Bridget Foley’s Diary: Tom Ford Talks Crisis Mode
From COVID-19 and the economy to the state of his business, Black Lives Matter and the future of American fashion, the CFDA chairman opens up.
When Tom Ford became chairman of the CFDA last year, he couldn't have imagined the traumas ahead. Now, he wants to remain in his post "until some of these problems are, if not solved, then well on the way to being solved."
Portrait Courtesy of Tom Ford
“It’s too premature for me to tell you.”
So said Tom Ford in March of last year when, as the newly elected chairman of the CFDA, he discussed his plans for the CFDA.
Tom, you don’t say.
When he accepted the post, there’s no way he could have had a clue of what he was in for. He knew the American fashion industry was challenged for myriad reasons — oversaturation, a relentless schedule, a reliance on a failing wholesale model, European domination fueled by the major luxury fashion group power base. For years, those and other factors had been chipping away at the global profile of American fashion and Ford determined to make increasing its international profile a major priority of his tenure. In addition, he wanted to focus on young designers and on addressing the issue of insufficient diversity across the industry’s designer ranks. Once installed, in September, he shook up the CFDA board, securing the election of four people of color: Virgil Abloh, Maria Cornejo, Carly Cushnie and Kerby Jean-Raymond.
Tom Ford hosted young designers at Indochine last September. Here, he chats with LaQuan Smith, seated next to Edward Enninful. Across the table: Christopher John Rogers and Alejandra Alonso Rojas. Clint Spaulding/WWD
After two relatively smooth collection seasons, COVID-19 struck, forcing the unprecedented and devastating shutdown of the global economy. With the industry and country still deep in the throes of pandemic restrictions, the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others forced the long-overdue cultural reckoning on race that has impacted every aspect of American life, including highlighting the long-seeded racial inequalities that permeate business. And oh, yes, there’s a quite contentious presidential election under way.
These stunning occurrences made the first year of Ford’s CFDA tenure far different than he’d anticipated going in. Professionally, he’s responded with specific initiatives to the COVID-19 crisis, launching A Common Thread campaign, and to the fight for social justice with a number of moves. These include promoting the CFDA’s former chief financial officer CaSandra Diggs to the position of president; hiring Bonnie Morrison as director of equity, growth and engagement, and establishing the Black Advisory Board, chaired by Tracy Reese, also the CFDA’s vice chair.
At the same time, Ford’s own business, like so many others, has been rocked by the shutdown, forcing what he called heartbreaking layoffs and furloughs. He decided early on not to do a spring 2021 runway show for two reasons, because he considers the clothes more low-key and comforting than major-statement material, and because to spend millions on a show when payroll is at stake would have been irresponsible. Personally, the Black Lives Matter movement has forced a look inward, at his position as a white privileged man living in a society rife with inequalities. All of this has happened since the death in March of Ford’s father, whose cremated remains now reside in Ford’s sock drawer, awaiting the moment when the son can find the time to secure a more honorable location. (Even in times of turmoil, Ford’s wry world view remains intact.)
For a good part of the summer, “fashion seemed absolutely frivolous,” and Ford found mustering creativity a struggle as he worked on his spring 2021 collection. Yet ultimately, that malaise proved fleeting. Ford is at heart a fashion believer, and true believers can have their faith shaken but seldom destroyed. He subscribes to fashion’s restorative powers, its ability to lift psyche and spirits. As restrictions eased, he was heartened by seeing friends “make an effort” to dress for dinner outdoors. Ditto, the stalwart shoppers now visiting his stores, albeit their numbers still down dramatically from the old normal. Overall, he foresees an eventual reawakening of fashion interest, while yet noting that anyone too obsessed with fashion now, so soon before the election, might need a priority reset.
It was inevitable and necessary for Ford’s mind-set to shift. He must continue to steer Tom Ford International through the ongoing economic miasma and, as CFDA chair, to speak for and lead the American industry and to develop his agenda for it. In a wide-ranging conversation last week, Ford made very clear that diversity and COVID-19 response are primary to that agenda.
