• We didn’t want Jack to be a bastard.
• [Fashion advertising] is about the image. She’s no longer a person; she’s an image.
This story first appeared in the June 2, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
• The concept that I launched with — that was a mistake. It failed.
• [Post-baby], I haven’t had a Botox injection or a filler. I haven’t had time.
Such thoughts expressed freely make Tom Ford one of fashion’s intrepid conversationalists. He delivers all, from the silly (see: bastard) to those intended to quiver the PC meter needle (see: no-longer-human models), in the same deadpan monotone with which he has been charming and alarming for the better part of two decades, leaving his listener to divine his degree of seriousness.
Fashion’s most dashing provocateur skyrocketed to superstardom on a unique vessel of bravado, commercial savvy, marketing brilliance and a severely underrated design talent. Beneath the signature come-hither runway makeup and beneath the messed hair lurks the kind of alluring, wearably racy clothes that resonate with well-heeled, well-toned women who like to work the sexy, notice-me side of chic.
Put simply, Ford changed fashion. In the early Nineties, deconstruction, that intriguing crossover from the avant-garde (when there was a real avant-garde) was a mainstream flop. At the same time, designers thought to have a head for business were considered second-class. Then along came Tom Ford, who resurrected Gucci from fashion folly with a pragmatic respect for reality and a steadfast belief in his own gut instincts. Once he put Amber Valletta on the runway in a satin shirt and velvet bell-bottoms he became an instant icon.
Though the Ford-Gucci Group relation is long over, the template it established for storied house revival remains. Ford moved on quite famously and now helms his own brand, which exploded quickly. Tonight, the CFDA honors him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
WWD: We’ll talk about the CFDA Award. But first, your marriage to Richard [Buckley].
Tom Ford: We didn’t want Jack to be a bastard.
WWD: Your approach was interesting. No formal announcement, but when asked about Richard, you offered the news onstage.
T.F.: I was on stage at the Apple talk [London, April 7]. [Kinvara Balfour] asked about Richard and I said, “We’ve been together for 27 years, in fact we’re married.” It didn’t occur to me that anyone would be interested.
WWD: Does it surprise you that to so many people today, gay marriage is no more or less of a deal than straight marriage?
T.F.: Even the way people sent notes that said congratulations. I ran into a business meeting and people said it in a way that anyone would congratulate anyone. It is odd for someone who was at the tail end of growing up in a world in which it wasn’t OK. It isn’t odd the last 20 years, maybe even longer.
WWD: Do you really think being gay has been a nonissue for 20 years? In fashion, yes, but the larger world?
T.F.: I don’t know. I moved to New York at the end of the Seventies. The feeling then was that it was almost chic to be gay. I had straight friends — it was a different moment — it kind of made you cool if you slept with a straight guy. Then we moved into a different era largely because of AIDS. I didn’t feel the negative pressure in those early years.
WWD: Has parenthood changed you as a person or just the day-to-day reality of your life?
T.F.: It has really changed me; I’m not sure how to articulate it. A lot of things I cared about before I don’t care as much about anymore.
It has damaged — no, damaged is the wrong word. It has minimized my ambition a little bit, my ambition in business, my ambition in having a beautiful house. It has become the most important thing in my life. Everything else has had to recede, including my appearance. I don’t care about it. I care about being successful. I just don’t care about any of it as much. You can’t.
WWD: Are you prepared for the toddler years and the sticky fingers on the sofa?
T.F.: Jack’s not like that. He’s just not.
WWD: There won’t be sticky fingers?
T.F.: That’s all I’ll say on the record. Everything in my life — [parenthood] has softened me a bit. I’m probably very wound up, but people who know me say that it has altered me.
WWD: Let’s talk about this award. Does “lifetime achievement” freak you out a little bit?
T.F.: Getting the Lifetime Achievement Award is as if someone is throwing water on you. It wakes you up as to your age. [He’s 52.] Once I was on a set with two models, a male model and a female. I thought in my head, “These are people I could probably sleep with.” And then I heard one of them refer to me as old — I was 38 years old. It was one of those little milestones that made me think, “OK, I’m this age. I am old enough to be their father.”
WWD: That’s some thought process, from CFDA Lifetime Achievement to models you mused about sleeping with.
T.F.: Of course, I think, “Wow! Maybe I’d better be happy with what I’ve done.” It makes you think. This is one of the few awards I actually keep out. [He has five other CFDA Awards] They’re beautiful, the Trova statues.
