Tom Ford is a conundrum: On the outside, he’s controlled to the point of obsessive-compulsive behaviour (witness the shiny red pencils sharpened to the exact same length in a glass vase on his desk, even though he refuses to use paper); on the inside, he’s a tangle of emotions— someone who feels things in a deep and, at times, disturbing way. (“I’ve never talked about death quite so much in an interview.”) He’s one of the most forward-thinking designers of our time. Wearing the pieces Tom Ford creates today makes you a woman of tomorrow, yet the sexy glamour of Tom Ford is so very traditional. He is hailed as the most accurate predictor of mass-market commercial tastes in fashion history (miles ahead of his time when he worked at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent), yet his clothes are also the byword for bespoke individuality, catering to the luxurious desires of a small group of spirited women. He is responsible for some of the most provocative and controversial fashion imagery of the past 20 years (remember the model with Gucci’s logo shaved into her pubic hair?), yet it is odd that a man who is so in love with the visual has no personal pictures. “I don’t take them or allow photos to be taken,” he tells me. “I prefer memories or beautiful, retouched images.”
So it’s very confusing to interview him—not just because of all the opposites he represents, which sometimes make you question what’s real and what’s not, but also because he is so damned charming. Surely the most heterosexual homosexual in the world? No two ways about it: He is a sex god. And he’s gone straight to the top of my fantasy dinner-party guest list: I’m going to sit him between Patti Smith and Lee Miller (because he is so well read) and opposite Marilyn Monroe (because he’s a big fan of red lipstick).
“Hair, makeup—a lot of makeup—and shoes,” says Ford firmly when I ask him the most important thing about a woman’s appearance. “Whatever else you’ve got on is probably fine.” He says that he is “brutal” when he first analyzes a woman’s appearance. “But I am brutal with men too,” he adds. “I start at the top: hairline,forehead, eyebrows, eye colour, lips, head, head too big for body or too small for body, breasts, waist…. It is a sickness, an affliction. I can’t escape myself.”
Despite this rather unnerving conversation, Ford’s general demeanour is refreshingly nonjudgmental. He is open and honest, and you feel like you could ask him anything—personal or professional. Maybe it’s his polite Texan upbringing. “Do you have a ‘messy’ drawer?” I ask. “You know, we all have one where stuff that doesn’t belong anywhere goes.”
He looks at me with horror. “No, absolutely not. No, no, no. I send a memo out once a month when I am on my way to one of my offices that says ‘Please make your drawers look like Martha Stewart has just visited and tidied them.’ But Ford’s supreme attention to detail, intelligence and ability to focus totally on one project is extraordinary.
He was the creative director at Gucci for just over 10 years and in charge of designing at Yves Saint Laurent (part of the Gucci Group) for three more years, building the brand from near bankruptcy to one of fashion’s biggest powerhouses.
Today, he owns 21 menswear stores worldwide, and Tom Ford Beauty—in the Estée Lauder portfolio— has been a huge success, with wait-lists for its limited distribution of fragrances and lipsticks. And now, after a six-year absence, he’s back in womenswear. On a Sunday evening in his Madison Avenue store in New York, 100 guests watched 32 models— including Beyoncé, Julianne Moore, artist Rachel Feinstein and Hollywood producer Rita Wilson— walk for Tom Ford. He gave a tongue-in-cheek commentary throughout the show, and as Beyoncé left the catwalk with her trademark wink, he added, “And now, I am definitely straight.”
The room reeked of sensuality. Every piece was about the woman. And that, he says, is what he learned during his fashion sabbatical. “I realized how much of it [fashion] is superfluous to the general population— how much is fetishistic, just for the thousand people who live and breathe it,” says Ford. “I felt like somebody who hadn’t watched a soap opera in six years, trying to figure out who was married to whom, who slept with whom. I had to take a minute to re-acclimatize myself. After a few months, it started to come naturally and I realized, ‘Who cares about what anyone else has done [while I have been away]? Let’s do what I think women want to wear.’”
The break from fashion was an enforced one only after he left the Gucci Group because of a dispute with management. It’s safe to say that it was a surprise for Ford to leave and, at the time, he went through something of an early midlife crisis. It was like experiencing a death, he said. But he changed direction and turned to film (another “smoke-and-mirrors world, just like fashion”): He wrote, produced and directed the award-winning
A Single Man, which was adapted from the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood. “Making the film has been cathartic for me,” he says. “Turning 40 was a disaster. I achieved everything so early, you know, in my mid-30s—money, success, houses, Richard [Buckley, his long-term partner], fame and everything—and I didn’t know what next. So, 40 to 46 was horrible. Making the film turned it all around.”