But fashion isn’t only about global cultural issues. It’s also about an industry currently in turmoil, and the thousands of businesses that operate individually and as part of its ecosphere. Ford touched on some concerns that will have to be dealt with sooner or later. Most dramatically, he broached the fall 2021 show season, next February. He has already decided against staging a show. “I don’t anticipate normal shows until fall 2021 [the spring 2022 season]. I think that’s going to be the first normal season,” he said.
In addition, while he has espoused a two-season calendar and encouraged others to do the same, Ford predicted that, assuming the eventual arrival of a “new normal,” the yen for “more” may reawaken in consumers and brands, and that the pre-seasons may return: “The customer will decide.”
Finally, the New York spring 2021 season is bifurcated, with the official calendar commencing on Sunday and running through Sept. 16, and some designers showing in October. At least one major, Michael Kors, has committed to October for the long term. Common sense dictates that a permanent two-part New York show season is not viable — at least if there’s any hope of attracting international attendance. “I believe New York Fashion Week as an organized event should still take place in September,” Ford offered, declining to elaborate, for now at least.
That still left plenty to discuss. So much, Ford mused, “I could never have imagined.”
WWD: Here we are, under the strangest imaginable circumstances.
Tom Ford: I think they’re even getting stranger. It’s crazier and crazier and more and more upsetting.
WWD: What upsets you most right now?
T.F.: The election. I don’t want to get too political, but I am constantly appalled by the bending of the rules, and in some cases, the laws by our current president. It’s upsetting. And, of course, the racial tension. Every few days, a Black man [or woman] is shot in the back. It’s shocking. And it’s wearing us all down. There is a zeitgeist, both financial and psychological, of a great depression. I think it’s getting to everyone. I want November to come and go, and whatever the outcome, I want us to get on with it. Sadly, I think there’s going to be extreme tension either way.
WWD: I think so, too.
T.F.: We are so divided as a country, so all of the building up to the election is a lot. I’m usually 24 hours a day, CNN, MSNBC, CNN, MSNBC. But lately I had to switch to HGTV where pulling down a wall or putting in a good kitchen island answers all of life’s problems. I find myself having to take a break, which is new. It’s really happened since the conventions.
WWD: Do you feel good about Joe Biden?
T.F.: My feelings are good. With his leadership and experience, Joe Biden is enormously qualified. And after listening to him speak so calmly and in such an empathetic manner in the last few days, I’m more convinced than ever that he is the president to help us heal. The man has known such tragedy in his personal life that I think that there could be no better president for us right now, given the great challenges of reuniting the country. And our need to grieve — a subject Biden knows only too well.
WWD: Kamala Harris?
T.F.: I was thrilled with Biden’s choice of Kamala. She’s presidential. We have to think about that because of the likelihood that this will be a one-term presidency. I’ve met Kamala a few times and I love her even more in person. Talk about warmth. You feel that when you’re around her. And then you watch her grilling people in the Senate.
I also think that Biden will surround himself with terrific people. We have so many rising stars in the Democratic party. Andrew Yang is a visionary; he thinks about 30 years from now and where we’ll be in terms of innovation, jobs and the global economy. I’d love to see him as a member of the Cabinet.
WWD: Do you really think Joe Biden, or anyone, can bring people together? The polarization and vitriol feel irreversible.
T.F.: I’m more hopeful. I think it may take 50 years, but we are becoming an increasingly liberal country. Sixty-something percent of Americans are liberal but because [of the Electoral College] it isn’t represented that way for the presidency. We’re becoming blended. There’s so many interracial and interfaith marriages. We’re becoming increasingly homogenized, and as that continues, I believe that our differences will begin to fade away.
WWD: I don’t think so.
T.F.: I’m hopeful….That’s why we need Joe Biden. We need a restoration of a certain — I don’t know what the word is.
T.F.: A certain standard. Someone who doesn’t govern by tweet.
WWD: I think of you as the ultimate pragmatist, so I like that you’re optimistic.
T.F.: I’m not optimistic for the next year. But ultimately, I am optimistic. Then again, I live in a liberal bubble where this blending is increasing. I look at [my son] Jack’s generation and at the generation ahead of him or teenagers, and I see a completely different thing. I see an emphasis on the environment, I see a complete lack of judgment based on whether you’re a man, whether you’re a woman, sexual orientation, race.
WWD: Let’s hope that young people can save us. In the meantime, specific to business, do you see any potential differences in impact between a Biden win and a Trump win?
