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Tom Ford in view: the tastemaker talks brands, books and business

We caught up with the seminal fashion designer and business builder to discuss his new tome

Tom Ford by Simon Perry

“Hello, Felix”. Tom Ford answers the phone in Los Angeles. Much has been made of the American tastemaker’s voice; its sound has in the past been likened to warm, liquid chocolate or the “last part of a breath”. On the phone today, it possesses the rich timbre of Golden Age Hollywood.

And Ford, who has released two feature films – A Single Man and Nocturnal Animals, both of which have been recognised with Academy Award nominations, among other accolades – has called California home since 2017. It’s where he relocated to from London, across the Atlantic and opposite the East Coast where, in Manhattan, he owns a mid-century property on the Upper East Side.

Designed by architect Paul Rudolph, Ford’s four-storey townhouse once belonged to fashion designer Halston. In Los Angeles, Ford and his son Jack now live to the city’s west, in a Holmby Hills estate once presided over by American socialite Betsy Bloomingdale. A family home, Ford first singled out the property in 2016 alongside Richard Buckley. His long-term partner, Buckley died earlier this year.

“You’re in London? I wouldn’t mind being in London,” Ford said. “I haven’t been to London in a couple of years now. Because of Covid and now, my son is in school in Los Angeles. And I’m suddenly, surprisingly a single parent. So, no, travel is very restricted.”

And so, in Los Angeles, Ford has found himself adapting to local conduct. There is his own way of dressing: back in London, he had delighted in the city’s “kind of formality, the old-fashioned quality, the tradition”. Touching down in California, he found things were somewhat different. “I think when I first moved to Los Angeles, it was a bit of a culture shock in many ways, and one of the ways was the way in which people dress,” he remembers. “My perception of dressing changed dramatically since moving from London three years ago to Los Angeles because Los Angeles is a much more casual city, even when it’s not a lockdown.”

A retrospective – of sorts

So, what is Ford wearing today? “I’m sitting here in terrible jeans and a T-shirt.” It’s a casual uniform for a day of phone calls. He is anticipating the release of Tom Ford 002, his second publication and a follow-up to his self-titled 2004 tome. Edited by himself, with Tom Ford 002, Ford chronicles the ascent of his eponymous brand from its 2005 debut to the present day, told across 444 pages and through archival images lensed by collaborators including Steven Meisel, Nick Knight and Mario Sorrenti.

Tom Ford 002 is a retrospective, of sorts. “It’s strange, because I’m not someone who looks back,” Ford said of compiling his book, an introspective process he also likens to leafing through old family pictures. “You know, I haven’t watched my movies in years. I watch them while I’m editing. Over and over and over. Then I push them away. At some point, I’ll watch them again. The same with fashion. The moment you finish something, you start thinking, ‘What am I going to do now?’. And you never know. In some places, it made me feel great to look back because you realise, ‘Yeah, I did this. And I did that’.”

Process of taste-discovery

The son of two real estate agents, Ford was born in Austin, Texas, and grew up near Houston and in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Moving to Manhattan, Ford enrolled to read art history at New York University (NYU), before switching campuses – to The New School’s Parsons School of Design – and focus on studying architecture. Equally formative: many nights spent at Studio 54 and a pre-graduation stint in Paris, where Ford worked in the press offices of fashion brand Chloé.

Next up, two years assisting American fashion designer Cathy Hardwick, followed by a role with Perry Ellis in 1988. Then, two years later, Ford and Buckley moved to Milan, Italy in 1990. Ford had accepted a role with the then ailing heritage house Gucci; in 1994, he was appointed as Gucci’s creative director. And it was with his tenure at Gucci, which saw the brand, once revived, soar to global influence, that Ford mapped out a fashion industry blueprint that has influenced the running of heritage brands ever since. In 1999, Ford also became creative director of Parisian maison Yves Saint Laurent. Five years later, in 2004, Ford exited both brands.

But back to his eponymous business, which is the subject of this latest project. Ford launched Tom Ford, the brand, in 2005. “I naively believed that I had ‘retired’ from fashion. Looking back, that was an absurd assumption,” he writes in Tom Ford 002. “I had not understood how much I needed to feel that I had a voice in contemporary culture.”

