Tom Ford: American Fashion Must ‘Become Global’
How a designer known for sex and excess became CFDA chief and what he plans to do next.
HOLLYWOOD, United States — Tom Ford has come early to rearrange the furniture.
He thinks that the already stylish room in the hottest new private club in town, the San Vicente Bungalows, could be even more captivating. So a team of eight club staffers gets busy under his direction, pulling a potted plant from the terrace for one corner and setting up two dozen glowing amber votive candles.
Mr Ford himself redoes the white flowers, plucking out the roses and leaving in the ranunculus, because he doesn’t like mixed blooms.
The Murphy bed he can do nothing about.
As I enter, the designer is lost in thought, still fantasising about redoing the room in his own preferred palette, draping chocolate brown velvet on the walls.
Everything in life can always be more sensual and beautiful, if you think about it. And Mr Ford is always thinking about it.
From the time he was big enough to push furniture, at 6 years old, he was rearranging it in his house, sometimes swapping his for his sister’s. And giving his mother critiques on her hair and shoes.
And that’s why being Tom Ford is awful, in a way.
He always sees what’s wrong. And you can’t help but feel bad for him because you know his flawless flaw detector is always on.
“I am a hyper-hyper Virgo,” he said. “Perfectionist, anal-retentive, supposedly. Seemingly uptight, seemingly aloof. We’re definitely homebodies also. We love the home.” (Or in his case, six.)
Mr Ford has been known to go to a movie in the middle of the day wearing a suit, and to make hospital corners with other people’s slipcovers.
“I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse, but he actually can make things better,” said the actress Rita Wilson, a friend. “He’s not afraid to say you need to cut three inches off your hair or lose weight.”
Even on vacations in the tropics or river rafting, she said, Mr Ford looks eerily perfect. He used to tailor white T-shirts he bought at La Rinascente in Milan, but now he wears his own brand. “The cut of the sleeve has to be just right if you want your biceps to look right,” he said.
In 2003, as the creative director of Gucci, he personally shaved a “G” in a model’s pubic hair for an ad, adding definition with an eyebrow pencil.
Lisa Eisner, who has done jewelry collaborations with Mr Ford and inspired the Alessia character in his 2016 film, “Nocturnal Animals,” said that he doesn’t expect everyone to be as persnickety as he is.
“At Graydon Carter’s wedding, I drank way too much and ran out to go to the bathroom and got sick on his shoes — really good Tom Ford shoes,” she recalled. “He just laughed and wiped it off.”
And his friends praise his fierce loyalty.
Ms. Wilson recalled that after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2015, when she had to present at the Tonys feeling vulnerable because “you have had part of your body removed,” Mr Ford designed her a beautiful dress to wear that “made my shape look like a normal shape. And he did it with such sensitivity, generosity and love.”
Mr Ford did not check his phone during the three hours we spent together. He has perfect posture and lovely Southern manners and stands up when you return to the table from the bathroom. His voice, as one fan wrote in a YouTube comment, sounds like what melted chocolate tastes like.
Admiring the votives’ golden aura, I confessed that I’m obsessed with lighting and have been known to unscrew bulbs in restaurant booths or flip off lights at parties.
“Oh, I do that,” Mr Ford said. “At Tower Bar, if you go to my table, the corner table at the back, there are these overhead spots and on mine it’s blacked out, because I told them, ‘You have to get rid of that spot or I’m not going to come here. No overhead lights.’”
Jeffrey Klein, Mr Ford’s friend who is the hotelier behind both the bungalows and the Sunset Tower hotel where the Tower Bar is, called an electrician to put in a special switch for Mr Ford’s table, which can be flipped off when he’s on his way.
“Why, oh my God, overhead light,” Mr Ford continued, warming to the subject, “where your brow is going to create shadow right there, your nose is going to create a shadow like this, you look like hell, you look like you have no hair, even if you have a lot of hair. Nobody looks good in overhead lighting.