T.F.: I don’t see a change at all. We have just as many wealthy customers who are Democrats as we have Republicans. I don’t see that it will affect, at least for me, my sales at all if Trump wins or if Biden wins.
WWD: Do you foresee a difference in impact on the overall economy?
T.F.: That’s very hard to predict because I don’t understand it. Even people I know in the financial world don’t understand why the stock market is moving the way it is right now given the situation with unemployment. I just don’t understand it.
WWD: I believe it was Jim Cramer who said it’s because the market has no conscience.
T.F.: That may be. There are still so many people out of work and so many businesses that are suffering and so many that are going to suffer more. I mean, United Airlines is laying off 16,000 people. Many big companies that affect the overall economy are laying people off.
WWD: What’s fashion’s prognosis?
T.F.: Again I’m not an economist so I can’t answer that. But obviously, until this pandemic is over, life is not going to return to anything resembling normal. But I have hope that when this is over there will be a bit of a boom in terms of people rushing out to buy things. I really believe that.
WWD: People will buy because of pent-up emotion, the yearning for normalcy?
T.F.: I don’t think I’ve gotten out of the same pair of jeans for months, literally, and a T-shirt or a jeans shirt and a pair of sneakers. I got depressed if I had to make a Zoom call because it meant I had to wash my hair and trim my beard. I just didn’t care. Fashion felt completely ridiculous, our stores were closed all over the world, and we were suffering as a company, as everyone else was suffering. Fashion seemed absolutely frivolous. My brain felt cloudy and cluttered and disturbed, and I didn’t feel remotely creative. Even had I felt creative, our sample rooms in Italy were closed. Factories were closed. Our sample rooms in Los Angeles were closed.
As this started to open up, I could have two people at a time over for dinner outside. And I noticed that women came over in caftans, lipstick, a pair of sandals. Men washed their hair, put on a nice shirt, put on a pair of pants. I’d gotten really sick of looking at people on Zoom with no makeup and no hair and no effort. It started to make me realize that when this is over, I do think there is going to be a desire, not to celebrate, but almost — to finally be able to get out of the house and to go buy a new pair of shoes and to go to dinner. There’s no reason to consume fashion; at least, there’s a little bit more of a reason now than two months ago. What are you going to do, home school your child in a new pair of stilettos? I don’t think so.
WWD: Have you found people starting to shop again?
T.F.: We have hard-core customers that just have to shop. They come into our Beverly Hills store on Rodeo. Not a lot of them — our business is down dramatically, so it’s not good. We’re not doing well, like most luxury companies right now. Last month, our business was down 39 percent.
WWD: That’s an improvement from 50.
T.F.: Things have eased up. During the first couple of months, one month we were down 89 percent and the next month, 90 percent. Then it was 60 percent and 50 percent and then last month, 39 percent. Now I think it’s going to drop off, and at Christmas we’ll see a little bit of a bump, maybe instead of being 50 or 60 percent down again it will be 30 or 40 percent down. It’s all still down.
WWD: Could you possibly have imagined a year ago when you accepted the CFDA job what your first year would be like?
T.F.: No way. I could never have imagined. I thought, you know what? I’m a good figurehead, I’m internationally known, I can help the CFDA have a greater impact in an international way and I could bring greater diversity to the organization. The first thing I did was reshuffle the board and bring in four new members of color. We’re now at almost 50 percent members of color and 50 percent white, and we’re balanced in terms of men and women. I really wanted to help young designers, as you know from that very first dinner I gave at Indochine. I thought I’d be really good at fund-raising and putting together scholarships and having a great awards ceremony that was maybe more relevant globally. That’s what I thought I’d be doing. I had no idea. But none of us did. None of us saw what was coming.
WWD: Given everything that’s happened, do you feel at all changed?
T.F.: My perception has changed. I have always considered myself to be very liberal, not racist at all and not seeing color. This movement has made me understand, I think, in a greater capacity. I don’t think any of us who are white or privileged, a white privileged man like I am, can ever understand what it must feel like to go through the world as a Black man or a Black woman. It has really driven home to me the fact that we have not come as far as we thought we had.
WWD: You’ve made some swift changes within the CFDA.
