View Slideshow

MILAN — Tom Ford has begun his long goodbye.

This story first appeared in the January 15, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

With his usual steely focus and energy — but this time with a greater emotional undercurrent — the designer presented his last men’s collection for Gucci Wednesday night here. It was a blockbuster, filled with all the sexy, strong, high-octane elements that only Ford can execute.

In some ways, it seemed like any other Gucci men’s show. There were no celebrities, everyone was in their normally appointed spots and vodka was served as guests entered, as always. It was standard Gucci perfection. Whatever emotions he may have been feeling, Ford disguised them through a scintillating, steamy show that had one male and several female pole dancers wiggling on the side of the runway. The man wore white cotton briefs and the Playboy-esque women were in diamanté thongs; little white shirts tied under the breast; big, bouffant hair, and smoky eyes.

The only difference was the anticipation and electricity that only comes near the end of a brilliant run. As soon as it was done, throngs of well-wishers rushed backstage. Ford, as always, was the center of attention as everyone greeted him with hugs and kisses.

“Obviously I’m very sad….I have had many sleepless nights,” Ford told WWD and its sister publication, DNR, after the show, which ended in a prolonged standing ovation and many teary eyes.

Talking candidly about the past few months, but declining to comment on his future, Ford said the failed talks with Gucci parent Pinault-Printemps-Redoute that ended in both his and Gucci chief executive officer Domenico De Sole’s impending departure had been going on for almost a year.

“I’ve been incredibly depressed, but right now, I have to focus on doing the best job I can until the day I leave,” said Ford. “It’s my job to keep everyone up and produce the best things I can until the end — I have three more shows.”

With one stunning show complete, Ford set off a quartet of historic finales that will culminate on April 1 when he and De Sole leave the company for good. Ford still must show his Yves Saint Laurent men’s wear show in Paris, followed by his Gucci and YSL women’s shows in Milan and Paris.

De Sole was not able to attend the men’s show because his father-in-law passed away earlier this week, forcing him to return to the U.S. Meanwhile, senior executives of PPR were a no-show. However, a Gucci spokesman was quick to point out that Serge Weinberg, the group’s ceo, and other PPR brass have never attended the men’s shows.

For seasoned fashion followers, the final show was a bittersweet example of how the fashion world operates. Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, agreed it was the end of an era. “He presented something that was quintessentially Tom,” Burke said. “It was not a show necessarily based on clothes, but it demonstrated showmanship and everyone left realizing that Gucci always stood for sex.”

“I’ve been in this industry for so long, and seen so many designers come and go,” said Robert Bryan, men’s fashion director at The New York Times Magazine. “That said, he is certainly the phenomenon of the Nineties. He’s energized fashion, adding sex to it. He could do whatever he wanted and it was always right.”

For the collection, Ford crafted meticulous playboys in swaggering coats, lush furs and precision suits that skimmed the body.

“It was my last Gucci men’s show so I thought, ‘What has this all been about for the last 10 years? Who is my Gucci man?’” Ford asked. “The Gucci guy is a glamorous, chic, well-tailored playboy and that’s what I wanted to show. These guys smoke, they drink, they go out — they sleep with women or men. They enjoy life — that’s what it’s about, just enjoying life.”

Enjoying life is something Ford is striving to do, despite the anticipation surrounding his next move. As he strutted down the runway — slightly farther than usual — to the sound of cheers and applause, Ford raised his glass of whisky to the future. Stood for 20 seconds, walked back. Lights went out, Ford was gone and people still applauded for another minute or so.

The soundtrack, which started off provocatively, ended sentimentally with Gwen Stefani purring, “Don’t you forget.”

“I haven’t forgotten. It’s very sad for me,” Ford said.

Judging from the enthusiastic crowd, neither will they, although Ford was not completely convinced.

“Well, they will [forget]. This is today. This is the world. Six months, a year, two years,” he said snapping his fingers. “Whatever happens goes away. Twenty years later they rediscover you, but that’s OK, I won’t forget and it’s been great. But it’s very sad for me even though I have three more shows to do.”