WWD: Do you feel connected to the American fashion industry?
T.F.: I don’t. I’m going to qualify that. I am not nationalistic, I don’t feel connected [to any one place]. I am a global brand, I live an international life and I have for many years.
WWD: Everyone thinks globally, but do you feel a creative or emotional connection to a particular place?
T.F.: I am totally mid-Atlantic. Occasionally in Europe someone will comment on what I do as being American. I am an American designer, but I’ve lived and worked in Europe for so long, I’m detached from Seventh Avenue. Most American fashion designers, if they’re going to be successful, they’ve got to think globally. I feel more of a connection to European fashion. It is where I learned. I did have three years on Seventh Avenue. The way I know how to work, how to operate, the way the business is still executed, I learned in Europe.
WWD: The last time I interviewed you, you said that you expect the Tom Ford brand to become one of the top five luxury brands in the world. Are you still as passionate about that, or is that less important now?
T.F.: Absolutely, it’s still a goal. But I’m more aware of the universe now. If that’s going to happen, great. But now work is not the main thing in my life. [Being a parent] has made me less desperate about it.
WWD: What you’ve done with the Tom Ford brand in a short time is amazing.
T.F.: The last 10 years since I left Gucci have been so transformative. The thing about a transitional state is that you can think, “I didn’t accomplish anything; I was shifting toward something else.” This award has helped me realize that perhaps that transition, looking back at the last 10 years, maybe it’s not purely a transitional state. Maybe I have done something.
WWD: Fashion has changed a great deal in 10 years.
T.F.: The pre-collections have become so important in terms of our business, but I’ve resisted showing it to the press. It is a relentless stream of product that we generate. That is not the way it was when I was designing 16 collections between Gucci and Saint Laurent. Part of it is the Internet. It may also be that I’m now ceo, president and owner of my own brand. That wasn’t the case then.
WWD: Talk about some of the differences — then and now.
T.F.: I think I’m only just now getting used to it. In the way that fashion shows happen, you come out now and there’s a roomful of phones held up at you. I don’t know if it’s possible for people in the audience to be moved. Before, you could control the lighting, you could control the atmosphere, it was very cinematic. You could control the audience experience in a way that’s very hard to do today.
WWD: Everyone’s tweeting and Instagramming.
T.F.: They seem distracted by all of that.
WWD: You tried to fight it, the instant global transmissions.
T.F.: I tried. I failed. I tried to change that. I wasn’t anti-Internet. I was anti-seeing something six months in advance. If you can make it available immediately, then yes, yes, of course it makes total sense. I was just looking through a retail magazine and I saw something I loved when it came out [on the runway]. Now it feels old, and it’s only now being shipped to the store. The look feels photographed and worn. But I failed. It’s a part of popular culture I can’t not participate in. Once I reached a certain scale, I had to go along with it.
WWD: This award is for lifetime achievement, so I have to ask you about Gucci. With 10 years of distance, what’s your perspective on what you did at Gucci?
T.F.: I’m so proud of it. I’m so proud of what I did at Saint Laurent, too. I loved the last three or four collections I did for Saint Laurent.
WWD: What else are you proud of?
T.F.: I’m so proud that so many of the people who worked with me are in major positions now. Bottega Veneta — Tomas Maier is amazing. He’s someone I’ve respected for a long time. I was instrumental in buying that company and instrumental in hiring Tomas Maier.
And people who worked with me in senior positions — Frida Giannini at Gucci. Christopher Bailey at Burberry. Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein. Alessandra Facchinetti at Tod’s. Stefano Pilati, first at YSL, now Zegna. Vanessa Seward worked with me at Saint Laurent. She’s now at A.P.C. [Since our conversation, A.P.C. has backed Seward in her own collection.] Clare Waight Keller at Chloé. John Ray at Dunhill. Barbara Croce, who was at Vionnet. Francesco Russo. He was at Sergio Rossi and now has his own brand. There are many more in the number-two slots at other houses.
WWD: Do you feel a certain ownership of Gucci?
T.F.: It has taken a long time for me to not feel that connection. No I do not, definitely not at Saint Laurent because Saint Laurent has moved on. Gucci repeats. At Gucci, they’re clearly looking at my archives. I’ll look and say, “Oh, I remember that, I remember that.” But I don’t feel attached to it anymore; it feels less personal. I don’t feel a strong personality in that brand. Saint Laurent I definitely [don’t feel attached to]. There is a very strong personality at Saint Laurent, very consistent.