T.F.: We promoted CaSandra Diggs, who had been our chief financial officer for years. She’s now president. We brought in Bonnie Morrison [as director of equity, growth and engagement]. And we’ve set up a new board, the Black Advisory Board, which is a semi-independent board of the CFDA. CaSandra will be overseeing these efforts [in addition to her involvement in general CFDA governance].
After a long run as cfo, CaSandra Diggs was recently promoted to president of the CFDA. Ben Rosser/BFA.com./Courtesy of KCD
WWD: Tracy Reese is on the new board, right?
T.F.: Tracy is the vice chair on the executive board and the chair of this new advisory board. We have Bozoma Saint John, the chief marketing officer from Netflix; Samira Nasr from Harper’s Bazaar; Stacie Henderson [of Fashion Tech Connects], and Martin Cooper [of The Punctilious Mr. P’s Place Cards Co.].
This board will be responsible for deploying the cash that we raise for Black initiatives. And to report back to the [CFDA] board about what we should be doing. One of the main things we’re doing is setting up an in-house employment agency in a sense, even though we legally can’t call it an employment agency because we’re a not-for-profit. It’s a database where we will seek out young Black talent, or not-so-young Black talent, and then try to pair them with companies that are hiring. It could be a Black finance person; it doesn’t have to just be a designer. It’s to help our industry become more racially balanced and look more like — even though it’s a political slogan — what America looks like today.
WWD: Do you see an impact on the CFDA’s current membership?
T.F.: We need to rebalance the membership. I don’t know yet exactly how, whether we waive the membership fee for a number of years [for new talents who can’t yet afford it]. And how do you get rid of some members that haven’t worked in 15 years? They’re great people who’ve made a terrific contribution to the industry, but they’ve drifted away from the industry. So I don’t know exactly how to do it, but I’m determined to make the membership more diverse, the organization more diverse in general, and hopefully, more relevant.
Bonnie Morrison recently joined the CFDA as as director of equity, growth and engagement. Scott Rudd/WWD
WWD: What are your thoughts on The Kelly Initiative, which makes very specific demands, and whose authors have been very critical of the CFDA?
T.F.: The Black Advisory Board will play a key role in speaking and meeting with all of these different groups. We put this new board together because we felt that in order to realize change and shift the pendulum, we needed a group of individuals [specifically] committed to the advancement of the Black fashion community. We feel that we can do internally what some of these organizations have proposed to help us with. We have been approached by quite a few different initiatives and are having ongoing conversations with some of them. We are continuing to build on our long-term relationship with Bethann Hardison and Harlem’s Fashion Row, and are working with other organizations, including the Black in Fashion Council.
WWD: Would you say that diversity is now the primary focus of the Tom Ford CFDA?
T.F.: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
Tracy Reese is vice chair of the CFDA’s executive board, and chair of the newly formed Black Advisory Board. Clint Spaulding/WWD
WWD: How do you balance that with more general industry issues and the needs of the full membership and its companies?
T.F.: Some of our members have expressed the desire for the CFDA to speak out against police brutality. Personally, I find the incidents of police brutality against the Black community absolutely appalling, and I believe in police reform. I simply feel that the CFDA, an organization set up to promote the fashion industry, needs to work on areas of discrimination in which it can have a great impact. Hence the new initiatives that we have launched. We can suggest, we can educate, we can accept members who conform to certain practices.
T.F.: When I say conform, we are a non-governing body. But we can encourage, and accept members who practice what they do in an ethical way. Why would we accept a member now that we know manufactures in conditions in countries that were not ethical? I think when someone submits for membership now, we need to look at that business in terms of sustainability, in terms of diversity, in terms, obviously, of their validity in the fashion world. We’ll all be looking through a different lens in everything that we do in our lives now.
WWD: You mentioned “rebalancing” the membership. There was a period when the CFDA took in many new members each year. Will you reverse course?
T.F.: I think we’ve taken in way too many members. And at meetings, I’ve heard anger from some members who seem to think it’s the job of the CFDA to get them a million-dollar licensing deal or to work on their business plan and restore the profitability of their company. That’s not our job. Let’s remember that this was founded as a p.r. machine in the Sixties to promote American fashion around the world. In the Eighties, the focus became AIDS fund-raising, which was great and at that time very relevant in the fashion world. Now, I think diversity is that. And let’s not forget COVID-19 and helping companies that have been hit hard. Those are the focuses of the CFDA now in terms of education, fund-raising and what we’re doing. They are all fashion-relevant.