“That’s why I don’t go to Barry and Diane’s lunch party,” he confided, referring to one of the most coveted invitations in Hollywood, on Oscar weekend at the Coldwater Canyon mansion of Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg. “I don’t like the middle of the day. Take a picture at noon, anywhere in the world. You’re going to look like hell — hell. Everybody looks like hell. Unless you’re 18, maybe, or under. Even then you don’t look your best. I like daylight, but not to go out in public.”
Mr Ford cloaks himself in black, planted a black garden in London of black tulips and black calla lilies, contemplates death constantly and plans on designing a black sarcophagus. He is 57 but for decades has not seemed to get any older. And he’s wearing Beau de Jour (one of 39 Tom Ford fragrances), a scent meant to evoke the allure of Cary Grant’s neck.
I told him that all this makes him a member of my favourite cult: sexy vampires.
His face lit up. “A vampire cape was one of the first things I got when I could tell my mother to make something for me, and it was black satin on the outside and red satin on the inside,” he said. “And I had the vampire teeth and I had the LP with the music from ‘Dark Shadows.’ I was obsessed and I wanted to be a vampire because vampires are sexy. They don’t age. Talk about seductive. I’m not talking about Nosferatu, you know. But vampires were usually rich, they lived in a fabulous house or castle. Wore black. Vampires are great.”
Ms Eisner demurred: “Tom smells too good to be a vampire.”
She said that those who know Mr Ford simply through the famous shots of him with naked models and actresses probably think he’s “a sex pervert, someone who thinks about sex 24-7. Nope, he’s not that guy at all. He’s very loyal to his friends. Very married.”
Richard Buckley, Mr Ford’s husband since 2013, confirmed that the facade of gleaming black lacquer is deceiving.
“The one misconception I think most people have of Tom is that he is some kind of press whore who loves to have his picture taken,” said Mr Buckley, a longtime fashion journalist with whom Mr Ford had a coup de foudre during an elevator ride 32 years ago.
“He is, and always has been, painfully shy,” Mr Buckley said. “He did acting when he was in his early 20s, so he is able to ‘turn on’ for interviews.” Referring to their 6-year-old son, he added: “And Jack has never been photographed. In London, we have a court injunction to keep any newspaper or magazine from running pictures of him. In Los Angeles, there is a law.”
(The designer takes Jack — who already prefers black despite drawers filled with colourful clothes — every day to school, where “the mothers have to see Tom Ford looking great at 8 in the morning while they look like hell,” an amused Ms. Eisner noted.)
"If American fashion is going to flourish, it has got to drop the idea that it’s American fashion and become global."
Mr Buckley, 70, said dryly that their lives are not “all champagne and caviar,” opening up about his nightmarish struggle with the aftereffects of radiation for the throat cancer for which he had surgery for in 1989, three years after the men became involved.
“Tom has seen me through so much, from throat cancer to my brother and mother dying 48 hours apart, to more bouts of pneumonia than I can count,” Mr Buckley said.
Mr Ford made his husband grey merino wool turtleneck dickeys with keyhole slits for his tracheotomy tube, and, for formal events, a black silk scarf with slits.
“Tom is actually quite good at sewing,” Mr Buckley said. (These days, a designer need not be.)
Recently, it was announced that Mr Ford will succeed Ms von Furstenberg as the head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a job he was persuaded to take by her and Anna Wintour.
“He’s a cross between a Rolls-Royce and the Marlboro Man,” Ms. von Furstenberg told me. At a time when Donald Trump’s America is turning away from the rest of the world, Mr Ford, who has spent half his life working and studying in Europe, says he will reach out because “if American fashion is going to flourish, it has got to drop the idea that it’s American fashion and become global.”
“It’s a turbulent time in some ways for fashion, which has been rightly criticised for its lack of inclusivity, for not having enough women in C.E.O. positions,” Ms Wintour said. “These are things Tom cares about.”
