Tom Ford: What's Next
With his brand on track to hit nearly $2 billion in retail sales in 2017, the designer is on a quest for global dominance. Next up? New York Fashion Week.
NEW YORK, United States — “Fucking Fabulous.” It’s a bang-on description of the designer Tom Ford, but also the name of his latest limited-edition fragrance, set to launch exclusively at the brand’s directly owned retail stores just in time for his Spring/Summer 2018 runway show in New York on Wednesday evening.
“You hear [fuck] on television all the time. In a way it’s lost its edge, but nobody had put it on a bottle of perfume,” Ford laughs. It’s Labour Day in a makeshift office in the Park Avenue Armory, where the 56-year-old designer will debut his latest collection in T-57 hours. The room, scented with his own “Tobacco Vanille” candle, is fully furnished in black, tables accented with clusters of blush-pink cymbidium orchids. It’s as if Ford was a pop star who had included demands for such backstage flourishes in his rider. “I don't actually need as fancy as they always provide for me,” he says, reclining in a moleskine-covered chair, full suit and white shirt buttoned down to there. “I’m actually simpler than people think.”
Perhaps. But at this point in Ford’s 30-plus year career, which has encompassed the mid-1990s revival of Gucci, an overlapping stint at Yves Saint Laurent, the formation of the Gucci Group with longtime business partner Domenico De Sole, a turn as an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and, most importantly, the architect of his namesake brand, he is very much a celebrity in his own right. (The kind that can’t go shopping at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills during the day because too many people stop him for pictures or to chat about lipstick.)
But back to the fragrance — and that name. “You know, one day I said, ‘Oh my god, this is fucking fabulous.' And I thought, ‘Why don’t we just call it that?’”
Ford, unsurprisingly, is fully cognisant of the potency of such a marketing message. (In fact, he uses the word “potent” several times over the course of our conversation to describe everything from a handbag to an advertising campaign.) “Even if the fragrance was not good, our customer is looking for a gift at Christmas for somebody who has everything... it worked in a lot of ways,” he says. “And it is a good fragrance. It is fucking fabulous.”
There’s something inherently straightforward and, really, American about Ford and his brand. Sexy, sharp, unwavering. No waffling here.
And that may be truer than ever, as Ford lays out his ambitious plans to become one of the top five luxury brands in the world, with annual retail revenue — encompassing all categories — on track to hit nearly $2 billion in 2017, according to market sources. “I've never understood people who want to do something and be number two, or number four or five or 47.”
Step No. 1: Own New York Fashion Week
Since launching women’s ready-to-wear in 2010, Ford has experimented with presentation format, releasing a video starring Lady Gaga one season, showing in Los Angeles the next. “We jumped around into all sorts of things,” he admits.
For the first go around — Spring 2011 — he banned social media from his intimate runway show. “I think it was misunderstood because I blacked out the phones. It wasn't because I was trying to be elitist and that I didn’t believe in the internet,” he says. “It was because I was trying to do a — what is it? — a ‘see now, buy now’ collection. I wanted to hold the images back until it was available in the stores and then we could flood everything.”
The effort was certainly memorable. The season’s backstage model board, populated with headshots of muses Beyoncé, Lauren Hutton, Julianne Moore and others, is burned into the brains of fashion’s most ardent followers. However, when Ford made a more structured shift to “see now, buy now” — he cringes at the idiom — for his Autumn 2017 runway show, the experiment fell short of expectations.
“It did not work,” he says flatly. “I still think the concept is right, but the show calendar does not align with the retail calendar. So we lost — which I knew we were going to — six weeks of selling by not putting the fall clothes on the floor until September 7.” Ford believed the bump in sales around the show would supplant the loss. And it did, he says, for the first three or four weeks. But then it levelled out. “And, of course, we lost all editorial.”
The fact is, Ford’s core female customer does indeed shop for fall clothes in August, and continues to scan print magazine editorial for inspiration. “I have a very loyal customer who has followed me from Gucci,” he says. “They were in their thirties when I was in my thirties. They’re now in their fifties, approaching 60. That customer? She still reads magazines. Yes, she’s on Instagram and she’s contemporary and she lives in an urban world, but she still likes to hold a magazine.”
"I haven’t done anything exuberant in a long time."
So Ford is giving his customer what he believes she wants: a runway show, in New York City, with the opportunity to order pieces from the collection five months ahead of time at a trunk show in his Madison Avenue store the following day. Oh, and a full-on after party. (Virgil Abloh is DJing.) “I haven’t done anything exuberant in a long time. I used to give these hedonistic parties at Gucci. Alcohol-fuelled — and in many cases, drug-fuelled — these big parties that people used to love. My life changed a lot when I quit drinking, quit doing drugs, quit smoking, quit all of these things, and it does make you more sober,” says the designer, who stopped it all eight years ago. “It made my clothes more sober. It took me a while maybe to be able to get back to being able to be joyful and silly without alcohol.”