WWD: The new Black Advisory Board will be able to allocate funds, and the CFDA continues to fund-raise for COVID-19 response. Where’s the money coming from?
T.F.: We need to get back to fund-raising in general, but specific fund-raising for this initiative. I’ll be cynical, but right now, every company in the world wants to look like they’re on top of Black Lives Matter. So if you’re going to give money right now, that’s a really good thing to give money to. So let’s use that, let’s capitalize on that, let’s raise money.
WWD: Yes. So many corporate initiatives are reactive rather than proactive.
T.F.: Well, why not take advantage of that? It’s still money and you can put it to good use. Bethann said in the New York Times, “I’m using them and they are using me.” I don’t remember what she was talking about; it might have been her [work with] the CFDA. Whatever it was, it was a blunt way of saying something that a lot of us realize, and it was certainly true.
WWD: All off this, and then the show to deal with. How do you see it playing out?
T.F.: I don’t anticipate normal shows until September 2021 [for the spring 2022 season]. I’ll do a collection for February, but I’m not doing a show. I’d like to have a dinner again for young designers, and I have other thoughts about things that will be exciting. I think that’s going to be the first normal season.
WWD: Will that be the CFDA’s recommendation for the first “normal season?”
T.F.: No. I’m just saying that as me, Tom Ford, pragmatic person trying to be realistic.
Ford said he’s always favored diverse castings, going back to his Gucci days. Here, a backstage trio at Tom Ford fall 2020. Katie Jones for WWD
WWD: No show in February — looking ahead. But we just leapfrogged over the current season, spring 2021. You decided early on not to have a show. Why?
T.F.: Creating a collection at all was a challenge. Almost an impossibility. I also don’t feel that it is the time for radical fashion concepts. For me, this translates to quiet clothes that make one smile. Things that are comforting. These are not clothes that would make a big impact on a runway. That is not to say that I don’t love them and feel that they are right for the times. There are other, much more important reasons — budget and moral responsibility. When trying to simply pay as many employees as I can and not have to make further cuts or furloughs, to spend several million dollars on a show makes no sense. I would rather pay our staff. Also, to have an audience gather right now I feel is dangerous and irresponsible and not something to encourage.
WWD: So, you’ve opted for a shoot.
T.F.: We will sell the collection virtually, so I have opted for a rather straightforward look book for both the men’s and women’s collections. In addition to this and in order to communicate the mood of the season, I shot a kind of editorial spread of about 20 pages using both the men’s and women’s collections. This will convey my message for the season. These elements will be uploaded during our “show” time slot on the last day of New York Fashion Week.
WWD: Who did the shoot?
T.F.: I did.
WWD: Overall, how do you see the season playing out?
T.F.: A lot of people aren’t showing. Some are showing late because they weren’t able to get their collections together.
I think that online retailers will have an open-to-buy because they’ve been faring better than brick-and-mortar retailers. For companies like mine, I’m going to buy much less for my stores than I would have normally bought. I still have two seasons of inventory that I’m going to take quite a loss on. Our online business is terrific; our brick-and-mortar business is a disaster. So my own personal open-to-buy is small. From the outside, we’ll look great, our windows will look great, our stores will look great. Inside, we’re going to take quite a hit but we will survive. I think the people that survive can pat themselves on the back because that right there will have been an incredible feat.
WWD: How much attrition do you foresee in American fashion as a result of the pandemic?
T.F.: A tremendous amount. I can’t predict who’s going to survive and who’s not going to survive. But yes, a tremendous amount.
WWD: Do you think this mostly virtual season, with many people using Runway360, will hold the interest of typical showgoers?
T.F.: I don’t think the interest is there right now in fashion in the way that it usually is, whether you’re looking at Runway360 or any other online platform. I think true fashion people — everyone in my office, me, you — will look at every show that we normally would have looked at. But I don’t believe [the interest is the same]. How could it be? Given where we are, given that it’s a month-and-a-half before elections, given the unrest in this country, I don’t think many people will be so into fashion that in September they’re living and breathing the collections on the runway.
