PARIS — Grace under pressure.


Until last week, Tom Ford must have thought he knew all about it. About the pressure of being one of the coolest, edgiest, most influential — and oh, yes, richest — designers out there. About the pressure of being answerable to shareholders at every turn. About the pressure of participating in the highest level of corporate conflict in a saga as long-running as “Gunsmoke.” About the pressure, six months swelling, of taking over design at the house founded by the World’s Greatest Living Designer.


Pressure— he’s been there.


Or so he thought. But last Tuesday, just a week and change before his frenetically anticipated Yves Saint Laurent debut tonight, Ford showed a Gucci collection that shocked fashion: a disturbing display in which elements of Eighties and bondage comingled in a relentless display of the toughest of Tough Chic.


For his efforts, Ford got the worst reviews —some scathing — of his brilliant career. Although he’s quick to point out the reaction was mixed (“the younger, avant-garde magazines loved it”), he admits that the reaction shook him, a blow to his confidence and ego, a tough turn just before Yves Saint Laurent. What bothered him most was that he just didn’t get it. This was, and remains, his favorite Gucci collection in a very long time. He loves it, right down to the last torpedo bra.


“I was shocked, really, honestly. I expected a unanimous positive reaction,” Ford says in an 11th-hour interview Thursday afternoon at Saint Laurent. “It scared me, because you start to doubt yourself and it’s terrifying. It’s one thing to have a bad show that you know was bad and have people react to it. But this was the first time I felt completely confident and strong, and the reviews didn’t back me up. I thought everyone would love it, until people started coming backstage after the show…then you know.”


Just in case those impromptu reactions weren’t enough, he had the reviews to drive it home. Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune recited a litany of Eighties designers’ references, and noted that his purple satin cargo pants “risk re-creating another 1980s icon: the fashion victim….But what, for all his ingenuity and visual dexterity, has Ford actually invented for fashion’s future?” The New York Times’ Cathy Horyn wrote that the collection “was not just truly ugly, but also seemed completely at odds with his reputation as a designer who loves women.” WWD described “a level of aggressive oddness that approached perversity.”


“I was shocked and surprised by the controversy,” Ford says. “And I wish people would sit down and look at the video. Those are beautiful clothes. But good reviews, bad reviews — my real job is to sell clothes. My real job is to make money.”


Meanwhile, the fashion world has been totally fascinated by Ford’s ascent at Saint Laurent, and the harsh reviews only fueled more drama. Pre-Gucci buzz had amateur fashion sleuths glimpsing an all-black collection through opened studio windows; post-Gucci, rumors circled that he altered his casting, dumping girls with a butch look, including Eleonora Bose. Ford maintains that such talk is silly, noting the obvious, that designers work and rework even major points until the last minute.


Now, with a week’s worth of distance — and total preoccupation with Saint Laurent — between himself and his Gucci show, Ford says his head is clear. “My mini-crises last two days, then the self-doubt is over.”


His purpose in Milan, he claims, was not some major sociological statement, but merely his desire for a shift in fashion, determined as he went through countless magazines and saw “nothing but starlets in sheath dresses, sheath dresses, sheath dresses, and strappy sandals, sandals, sandals. There has been no waist, no shape, no fitting, no structure. I just wanted something sharper, that’s the word. This whole collection was about structure.” He maintains that the bras and corsets are “fairly comfortable.” And if a few pieces require a perfect body, “since when has a perfect body not been necessary to wear a few pieces from Gucci?” His stylist Carine Roitfeld plans to wear the leather corset over a T-shirt tonight, and if she does, the fashion pack can judge the look’s validity up close. Ford still thinks “it was one of the strongest Gucci shows I’ve ever done.”


Others are entitled to their opinions, and Ford respects the role of the fashion press. Most of the time. “As long as it’s not personal and concentrates on the work, any criticism is fine,” he says. “But sometimes people who are writing try to be clever at the expense of the person being reviewed. It seems the goal is to rip the person and the collection apart for the amusement of the reader. This is still a huge business. Reviews affect the business and a lot of people involved in it. If you think it’s horrible, then say it’s horrible, but respect that it’s a serious business you’re talking about.


“This business is so hard. Most people who are part of it love it. Most journalists love it. If they don’t love it, why do it?”


Ford has high expectations for the sales potential of the Gucci collection, noting that first-day sales exceeded projections for the entire 14-day selling period. And although he’s perceived as a high-profile editorial darling, as far as he’s concerned, sales are the bottom line — at Saint Laurent, too.