Indeed, back in the Gucci days, Mr Ford was one of the first designers to prominently feature African-American and Asian models on the runway and in ad campaigns.
André Leon Talley said that Mr Ford stands out because he’s “not like most of the cruel snakes in fashion and in cutthroat business. His is an unapologetic universe of sultry, melting-pot sexuality, often fusing or blurring the genders.”
Virgil Abloh, the creator of Off-White and the artistic director of men’s wear at Louis Vuitton, said that, at the C.F.D.A., Mr Ford will not be “just a puppet of the industry going with the flow. He has rigour in his work and his personality, and he will bring challenging ideas.”
Mr Abloh said that Mr Ford’s provocative Gucci ads inspired him when he was a teenager in Illinois, into skateboarding, hip-hop and normcore. “I was an outsider,” he said, “and he made me believe in fashion.”
Women’s Wear Daily sleuthed out the news that Mr Ford was the buyer, for $18 million, of the Paul Rudolph modernist four-story townhouse on 63rd Street in Manhattan where Halston once lived, hosting some of the wildest parties of the 1970s (Mr Ford’s favourite decade) for glitterati like Truman Capote, Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Liza Minnelli.
In Los Angeles, Mr Ford lives in a $39 million Holmby Hills mansion, formerly owned by Betsy Bloomingdale, that is a study in black and white, complete with a Scottish butler named Angus.
He also has property in Santa Fe, where his family moved when he was 11, including a $75 million ranch, which he’s selling, that includes a Western movie town used to shoot such movies as “Cowboys and Aliens” and “All the Pretty Horses.” When a colleague told him that the Rudolph place had been on sale for eight years, he snapped it up.
“I’ve kind of lived in that house in my mind for many years,” Mr Ford said. “It has dark brown glass, it has a garage, it has a legal curb cut.” There are 32-foot-high ceilings, skylights galore and a roof garden.
New York had long seemed stressful. “It felt like all work, if I walked down the street and somebody saw me, they would get on the phone and call so-and-so and then so-and-so would say, ‘You need to come to my party,’ and ‘You need to go to her opening,’ and ‘So-and-so needs to see you,’ and it just wasn’t fun.”
But then he thought about his son. “I love LA,” he said, “but I do want Jack to know how to put on a jacket, go to a restaurant, go to a museum, walk on the street, go to a play.”
Mr Ford first visited his new house in the heyday of Studio 54, which is where, after years of dating women, he realised he was gay.
He was studying art history in his freshman dorm room one night, feeling disoriented about the move to New York. “I just said, ‘Oh my God, please, please, please let something happen to me.’ Knock, knock, knock. I went to the door and there was Ian Falconer, this guy from art history class, in a little blue blazer, and he said, ‘Do you want to go to Studio?’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding me, Studio 54?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m going with some friends.’”
One of the friends was Andy Warhol, who picked them up in a Cadillac limousine. “The stretch Cadillacs were fabulous. There were two jump seats in the back. And it was literally like a movie, everyone got pushed aside and we walked right in the door. ‘Oh my God, here I am, Studio 54 for the very first time’ and I drank a lot, did a lot of coke.”
Even back then, he always visualised the sort of cinematic life he has now, with several Warhols on the wall, including a triptych of vulvas and a “Big Electric Chair.” He sold a fright-wig self-portrait of the artist at Sotheby’s for $32.6 million to pay for his stores in China.
That night at Studio 54 was the first night he ended up with a man, and it “freaked” him out. “And I said to him, ‘This was great but this isn’t really what I do or who I am’ and I went back to my dorm room. And I tried to sort of deny that, and then I remember friends that were gay saying, ‘Why are you dating a girl? You’re really gay.’ I suppose I struggled with it for maybe six months. Maybe it was coming from my family background in Texas where, you know, guys are guys. I was nervous about telling my parents, but they’re liberal Democrats who met at the University of Texas and it was pre-AIDS and they were totally cool with it.” (His parents were real estate agents.)