WWD: Do virtual shows have a significant long-term future? Do you believe in the validity of the runway show?
T.F.: Yes, real runway shows. No, virtual shows. A filmed play does not have the same effect as if you’re sitting in that theater on Broadway or the [London] West End, feeling the electric vibrations from the performers on stage and from the audience around you. No, no.
WWD: The calendar. As you noted, some American designers are showing in October, after Europe, because they couldn’t get collections together. Michael Kors has committed to showing in October going forward. Can a split season work long-term for the American industry?
T.F.: I believe New York Fashion Week as an organized event should still take place in September.
WWD: What’s the show-time relationship between the CFDA and IMG?
T.F.: The CFDA is the Fashion Calendar; we organize the schedule. IMG produces certain shows. The simplistic way to think of it is that one is organizing and the other is producing, and they don’t produce every show. For example, my show, I don’t have anything to do with IMG. It’s a separate thing. I will agree with you that it’s confusing. It happened long before my time. Quite honestly, I still don’t quite understand how it happened. I find it confusing to the outside world and even occasionally confusing to me.
WWD: Let’s go back to the CFDA’s purpose of promoting American fashion. What do you think is the international image today of American fashion?
T.F.: Oh boy, that’s hard. If I’m honest with you, I think that globally, most people think American fashion is not terribly relevant or creative and, other than big sportswear brands, not important and doesn’t really register. By the way, the same with British designers, though they’re perhaps considered a little more relevant because they’re European. I think it’s really all about brands or French and Italian companies. Part of what I want to accomplish is to make people understand.
The Battle of Versailles, let’s go to that for a second. That [changed perceptions] at the time. There is actually a global resonance from the simplicity of American fashion and sportswear. Today, French brands, Italian brands are totally different than they were in the Sixties and Seventies. And an enormous amount of that comes from America. I would love to make the rest of the world aware of that historically.
Trends come from America. We dominate in the world of film, in the world of music, we dominate global culture. Often, the trends reflected by French and Italian brands are American in origin. That is an enormous contribution.
WWD: It’s an enormous contribution but a double-edged sword. It originates here, the ideas are American, but Louis Vuitton gets all the attention.
T.F.: And we have Virgil Abloh, and previously, Marc Jacobs.
WWD: How do you deal with that?
T.F.: I think a big part of it is trying to get American brands to come back to show in New York. Stella McCartney, by the way, is half American, I wish she would show in New York occasionally. Ralph should come back to New York [for men’s wear]. I want to make it a mission to get American brands to show in America, and to occasionally get a European brand to show in New York, and not in Malibu or whatever. Although I just showed in L.A., so I can’t criticize that.
Right now COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter and the election and the political unrest in America are dominating everything. After, we’ll try to get back to see about these other issues.
WWD: You acknowledged that some companies won’t survive the pandemic. And there’s considerable agreement that fashion has gotten too big, that there should be fewer seasons and less product created. Inherent therein is considerable job loss. Is fashion still a sound career choice for a young creative person?
T.F.: Yes. When I’ve spoken to students, I’ve always said, if there is any other job in the world that you can imagine yourself doing, then do it, because fashion is brutal. It is hard, it consumes people. If fashion is your passion, if it gives you great joy, it’s enormously rewarding. But if you’re not obsessed and if there’s something else you can think of doing, then you should do it. For those people who love fashion, who live for fashion, who are passionate about fashion, there’s no other career choice. And there will be a job for you because you’re talented, you will want to work hard, you will love it and you will do well.
WWD: That’s very optimistic. I think about kids in fashion schools and what’s out there for them.
T.F.: If they’re good there are a lot of things out there for them. But if you’re not good then no, there isn’t.
WWD: Many talented people have been furloughed during this pandemic.
T.F.: I, unfortunately, had to furlough a lot of employees.
WWD: How many?
T.F.: It’s been substantial, particularly at the store level because of the closures and now low traffic. I’m not someone who cries. My father died right at the beginning of March, not from COVID-19 but as everything was starting. I was very sad but I didn’t really cry. And the day I had to get on the phone and furlough an enormous amount of people — I’ll start crying even talking about it. I just cried after. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.