Turning to tonight’s mega-event, Tom wants to lay the foundation for the new-era Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. “At Gucci, there’s a framework,” he says. “This is a house without a framework. Yves Saint Laurent Couture is an established house; right now, Rive Gauche is not. What I need to do in this show is to define the parameters in a very basic sense. At an established house, you know there are suits in the showroom, so maybe you don’t put them on the runway. But I have to show you, ‘Oh, there are suits,’ ‘Oh, there are coats,’ and do it in a manner that’s clear and plain for people to see. This is to show, that if there are suits, what are they like, sharp or relaxed? Is there evening? Is it serious evening or casual? Coats — how Yves are they going to be? This is my brief for a good show, but I have a bigger brief than that: I have to make clothes to sell, to revive a company.” Apparently, the resuscitation has already started. The first shipment of Ford’s cruise collection hit the Yves Saint Laurent boutique here last week, and same-day sales are up 100 percent. “I’m not saying that’s a huge amount — last year, they didn’t sell much. But what I’m saying is that you need clothes that fit, clothes that work.


“Saint Laurent for me is so potent,” Ford continues. “There are so many Saint Laurent outfits, so many signatures that are amazing. But much of it is too potent for today’s world…too many details, too many accessories, too much stuff to assemble, too much luggage to pack to fit it all when you travel. The bangles, the strappy shoes, the colors that clash just so, and that’s just one outfit. You’ve got to do it all over again tomorrow. “It’s too much for today. The goal is to maintain the spirit of Saint Laurent, the essence, but distill it down to a shirt and a pant, a jacket and a pant. I want it to still look like Saint Laurent and feel like Saint Laurent, but concentrated and distilled to work for today.”


So, we shouldn’t expect any Russian peasants? Not this season, because he doesn’t think it’s right for the moment, although, he wouldn’t rule it out for the future, “but not done literally.”


A firm advocate of the fashion surprise, Ford gives no more hints about the clothes, except to throw a curve toward those all-black rumors, acknowledging that he loves color. Whether his runway will reflect that appreciation remains to be seen.


Certainly Tom’s affinity for Saint Laurent precedes the Gucci Group takeover of the house, a fact he readily admits. “I have been influenced by Saint Laurent,” he says. “I think at this point the influence is so deep, it’s a part of my personality. Even in interiors, I’ve done things with a Saint Laurent feel; he so deeply influenced not only fashion, but culture in the Seventies. I remember my mother wearing white pantsuits and thinking, ‘Mom, you look cool.’ They weren’t Saint Laurent back in Texas, but they were copies.”


Where influence runs deep, so do opinions. And where Saint Laurent is concerned, everybody has one, which ups the pressure quotient to the stratosphere for Ford. Earlier in the week, he joked that it felt as if he were about to face a firing squad of 700 people, “and there’s nothing I can do about it.”


“The fact is that Saint Laurent is so personal to people.” he says. “The French have a certain idea of who Saint Laurent is, the Americans have a certain idea of who Saint Laurent is. Women of a certain age — a woman of 60 has a certain idea of who Saint Laurent is. And 25-year-old women have an idea. They want to wear that idea, but the reality of the actual clothing doesn’t always work for them. Again, I’m talking about Rive Gauche.”


Asked whether he gives a hoot about the 60-year-old customer, Ford answers a rapid yes with a caveat: “the modern 60-year-old.” So then, he doesn’t subscribe to the Patrizio Bertelli theory that a designer is better off dumping the 45-year-old and courting her daughter? “I didn’t read that, but not at all. Go after both. It’s the mother who’s paying for it anyway.”


In fact, Ford notes that tonight’s collection was inspired by a woman “who is not young.” Again, he turns mum on the matter, except to add that his mature muse will be at the show, and that with the first look “you’ll know immediately.” Our guess: Polly Mellen. Ford even considered casting older models, along with the zaftig Sophie Dahl, to make a point about diversity. But, he decided against it for the same reason he hates “paid front-row celebrities: I want the show to be about the clothes.”


Instead, he’ll go the other way, with a single beauty look, as he does for Gucci. “I have 14 minutes to sell the world on my thoughts for Gucci and Saint Laurent,” he explains. “You want to let people know where you stand and the way to do that is to be concise: Tom Ford believes in this shoe, these pants, this shoulder. How many outfits do you buy for a season, three? That’s your look. That’s what I’m talking about — reduction. Reducing, reducing, distilling, distilling…”


Ford knows all the hype and the fashion firing squad will allow him little room for error. Yet, while he’s been stressing the dangers of excessive expectations from day one, deep down, he thrives on the hype. “It fuels me. It feeds me,” he says. “It makes me set the bar higher and higher for myself.”


As for the added hype factor of today’s date — Friday the 13th — he insists that, in Italy, the date is actually associated with good luck, yet when he seeks confirmation of this from his right-hand girl, Elise Dubail, director of creative services for Gucci Group, her confirmation is sketchy at best.


“Oh, well,” Ford says. “It’s Richard’s birthday. [Richard Buckley is Ford’s companion and editor in chief of Vogue Homme International.] That’s good luck.”

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