WWD: Do you pay attention to other people’s shows?
T.F.: Everybody’s. You have to. I watch most major shows online; you have to know. The world we live in is built on everything that came before us. It’s in fashion, the same with any art. In order to work, you have to know what’s going on.
WWD: There’s certainly a lot going on in your base, London.
T.F.: There’s a great energy in London with the younger designers. I think people are rushed into things today, to sign their names away quickly. They’re snapped up by big brands before they realize who they are. Right from school they become the flavor of the month, and big brands sometimes snap them up. I don’t yet think we’ve seen the backlash, but we know that large multibrand conglomerates — when your time is up, your time is up and you’re out.
WWD: You know something about it?
T.F.: I’m not talking about myself. Some of the more recent appointments; [there can be] such lack of regard for the amount of good work. From the outside, it can seem so callous.
WWD: Does creativity suffer at times because younger designers think they must be Shanghai-store ready right away?
T.F.: That’s also symptomatic of this generation. What do you want to be when you grow up? Famous. Famous at what? There’s an expectation that you just go right to the top, a lack of understanding of what it takes.
WWD: You were perceived as a business-savvy designer early on. Today, many younger designers seem also to be hyper-focused on the business side. A good thing on one hand, but I wonder if there’s a downside.
T.F.: There is a downside to that. I’ve seen it in myself. I’ll have an idea and will say, I’ve tried that before and it doesn’t sell. Then I’ll see someone else do it and it looks great, it’s “the last look” in a magazine. OK, I guess I was really wrong.
WWD: Do you second-guess yourself?
T.F.: Second guess? Yes, I do. I question everything I do every step of the way. Once I make the decision I’m almost blinded by believing in it, and then I usually hate I everything I’ve done.
WWD: Do you get nostalgic at all?
T.F.: More and more, the older I get, I get nostalgic, and it makes you sad. There’s a quote: “Old age is the landscape of your life.” It’s corny but I like it. There’s more of a landscape as you get older.
WWD: Would you go back to age 30 if you could?
T.F.: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I’m very happy with where I am. I have a lot to be very happy about.
WWD: Are you prepared to be old in fashion?
T.F.: Yes. I’ve decided to age. Since we’ve had Jack I haven’t had a Botox injection or a filler. I haven’t had time.
WWD: The red carpet — you’ve called it “a bubble of 1950s Barbie clothes.”
T.F.: I loathe it. It’s not about dressing everybody. It’s about dressing the right person in the right thing to create a truly memorable moment.
WWD: But how hard is it when every actress seems to want a fishtail or a retro ballgown?
T.F.: It’s incredibly hard. You have to choose an actress with presence and style. And there has to be a great stylist because you can have a great dress and it can go all wrong with the wrong hair or the wrong jewelry.
WWD: The retro hair thing on those young actresses…
T.F.: What you see on the red carpet has nothing to do with what’s happening in fashion.
WWD: I’ve talked to so many designers who say you have to do it. It’s perceived as essential.
T.F.: I didn’t dress a single person this year. I wonder if it’s as essential as it was 10 years ago.
WWD: How about real-world big events — weddings. Do you like doing weddings?
T.F.: No, no, no, no, no, no. Other than for very close friends I won’t do it. I did the dresses for the De Sole girls. That’s different — when you love someone. That was meaningful. I dressed Sally Tadayon when she married Rufus Albemarle and she just went for it. Those are fun: That is designing. If it’s not a friend, I won’t.
WWD: I don’t think of you as being collaborative.
T.F.: It isn’t collaborative. Girls come in with a notion of their childhood vision. Most weddings, girls come to you with pictures, some of them had them in their diaries since they were 17. They may say, “I always wanted you to design my dress.” It doesn’t matter [what they say]. It doesn’t matter how much they’ll pay because there are really a lot of wealthy girls out there. You’re not a designer. You’re a servant.
WWD: Speaking of the De Soles, you and Domenico De Sole have one of fashion’s iconic unions. What makes a partnership work?