But what could Ford’s voice sound – or, in this case, look – like? At Gucci and later Yves Saint Laurent, he had in both brand’s pasts found a “certain history to grab on to”, a dictionary of house codes. And so, Ford set out to fine-tune his namesake brand’s messaging. “You have to think about, ‘What do I always like? What fabric do I always respond to? It’s velvet, ok. What kind of smell, what kind of flowers?’ And those things become your vocabulary, they become the vocabulary of your brand. You really have to look inside yourself, which is interesting.”

It’s a process of taste-discovery that, Ford said, extends beyond brand-building. “It’s something that everyone should do before they get dressed in the morning,” he advises.

His has since been a luxurious proposition, anchored in prestige fabrications and provocative designs. As a student, I for a short while worked at Ford’s London offices. From the designer’s upper-floor Victoria set-up, I mostly remember deepest-pile carpeting engulfing high heels, mood lighting and an air scented with Ford’s selection of Private Blend candles (then a recent launch) with notes of leather, jasmine or neroli. In the high-ceilinged showroom, displayed on a single line of rails along its wall, were Ford’s designs: a black silk jacquard Atticus tuxedo, dresses in jewel tones or perhaps a caramel leather jacket, embossed to the tactile surface of crocodile hide.

A mysterious phone call

As chaptered in Tom Ford 002, Ford built his brand in considered stages. He started with eyewear – a strong category, annual sales are now at more than 2.5 million frames per year – and perfume. Of exacting standard, for his 2006 debut fragrance, Ford partnered with storied Parisian expert Lalique to bottle Black Orchid in a shadowy-hued glass bottle. Next up was menswear, presented best in Ford’s 2007 opened debut boutique on New York’s Madison Avenue. Here, his team was trained to offer “a Hollywood version of what visiting your personal tailor might be like”. And Ford’s offering expanded further, to eventually include beauty, skincare, timepieces and underwear. Of special note is the 2010 unveiling of Tom Ford womenswear, a clandestine undertaking that has become fashion lore.

“Of course, I remember that,” Ford said when I ask to recall that first Tom Ford womenswear presentation. “I remember it very well. I was terrified. I think you have to be terrified. You have to question yourself right up until the last minute. I think when you stop being terrified, your work can really suffer.” It was on 12 September 2010 – a Sunday during New York Fashion Week – that 100 guests received a mysterious phone call. The message: head to Tom Ford’s Madison Avenue boutique. That same evening and without permitting photographers, Ford unveiled his collection. After, guests reported of hothouse orchids, vodka tonics and Ford’s casts of muses, which on the night counted supermodels, superstars and beautiful legends, among them Lauren Hutton, Marisa Berenson and Farida Khelfa. There was Amber Valetta in monochrome animal print tailoring; Beyoncé modelled a floor-length beaded column gown. It was a success.

“I think once people have a certain expectation of you, it’s very hard to continue to live up to it,” Ford said. His new book tells of many more high-points. These include red carpet moments and his campaigns: of filmic narrative, the latter set Ford’s creations in images that let the mind wander, picturing moments before and after the camera’s capture.

Today, Ford is unsure of the image I selected to discuss during our call, a drive-by iPhone snapshot of an outsized billboard campaign originally lensed by Simon Perry. The image portrays a tuxedoed Ford mid-dance, leading model Abbey Lee Kershaw, her dress lavished in midnight blue sequins. “Such a strange choice for you to single out,” Ford said, laughing. “I had brought a tuxedo along for the shoot and in the middle of it, I said ‘I need to do this’. And I set it up and pressed the clicker. But it didn’t strike me as anything remarkable at the time so I am surprised that you pulled that.”

Among his own favourites ranks a snapshot of Jay-Z, who in 2013 released his song Tom Ford as part of his 12th studio album Magna Carta Holy Grail. Photographed on stage and from the back, the image homes in on the performer’s black T-shirt, emblazoned with “Tom Ford” spelled in bright white letters. “Because,” Ford said, “how often do you have 60,000 people shout your name over and over again?”.

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