“And I learned later on that it was a plus because people thought if you weren’t gay, you couldn’t possibly be a good designer.”
‘I Need My Armour’
Tom Ford is elegantly dressed, naturally, all in Tom Ford: a black double 002 watch with a removable woven leather band; a white cotton French cuff shirt (“because it’s one of the only things a man can have, a pair of cuff links”); trousers, plain-weave; the black velvet peak lapel jacket favoured by Hollywood moguls; and a pair of black cap-toe Chelsea boots. Men in Los Angeles never wear the proper shoes, in his opinion.
“I don’t feel secure in a slip-on or a tennis shoe,” he said. “I think it’s the Texan in me. I could never go to a business meeting in a tennis shoe. You feel soft, bouncy, not in control. I don’t feel good in sweaters either, when I’m out. I feel soft and mushy and vulnerable. I need my armour.”
What about that time in St. Barts when he was nude on the beach and Anna Wintour happened to walk by?
A talented mimic, Mr Ford describes the awkward moment: “‘Hi, Richard. Hi, Tom.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, hi, Anna!’ Oh, I’m naked! It was a wake-up call.”
(When I asked Ms Wintour about it, she answered breezily: “Everyone was naked in St. Barts in those days. And if it happened, I’m sure Tom looked as perfect as he always does.”)
Politicians also need their armour, and Mr Ford, who toggles from Turner Classic Movies to MSNBC to CNN to the BBC, was happy to muse about makeovers for them.
On Hillary Clinton: “I supported Hillary but when she talks to a camera she lifts her chin and all of the sudden, it’s a haughty pose. Now Princess Diana, when she answered a question, she would look up at you from underneath doe eyes, which made you go, ‘awww.’”
On Elizabeth Warren: “She needs shoulder pads!”
On Kamala Harris: “She looks great.”
On Pete Buttigieg: “I started thinking of advice for Mayor Pete and Chasten, but then I realised what’s so great about them is that they’re so natural.”
On President Trump: “He’s a very tall man, but he’s also not the slimmest thing. The elongated ties, it’s one more vertical that could, in his head, make him feel slimmer. He also never buttons his jacket, which I find very odd. I’ve run around rooms at a party buttoning people’s jackets because it gives you a waist.”
And what about the time Mr Trump Scotch-taped the back of his tie? “Well, Scotch tape is a miracle,” Mr Ford allowed.
He was drinking a Coke with his grilled artichoke and cauliflower steak, having become vegan, allowing himself the occasional piece of salmon, after watching the documentary “What the Health.” He cheats with baked goods, jelly beans, Starbursts and Skittles. “Sugar is my weakness,” he said. He weighs himself daily, holding at 165 pounds, and hasn’t had a drink for 10 years.
“For several years leading up to stopping drinking — because I drank a lot — on the mornings after, I would have to send flowers to this one and flowers to that one and, ‘Oh, I can’t believe I did that’ and ‘I can’t believe I said that,’ and I told Richard for at least a year, ‘Oh my God, I wish I could just not drink at all.’ And the drinking was the open door for the drugs. Three drinks” — he mimes sniffing a line — “and anything I could hoover, anything was going to happen.”
Living in London for 17 years didn’t help. “You go to lunch there, you have two or three drinks," he said. “In my office at 5 o’clock, cocktail hour started, because we work in fashion until 8 or 9, so you’re drinking, so now we’re up to five drinks.” By day’s end he might be up to a dozen.
When Mr Ford moved to the land of green juice and kind bud, culture shock ensued. “I was at an afternoon party at a friend’s house, and Martin Short said to me, ‘Do you think you might have a drinking problem?’ Because it was lunch and I was just kicking back the vodka tonics and I didn’t think anything of it. It was the first indication I had that, ‘oh, maybe this isn’t normal.’”
He worked with a therapist for a year, tapered off and then one weekend just stopped.
