t want to do. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t take drugs. My biggest vice is Diet Coke. I realize that I work because I love what I do, so I enjoy my life. I get up every morning and I get excited about what I’m doing rather than thinking, Oh, I have to go do [this] and I want to retire and not do this. I want to work until the day I drop dead.
WWD: Let’s talk about the show. As you said, you’ve always done a single-focused, very theatrical show — very controlled.
T.F.: I think I’m looser now.
WWD: How did directing the film [“A Single Man”] impact your approach to the show?
T.F.: I don’t think it did. I think doing the film, as I said before, was my midlife crisis on-screen. It was a catharsis and it moved me to a different place. I’m maybe more confident with who I am and less insecure and more relaxed. People who know me well have often said how funny I am, but that nobody knows that. So I feel looser, and it was funny. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I said to Richard last night, “I was really happy with the show, I loved it, and I don’t have any of that angst about getting up and reading the reviews that I did when I was at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. I don’t really even care what they say.” Now that sounds terrible maybe. I don’t want it to sound arrogant, but at Gucci and Saint Laurent, I was literally waiting for those newspapers. I was terrified. Terrified, terrified.
WWD: Talk about the show. When did you come up with the idea — format, casting, retro narration?
T.F.: I came up with the whole thing on a train ride on the Eurostar between London and Paris back in May or June. I was chatting with Whitney Boomberg Hawkins [European director of communications]. I said, “I want to have an old, glamorous fashion show where people see the clothes and [there are] great people in the audience and great people on the runway.” I wrote letters to all these women. I thought, Who are my favorite icons that I’ve had on my wall forever?
WWD: Did you know all of the ladies before?
T.F.: I had met all of them. I had met Marisa [Berenson]. We weren’t great friends, but she’s been a fashion icon all over my wall in almost every collection forever. Lauren [Hutton] I know because we both have a place in Santa Fe. I chose carefully. Lisa Eisner has always been one of my great friends and muses, and Rachel Feinstein is one of the most amazing women in the world and I love her body and I love her.
WWD: Was anyone intimidated? Everyone looked fabulous, but you did have some major models, past and present…not to mention Beyoncé.
T.F.: I wanted all different ages, I wanted all different body types, I wanted different characters and different personalities. I literally designed those clothes for those women — took their measurements, thought about them, thought about what they wore. I know Lauren likes white, I know she likes a hat, I know she looks good in a fedora, I know what her personality is. That was the message: Whoever you are, what we do at Tom Ford is help you develop your own individual style. And we make clothes, we make suits, we make tailoring, we make soft dresses, we make dramatic evening clothes and that’s what we do.
WWD: Did they have input into their looks?
T.F.: No. They all absolutely trusted me. I took their measurements. They had no idea what they were wearing. That was it.
WWD: I assume you worked on their individual beauty looks.
T.F.: Absolutely. I pulled images of all these iconic women that we’ve all seen before — Marisa and Lauren. I also thought, Who is this girl? Who is that girl? I put together folders of hair and makeup for each. I worked with Orlando [Pita], whom I’ve worked with for years, and Charlotte [Tilburg], who’s also working with me on my makeup collection. They’re both absolutely genius artists. So I had a great team. We conferred. I said, “This is how I see this person,” and then Charlotte said, “Yes, but her eyes are like this, maybe we should do that.” And Orlando would say, “I worked with her last week and she doesn’t have enough hair to do that so we can….” And we created those characters. That’s maybe how the movie helped. I wanted it to be as if it were a film about each of these women. If you were making a movie about Lisa Eisner, what would she look like? So they were amped-up versions of themselves. If you were making a movie about Marisa Berenson at this age and this time in her life, what would she be? Maybe that was the cinematic input, that in a sense these women were costumed versions of themselves.
WWD: How will that translate to retail?
T.F.: Well, I think we represent all women. When you see the showroom — because there are other clothes in the showroom — it all lines up. There were some seasonal messages, by the way. All the skirts were this length [indicating just below the knee], waists were fitted, skirts were slim. It will translate to the stores because I think we make a range of clothes that will work for all women. I think there’s something there for everybody, yet there’s a cohesive message, which is what we also do for men. We have slim lapelled suits and wide lapelled suits and slim pants and wide pants, and we can dress most men between the age of 25 and 75. And that’s the goal of the company.