WWD: We’ve seen one retail trauma after another, the causes predating COVID-19. Yet American fashion remains rooted in a traditional wholesale model. What are the ramifications for the brand side?
T.F.: That right there might be a reason that American brands do not have the power of European brands. While European brands are dependent on wholesale to a certain extent, historically, they’ve always had their own stores. Most American brands — I’m talking real fashion brands, not these broader chains — don’t have as many of their own stores. They are and always have been dependent on department stores…so I don’t know. I don’t have the answers to all of your questions. They’re important questions that need to be resolved.
Tom Ford International has seen a slight uptick in in-store shoppers on Rodeo Drive and elsewhere. Michael Buckner for WWD
WWD: Despite the problems of major stores, you believe in physical retail, right?
T.F.: The importance of bricks-and-mortar for what I do — it’s hard for me to divorce my own experience from that of other companies. My customer still likes to come in and try on clothes. And our customer service is a big part of what we do, the way we can fit the clothes, the way we can cut the sleeves off and change this or that and do it in 24 hours. We come to your house with a bunch of clothes and leave them for you to try on. Or we can come to you and fit them at your house. Or we can get on a plane and fly somewhere. We fly our sales associates to Austin, Tex., to get you an evening dress so that you can go to that event. [That] can’t be replaced. For us, that retail experience is very important and will never go away. Our online business has increased 50 percent during COVID-19. I think that is true for most brands.
WWD: What are the most important elements to focus on to build an e-commerce business today?
T.F.: The ability to let your customers see what they’re going to look like in the clothes. As online shopping becomes increasingly sophisticated, customers are increasingly willing to buy items that they might not have previously bought online. Now, that said, is my e-comm up to the latest levels of technology? No, it’s not. We still sell fragrance, cosmetics, eyewear, shoes very well online. Is someone as willing to buy a coat or an evening dress or something they’d like to try on online? Less often, but they’re becoming more and more comfortable with that.
WWD: Back to physical stores. You mentioned Rodeo Drive, where there have been reports of increased crime. Do you see safety concerns impacting shopping?
T.F.: I like to think this is short-term. So I would say long-term, no. We’ve had periodic historical unrest like this, going back to the riots in the Sixties. We had the riots in L.A. in the early Nineties; different cities around the world have had things like this happen. I like to think it’s a temporary thing. Again, I don’t have all the answers.
WWD: Nobody does.
T.F.: Again, I’m optimistic in this. I feel like if we could solve some of these problems then hopefully things will return to a new normal. A different normal but a normal.
WWD: Speaking of that new normal, what do you think is the future of the fashion workplace? Will people want to return to the office?
T.F.: I think eventually, hopefully sooner than later. I don’t think I’ll travel nearly as much; I don’t think my team will travel nearly as much. We found that we don’t need to. I had a watch meeting via Zoom two or three days ago. They sent me all the prototypes. The company we work with is headquartered in Dallas; they had duplicates there. I held up a watch: “I don’t like this; I do like that. What can we do with the bezel? Can it be like bezel A, B or C?” It was completely clear, straightforward and it was done.
Clothes, that’s hard. [For spring 2021,] I was able to have a couple of virtual fittings, meaning the fitting model stood there and I said, “this cuff isn’t right; it needs to be two inches. The lapel is too small; it needs to be a quarter-of-an-inch bigger.” The problem was when I needed to see the girl walk. The first thing I always say to a model is, “Can you walk for me?” I need to see the clothes walk, to see the clothes move, I need to see how they drape.
Putting together looks was virtually impossible. “Virtually” — I didn’t mean to use that word. You can’t do that via Zoom. You’ve got to be in the room. “No, those shoes don’t work. That’s not right. Try this. Put that jacket on, no, take it off. Put on that blouse. No, that doesn’t work. What if we did this, what if we did that?” I’ve got to be able to go behind the model, in front of the mirror and pull in the waist or [otherwise adjust]. That was hard.
WWD: Where did you do it?
T.F.: We were outside under a tent in the parking lot of my design studio. Everyone was tested previously and then quarantined before the fitting. Everybody was in masks and shields, and we got closed down once because we had more than 10 people and we’re a nonessential business. Then someone on my team tested positive for COVID-19 and then we all had to quarantine for two weeks. I mean, it was almost impossible. It was hard to be creative in that environment.