T.F.: We’re a couple. Trust, number one. You have to really believe the other person always has your back, and you trust implicitly. I mean trust with your life. I would trust Domenico with my life. Then you have to have compatible work ethics. For Domenico and me, today doesn’t exist yesterday. We have the exact same work ethic. We also respect what each of us does. Domenico is one of the few people in the world I trust to do things in my place. I think he trusts me and my judgments. At this point we have almost 24 years of history working together. We know each other. That’s also important.
WWD: There’s a degree of kismet in finding that partner.
T.F.: It’s fate. We were thrown together. It was luck and fate that brought us together.
WWD: You launched the Tom Ford brand with fragrance and eyewear. Why?
T.F.: I’m not going to say that it’s less work than fashion. But because it’s a licensed product, you don’t have to open your own studio and your own stores. The Lauder meetings, the Marcolin meetings — I go to all of those meetings by myself, no assistants. I work directly and am fully involved at every step. At the time I started I wasn’t sure how it would all develop.
WWD: Where did that idea come from?
T.F.: Without actually committing to a full-fledged company of my own, it developed organically. I can say it was a smart business model but it was more a personal thing to slowly step back into the business. I was traumatized by having left [Gucci Group]. When I came back, I did it in steps.
WWD: You didn’t succeed at keeping social media out of your shows. When else have you been unsuccessful?
T.F.: Oh God, I’ve had a couple of very bad collections. One I’d intended to show in the showroom and a particular French journalist called and made a huge deal of not having been invited. At the last minute, I decided I’d better do a show. I sent a collection down the runway that was a showroom collection. It didn’t hang together with a cohesive point of view. The concept that I launched with — that was a mistake. It failed. And that was to create individual clothes for all different types of women.
WWD: You did that in that wonderful show with Beyoncé, Rachel Feinstein, Marisa Berenson.
T.F.: After that show I stuck to the concept. But if you don’t have Rachel Feinstein modeling….Put all these things on models and it doesn’t have a point of view. You’re showing 35 outfits rather than a collection. It looks like a bunch of clothes. My first few collections were like that.
WWD: If you were showing that collection today, would there be changes on the casting additions?
T.F.: God, I’d have to really think about it, there are so many. Rihanna is so influential, but she’s so obvious. Beyoncé would still be there. That’s not even interesting, not news. I’d have to think about it.
WWD: Another that’s intensified in recent years: the reaction to digitally altered fashion images. Social media has heightened the backlash.
T.F.: I don’t think things are so retouched today. But why wouldn’t people expect pictures to be altered? [Fashion advertising] is not about the models, it’s about the image. She’s no longer a person; she’s an image. The way we talk — “she has no neck; her legs are stumps” — of course she has a neck. But the image isn’t an image of real person. It’s an idealized image.
WWD: For all of the democratization of fashion today, there’s a level on which people love to attack. I’m not saying that fashion is perfect, but it is fashion.
T.F.: I think it’s silly. There has always been retouching; it’s well-known. You see the retouched photo and the original and you can’t tell it’s the same picture. In the Fifties, they certainly slimmed them down. In the old days, Lauren Hutton would pop her extra tooth in [her gap]. Now we do it with computers. This is not new. A photograph used for advertising is no longer a photograph of a person. It’s an image…it’s not meant to be the exact replica of the person. We’re talking about fashion. Fashion is about communicating a dream.
WWD: Do fashion shows matter?
T.F.: That’s a big question. We talk directly to the consumer today. The thing, ideally, is to excite the stylists and editors, so they’ll think, “I can’t wait to do that story.” That’s really what you’re doing. All of the rest of it, you do go right to the consumer. There is also something about having everyone in a room. Everyone talks and a consensus is reached and repeated and repeated and repeated. It takes on a life of its own after the show. Alone, someone might be afraid to say, “I loved it” or “I didn’t.” The consensus matters.
WWD: Back to the award. You said you don’t usually look back, but this has made you think about what you’ve accomplished.
T.F.: It’s a milestone. It’s a 50th birthday where you go “wow!” It has mostly made me feel better rather than worse about myself. I should be happy for all the great things; I should feel satisfied rather than hungry.
WWD: What do you love most about fashion?
T.F.: The best thing about being a fashion designer for me is that I have a voice in contemporary culture. This was the thing that I missed about not designing, and ultimately, was the thing that lured me back into the business. I hated not having that voice.
Shortly after our conversation, Tom called back with a follow-up:
T.F.: Did I even say I was grateful? I am grateful. It does mean a lot to me, this award. Of course I’m grateful.