He also plans to stay on the New York calendar for at least a few seasons. After living primarily in London with husband Richard Buckley for the past two decades, his family has mostly relocated to LA, where his four-year-old son recently enrolled in school. Ford also moved his women’s design studio to the West Coast, taking over Hedi Slimane’s old Saint Laurent studio in the space that formerly housed the famous Regen Projects art gallery. (Ford’s men’s design studio remains in London.)
“I thought it was really important to have a proper show during a Fashion Week,” he says. “And I’d like to remain in to New York, at least for a few seasons, so that people know, ‘Oh, okay, Tom Ford. He’s on the calendar. He shows then.’ That’s important from a business standpoint, to try to have that consistency that I have lacked.”
Step No. 2: Woo the Next Generation
“What do I hope this show will do for us? I hope it brings in a younger customer,” Ford says. “It’s a departure. It’s a bit more modern.”
While Ford says he can sell anything with an exposed zipper or a pile of sequins, his women’s collections have struggled to deliver a brand vision that captures the heart strings of the new luxury shopper — the one buying lots of Gucci, his old stomping ground. Once upon a time, designers more often than not told a new story each season, with an aesthetic thread holding it all together. Today’s most successful designers — Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia — tell the same story over and over, only tweaking it ever so slightly each season.
“When I left fashion in 2004, what I showed on the runway was exactly how I wanted women to look. The hair that I thought was right for the season, the makeup that I thought was right for the season, the clothes that were right for the season, the shoe of the season and the bag the season,” he says. “I think now, in a show, people look for items and everything is so exaggerated that it often almost looks like costumes, but when you break it down there’s a great jacket or a great bag. Women are buying items that are very potent and concentrated that can give them the feeling of the season. I have to hand it to Alessandro, who used to work with me at Gucci. He’s so talented, and some of those bags are incredible. All you need is that.”
It’s high praise, and indicative of a certain inherent modesty in Ford that is unexpected given his unabashedly assertive public persona. But it’s clear he has learned something from Michele’s success, and is applying those lessons to his own strategy.
"I love Alessandro. I’m so happy for him, I’m happy about what he’s doing."
“I love Alessandro. I’m so happy for him, I’m happy about what he’s doing. It took me a long time to get to that place because I felt...being at Gucci was not a pleasant or positive thing, and it took me a long time to get over it,” he says. “A long time. Alessandro, doing what he's doing now, has helped me with that because I am genuinely happy and think he deserves it. I’m impressed when I see what he does. So that’s nice.”
Ford has also been thinking quite a lot about the 1990s, a decade that he helped to define and is currently a point of reference for the next generation of consumers. It’s been 22 years since Ford’s Autumn 1995 collection for Gucci hit the catwalk. As goes with the trend cycle, those low-slung hip-huggers and open-neck satin blouses that entirely shifted the direction of fashion for the next decade are interesting once again.
“It was the right thing at the right time, which is what fashion is all about,” he says. “I suppose this collection, for me, is a bit of a throwback in a way to the spirit of my collections at Gucci in the '90s. I’ve been watching this '90s revival and I thought, ‘Well, I should do that.’ Your tendency, once you’ve done something, is to move on. But then when you realise, okay, that’s kind of back in the air again, then maybe I should go back in that direction a bit.”
And yet, trends mean something different than they used to. Today, the market is highly fragmented. For a designer like Ford, who was trained on Seventh Avenue, it’s an entirely new way of thinking. “Everything is popular at the same time, and you can wear vintage of anything, so there isn’t one trend anymore. If you have an amazing '60s jacket or an amazing 80s jacket, you can wear it,” says Ford, who has been building his own archive since leaving what was then known as the Gucci Group in 2004. (He paid $90,000 for a beaded dress from his final Yves Saint Laurent collection.) “Before, once you knew what the trend was, you could jump ahead of it. Now, it’s so hard because everything is out there.”
Women’s daytime clothes have evaporated…They wear jeans, a t-shirt, a cool jacket and a great pair of shoes. Evening, however…is mega."
But it’s not only about how today’s customer puts together looks, it’s also about what she actually wears. While suiting remains a major driver of sales for Ford’s men’s customer — 11 percent of that business is made-to-measure — he readily acknowledges the casualisation of culture and has shifted the way his collection is merchandised to reflect that.
“Women’s daytime clothes have evaporated,” he says. “Women do not consume or wear day clothes anymore: they wear jeans, a t-shirt, a cool jacket and a great pair of shoes. Evening, however — in LA, in New York, in London — is mega, because it’s red carpet, it’s a charity event...what used to be a day suit for me is now evening for people.”
Step No. 3: Maintain Freak-Level Control
While Ford says his women’s business is profitable and growing, it still only constitutes 30 percent of the company’s overall apparel revenue. He would like it to be split down the middle between women’s and men’s, although it’s not that easy. “The problem with having core products that sell and sell and sell” — he’s talking about the zippers and the sequins — “is that your buyers are going to buy them. It's hard to break out of that and to expand.”
