At a certain stage in life, low lighting – as Tom Ford, arch flatterer and incorrigible improver knows better than most – is a prerequisite for harmonious close encounters. Today the dimmer in his walnut–y London HQ is set so low that for several minutes, his musings appear to be emanating from a bowl of white hydrangeas. Once the eyes adjust, Ford and his spectacularly neat facial topiary (not even a tinge of grey) morph before me in his customary dark slim suit and blinding white shirt – the human equivalent of an After Eight. He always wears suits. Sometimes three-piece suits because, he says, the waistcoat doubles as a corset. It’s a bit formal isn’t it? “Everyone in England wears a suit,” he reasons.
The Texan–born Ford is an Anglophile, and he’s feeling particularly warm and fuzzy after being nominated brand of the year in tonight’s British Fashion Awards. He has lived in London – on and off – for more than a decade; transported the Gucci offices from Florence to Mayfair in the Nineties; and has now based his new womenswear line in the aforementioned chiaroscuro of London SW1. When he was building a global conglomerate at Gucci, it was British designers – Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen – he recruited first, setting them up in their own houses under the Gucci umbrella. Christopher Bailey, now head of Burberry, worked in his design team. And one of the jewels in London Fashion Week’s schedule this season was a small, but immaculately formed Ford presentation.
The knowing embrace of high and low art is typical Ford. At Gucci, he reintroduced louche elegance to fashion, but occasionally, and enthusiastically, toppled over into the trashy. Back then, it was a novel mix – now it’s commonplace. And this high–low fixation goes some way to explaining why he spent part of the summer thinking deep thoughts about lipstick.
Now that he is an acclaimed film director behind “A Single Man”, doesn’t he have better things to do than launch a cosmetics collection? “Have you noticed how much makeup girls are wearing these days? It’s because it’s cheaper than buying clothes. I love beauty products. At Gucci I’d spend days working with a makeup artist getting the show to look right. I never had a desire to wear the clothes. I’m probably the only man in fashion who doesn’t want to dress in drag. But makeup? That I’m serious about.”
It turns out that Ford, as every fêted filmmaker should be, is a mine of beauty tips. This is the man who told Colin Firth to lose weight, hire a trainer and switch tailors (to Tom Ford), all of which Firth dutifully did. So when he volunteers to apply the same yellow mattifying eyebag concealer on me that he uses on himself, I’m tempted. But, no. There is serious question–leveling to be done.
I’m still not clear, for instance, why having spent three years telling anyone who would listen how much he hated the fashion system (“by the end of Gucci I was drinking too much, I had no life, I wasn’t very nice”) he’s back designing womenswear. “Because I’m not Doing The Fashion System. I don’t do shows. I don’t have reviews. I’m not putting the clothes on every celebrity so that by the time they reach the store the customers are sick of seeing them”.
This is slightly semantic. He may not choreograph the catwalk blockbusters he used to in Milan and Paris, where he designed for Yves Saint Laurent. These days, he prefers the intimacy of hand–picked magazine editors in the London showroom, but the clothes still end up being photographed and judged.
For the debut of his Tom Ford womenswear a year ago, he had Lauren Hutton, Marisa Berenson, Julianne Moore, and Beyoncé model in front of Anna Wintour, editor–in–chief of American Vogue, and 50 other influential editors. Perhaps he can’t live without the constant affirmation after all.
“I tried to retire and I practically had a nervous breakdown. Actually, I wouldn’t call it a nervous breakdown because you journalists are so sensationalist. You can’t help it. I would lose my mind if I just did films and my next film (which he has written although he won’t divulge more, apparently it’s comic) is ready to go. But even if I cast it now, it would be another 18 months before we were on set. I enjoy the speed of fashion. I love doing different things and I think I still have something valid to say in fashion.”
He makes Whitney, his PR, try on everything from his womenswear and, when she’s around, Carine Roitfeld, former French Vogue editor and his old collaborator from the Gucci days. “If they don’t wear it, it
doesn’t go into production. It’s not about youth (Roitfeld is in her late 50s). Ninety per cent of looking good is about being slim and limber – and how you move around.”
“You get older, and your customers get older with you. Or some of them do. Some of them are still running around shopping for really trendy stuff and that can look a bit ridiculous. But others want a kind of grown–up dressing that isn’t always out there. At a certain age the skin on the legs begins to change texture, and you have to start watching what happens to the skin on your back in a revealing dress”. If this sounds akin to ageism, then you want to hear other designers on the frailty of flesh.
Or maybe you don’t. In comparison, what Ford is offering – slick, tailored classics and some homespun advice on fillers – is tantamount to humanitarian aid. “My mother doesn’t like me saying this but she’s in her late 70s and her boyfriend’s in his late 60s. She doesn’t like me saying that either. The point is she’s active and looks amazing, and yet we’ve taught ourselves to think that aging is embarrassing. That’s why I left the wrinkles in the story I did for a French magazine of an old couple”.
These days, he’s more interested in exploring sensuality than sexuality. “Your world view gets more rounded. At Gucci, it was all about creating The Look each season: The Shoe, The Bag, The Hair. But now I have no desire to create The Look. I just want to make beautiful, glamorous clothes.”
That work in daylight, too.
Photos: Courtesy of TRUNK ARCHIVE