The beautifully crafted script for
A Single Man was a glimpse into his soul. It was anything but superficial— a painful look at the man behind the fashion mask. He wrote most of it on holiday in Mustique (where he will work on his second film script—a funny one this time, he says). “I’m a person who thinks life is
sad,” he explains as we discuss the tumble of emotion witnessed in his film. “We’re all going to die—something bad is going to happen to all of us. It’s realistic. I’m going to get cancer or you’re going to get it, or I’m going to get a phone call saying Richard is dead. This is how life is.”
He became a teetotaller two years ago because alcohol had a depressive effect on him. “I realized I was drinking [too much] because I was doing a lot of things I didn’t want to do, so now I don’t do them. I have a different life, different friends. I feel so much better. I lost weight. I don’t know if I was an alcoholic or if I just drank too much. I didn’t go to AA, but I had a great therapist.”
He doesn’t take antidepressants either; instead, he developed what he calls a more spiritual outlook on life. “It’s a belief in a force. Everything has a kind of consciousness. I would say I am closer to a Taoist or some aspects of Buddhism. I realized that I have always been spiritual. It’s been intuitive, and maybe I let myself forget that. I grew up Presbyterian, but [organized church] does nothing for me—you know, sitting in pews listening to what is sin and what is not sin.” He last went to church in the late 1980s, when the love of his life, Buckley, a fashion journalist and former editor-in-chief of
Vogue Hommes International, was suffering from cancer. “I went then because I liked the formality of it on a Sunday. Being with people, taking my mind off what was happening. I liked the ritual. That’s why I like being in England—that formality. You know that I call Richard ‘Mr. Buckley’ and he calls me ‘Mr. Ford’?”
“Is the new clean you as much fun as the old you, though?” I ask. Does it make you judgmental of those who live that life now? “Actually, I think I am more fun,” he says. “I love being around people who drink. I don’t care if you drink or smoke—though after 2 a.m. and when everyone is hullabalooing in your face, then, you know, it’s not too good.” So, he’s no longer a hedonist? “Well, I can be hedonistic by just doing things that give me
pleasure— more maybe by playing tennis because I enjoy that rather than drunkenly talking to some old bag I don’t want to talk to at a dinner party.”
healthy lifestyle—Diet Cokes and Kit Kats are his only vices (he hates warm drinks and has never enjoyed tea or coffee), and he works out with a trainer three times a week—has also helped him conquer lifelong insomnia. “I am an extremely early riser. I used to get two or three hours’ sleep—when you drink a lot, that’s what happens—but now I get five hours.”
The story is often told that, as a child, Ford used to rearrange the furniture in his parents’ house while they were out—such was his need to control and style his environment. Today, he is close to his family, who live near him and Buckley in Santa Fe, N.M. He has a sister, Jennifer, who is an English teacher and a mother of three. “She doesn’t care about fashion at all,” he says. He and Buckley see Ford’s family regularly. (“Richard doesn’t have any family at this point,” he says.) His relationship is, he adds, the biggest success story of his life. “What’s the secret?” I ask. “Choosing the right person is number one. I met him when I was 25; he was 38. We met at a fashion show. I absolutely remember because he kind of scared me— he was staring at me so intensely. About a week later, I was picking up some clothes for the designer I worked for and there was a shoot going on, on the roof of the building. I got out of the lift and Richard was there. We got in the lift together and went down 10 floors and he was just giddy. By the time we got to the bottom floor, I knew he was the one. A month later we were living together, and we have been ever since.”
Ford says he wanted children at one point (“would have loved them desperately”), but Buckley wasn’t so keen. He’s a godparent to many, though, and has two dogs (who starred in A Single Man) that he says Buckley is particularly close to.
This year, Ford is 50. The 17-year-old who hit New York from New Mexico— catching the tail end of the Studio 54 era, partying with Mick and Bianca Jagger—has properly grown up. And, as he says, “I think that the year you come of age, you find that beautiful, hopeful period of your life stays with you and influences you.” It’s true: If you look at his spring/summer 2011 collection, all the stylish, sexy 1970s references are there. But today, Ford is himself one of the most referenced designers, his 1990s heyday obviously influencing younger designers. (“Marc Jacobs has so stolen my look,” he says tongue-incheek.) There is plenty more to come from Ford: There’s a new makeup and skin-care line on the horizon, a new film script to be written and a new womenswear collection. He’s in the process of buying all his clothes back from the Gucci archives. (He has the right to display them and wear them, but he doesn’t technically own them.) And he seems more settled and secure than he has ever been.
“I heard a wonderful line once about getting to an age where you look back across the landscape of your life. I find myself at that place now. I remember having dinner with Karl Lagerfeld when I was at Gucci and had a particularly good couple of collections and I said, ‘Karl, I don’t feel anything.’ And he said, ‘You won’t feel it now. Later, when you look back, you’ll feel pride, you’ll feel joy, you’ll feel happiness.’ I understand now what he meant.”
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