‘An Unsustainable Thing’
Mr Ford’s critically acclaimed movies, “Nocturnal Animals” and “A Single Man” (2009), are so drenched in colour that they bring to mind the mesmerising luminosities of Venetian painting.
“I don’t allow the cinematographer to see the film until I’m finished with it because I have very specific ideas and I sit there, frame by frame, on the computer and colour-correct every scene,” Mr Ford said. “And I have the ability to take those mandarin oranges and pop them and then desaturate the rest of the image. And you can manipulate the colours, so it is really like painting.”
He had a new film deal fall apart on him last summer, and he has just bought the rights to a 600-page book he won’t name but has been wanted to adapt for 12 years.
Naturally, he’s looking for more control. “In fashion, we would never design something and then hand it off to somebody else to advertise it,” he pointed out. “All movie trailers sound the same and look the same. I guess what I’ve learned is that there’s this sort of myth that it’s a magic thing that only professionals know how to do and I just don’t buy into that anymore because I feel like I know how to do it better.”
I was surprised to learn he has an aversion to colour in his clothes and homes. He tried some, aside from the art, in his Santa Fe home but quickly backtracked because it was too “challenging.” He even painted the bright yellow tractors on the ranch black, to go along with his black Angus cattle, black horses and black backhoes.
“I don’t like colour on me because I don’t like to scream, I like to recede in a way,” he said. “I was always shy and so I would feel silly in a bright colour.”
He said he feels enormous empathy for women who get frightened about their looks fading. “There’s nothing more powerful in our culture than a beautiful woman,” he said. But “it’s an unsustainable thing. One day it stops. And I have lived through it with so many female friends and part of my job is to imagine myself, the female version of myself, would I want to wear that? Where would I go in it? How would I feel in it? Would I feel vulnerable?”(Mr Ford said if he were a woman, he would be Ali MacGraw.)
He confessed that his hair “is a little more salt and pepper than it looks. I mean, Diana Vreeland stayed with black hair all the way until the end.
“I’ve been open about using Botox and fillers, although I can move. You have to be very careful with it. I do it about once every eight months. When I go to the dermatologist, I get a hand mirror, I take a white pencil and I say, ‘Right there.’ If I could do it myself, I would.”
Now that he is a parent (and no longer walking naked around the house, as he once did), does he feel the need to tone down the sexuality of his fashion ads?
“Oh, yes, absolutely,” he said, adding that it may also be because of “the hyper-politically correct culture. I mean, you can’t say anything anymore. I was shooting an ad campaign last week, and the guy came up behind the girl and was kissing her on the neck and he was holding her wrists from the back and I said, ‘No, no, we have to change that. Put his hand in her hand.’ I don’t know that any of us will survive this scrutiny.”
His friend and collaborator, the photographer Terry Richardson, was banned from Condé Nast and several fashion houses as part of a wave of #MeToo accusations.
“Ugh! I love Terry,” he said. “And I have to say that I never in my entire life saw any of that with Terry. One of my assistants went out with Terry for two years and he was the kindest, gentlest person in the relationship.”
I wondered about the fracases over cultural appropriation. “Two shows ago, I showed the girls with scarves on their head, which were not durags and that was not where that idea came from,” he said, adding that it came from the ’70s, which I know to be true, because I wore them in college. “And a couple of people wrote that it was durags and appropriation. Well, first of all, if you’re appropriating something, why isn’t that great? You’re celebrating it.”
After we split a lemon meringue pie, the designer dropped me at my hotel in his chauffeured Range Rover.
The next day I flew home. On the plane, I saw a picture of Priyanka Chopra on Page Six, the gossip section of The New York Post.
She was wearing the same Tom Ford red ruched tulle dress that I wore for the interview. With horror, I realized that I had been wearing my velvet corset belt backward all night, with the hooks behind and laces in front.
Mr Ford was too polite to mention it.
By Maureen Dowd