In order to do so, Ford is keen to maintain a direct relationship with his consumer — the majority of his apparel sales are through his own stores, not wholesale partners — with a focus on service. “With so many of our women’s sales, we go to their houses. Our stores do private appointments after 6pm. We have one person per sales person,” he says. “We can not only control the way the store looks, but we can provide a level of service that you can't get in a specialty store. That level of service to me is the thing that will keep stores relevant for us and give us an edge.”
What has also given Ford an edge is the control he maintains over every aspect of the brand. While Ford declined to comment on specifics, public records indicate that, as a majority stakeholder in Tom Ford International, he owns 63.75 percent of shares, while longtime business partner, current chairman and former Gucci Group chief executive Domenico De Sole owns 11.25 percent. The remaining 25 percent is owned by Ermenegildo Zegna chief executive Gildo Zegna (who owns 15 percent) and Américo Amorim Group, which sold part of its stake to Zegna in 2013. The fragrance and beauty licenses with Estée Lauder Companies and eyewear license with Marcolin are controlled directly by Tom Ford’s personal holding company.
All of this means Ford has the final word on every decision. He designs the clothes, yes, but he also shoots the ad campaigns and manages the licenses Estée Lauder, Marcolin and now, watches with Shinola founder Tom Kartsotis’ company, Bedrock Manufacturing, with which Ford partnered to develop Swiss-made timepieces that will launch in the spring of 2018. (An announced men’s underwear line has been delayed.)
“I’m part of the team and they are part of my organisation,” Ford says of such partnerships. “They’re not some licenses where I say, ‘Go and do some lipsticks.’ As silly as it sounds, I put the lipsticks on: Is it too sticky? Do I like the smell? Do I like the taste?”
To be sure, part of the reason Ford can be so exacting is that he began his business on fragrance and eyewear instead of jumping head-on into apparel.
It’s a strategy that has worked. Tom Ford sells about 1.6 million pairs of eyewear a year, and in Estée Lauder’s latest fiscal year, sales of the Tom Ford fragrance and cosmetics businesses combined were up 52 percent. While the beauty conglomerate does not break out sales of Tom Ford product, industry sources indicate that his beauty and fragrances lines will generate $500 million in net sales in 2017.
“It’s very rare to see someone successful in men’s, women’s and beauty in such a short time period. When you think of the legacy of the great designer brands that have become so famous globally, most of those took 30-70 years to establish. Tom Ford has been able to accomplish that in 10,” says John Demsey, executive group president at the Estée Lauder Companies. “Quite honestly, what Tom has been able to do along with Estée Lauder is unprecedented.”
“I had the name recognition from Gucci and Saint Laurent to be able to go backwards,” Ford says. “At the time, to be honest, I thought that maybe that was all I was going to do. I was pretty burnt out when I left Gucci. I was doing 16 collections a year and as you know, fashion designers now burn out all the time.”
Of course, he eventually did make clothes — not to mention feature films — which have rendered him one of the few fashion talents whose name flows naturally in the cultural conversation, worthy of Jay Z song titles. Would he ever sell to one of those conglomerates in order to further amplify that star power? Globally, there are already 49 directly owned freestanding stores and 77 shop-in-shops. Total retail sales of the Tom Ford brand — including eyewear, fragrance, cosmetics, ready-to-wear, men’s and women’s accessories — are on track to hit nearly $2 billion in 2017.
And yet, the support of a larger company, or a private equity firm, could make it easier to grow to the heights of an Hermès or Chanel, which generate upward of $5 billion in net revenues annually.
“I don't see European conglomerates moving on Tom Ford. LVMH typically buys brands with a long heritage. Kering decided to part ways with Tom long ago, and I doubt they'd reverse this decision now,” notes BNP Paribas luxury analyst Luca Solca. “Private equity may be a different story — they have ventured into apparel and high-end fashion already…After all, private equity [invested in] Roberto Cavalli and Versace. Why not Tom Ford?”
For now, Ford is adamant that he is not interesting in selling a majority stake. “You know, never say never. Who knows? But right now, absolutely not. I enjoy being a privately owned company,” he says. “At Gucci, I had my share of shareholder meetings and sometimes we had to make decisions that weren't in the best interest of the long term business just to make sure that our quarterly earnings and that the stock stayed at a certain place. I did not enjoy that. The pressures of a publicly traded company are incredible. And the nice thing is, I make the decisions. I also can't be kicked out.”
Which brings us back to the Armory. And show time. “If you're not in the game, you can't win the game,” Ford says. “I've tried all sorts of different things. I need to come back to shows and compete. It will take me a few seasons and maybe it won’t ever happen. But my goal is still to build one of the top five or 10 luxury brands in the world.” Fucking fabulous.