WWD: The designers I’ve spoken with have all said something similar — at some point creatives have to be in the studio. Do you see a situation where designers and their teams go back and everybody else continues working from home?
T.F.: I don’t know how to answer that. Hopefully there will be eventually a vaccine, and things will go back to normal. I do think culturally, we will be wearing masks in the way that our Asian customers and population have been for years. You’ll get on a plane and put on a mask. I’m going to from now on. Even once this is over, I think it will affect travel, I think the handshake will disappear. I haven’t done handshakes when I’m casting a show for years. I always pretend like I have a cold and I don’t want to make the model sick. So I think culturally there will be some lasting effects.
WWD: Unrelated to COVID-19 or diversity, it seems to me that in the “fashion conversation” of recent years, creativity gets short shrift relative to everything else that gets attention — marketing, celebrities, etc. What is the role of creativity in fashion today?
T.F.: The role of creativity should be what it always has been. But the speed that we have to work at and the lack of time between collections has dramatically impacted creativity.
WWD: Will that change as designers and brands produce fewer seasons?
T.F.: I hope so, but I’m not so sure that my suggestion that we all go back to two collections a year will stick. I think once the world goes back to a somewhat more normal place, our collections will probably go back to four times a year. Ultimately, the customer will decide.
I had a phone meeting yesterday with one of our senior merchandisers who could not [comprehend] that we’re not having a pre-collection. This person said, “We need to get the calendar to you; it’s right around the corner.” And I said, “No it’s not, it’s not until February.” The person said, “No, I mean, the calendar for December.” And I said, “No we’re not doing the pre-collection. I’ve been saying no for months. Don’t you understand?”
Though he loves a live show, Ford won’t take to the runway again until September 2021, when he shows spring 2022. Here, a look from fall 2020. Roger Kisby/ WWD
WWD: Fashion thinks of itself as very forward-thinking. But old ways are often hard to let go of.
T.F.: Absolutely. Especially a merchandiser. Their job is to sell. To tell them they’re going to have one less season to sell and they’re like, “Well what am I going to do?” It’s hard to understand.
WWD: With the CFDA’s intense focus on diversity and COVID-19 response has sustainability been pushed to the side as an issue?
T.F.: I wouldn’t say it’s been pushed to the side, but yes, maybe it’s ranked number three now. Once COVID-19 eases up and hopefully, we all acknowledge and start to address the diversity problem, I think sustainability [will reemerge] as the number-one challenge. It’s the most important thing facing the entire planet in every industry.
WWD: What about for designers? Do you find them stepping back from environmental initiatives to focus on the basic challenges of staying afloat?
T.F.: I don’t know that they’re [stepping back], but I think the number-one priority is remaining open. That’s the thing everyone is thinking about.
WWD: What makes you optimistic for fashion?
T.F.: I’m not an optimistic person at all. My dad’s over there in my sock drawer in a little box, cremated, and I haven’t had time to do anything with him. There’s his whole life, and what does he end up with? A little box of cremated remains in my sock drawer.
T.F.: Every time I open it to get a sock I look at his name. There he is, cremated remains, Thomas David Ford.
WWD: So, from your father’s ashes back to optimism.
T.F.: I am not by nature an optimistic person. I’m a realistic and pragmatic person. Knowing what I know about human nature, we will go back to a period of self-adornment and wanting to [stand out] and have something no one else has. That is part of our nature, and it will return and will then drive the fashion industry. We will want to communicate who we are through what we wear. I believe that. So I’m optimistic that we will return to something close to what we knew.
WWD: When you accepted the CFDA chairmanship last year, you told me you had only committed for two years. Do you expect to extend?
T.F.: I do not feel that I could leave my post at the CFDA until some of these problems are, if not solved, then well on the way to being solved. I want to feel that I have made a contribution in certain ways, because of everything that’s happening.
WWD: The workload must be tremendous.
T.F.: I had no idea when I got into this what it was. I should have done my homework more. I really had no idea.
WWD: Any regrets about taking it?
T.F.: There are almost no things in my life I regret. If I can actually change something and do something good, maybe it will be one of the things I’m most proud of.
WWD: Is there anything that you want to say that we haven’t touched on?
T.F.: I don’t think so. We’ve been talking for two hours.