He’s created a luxury behemoth from scratch and is determined to stay independent, outspoken and successful. Tom Ford talks sex, retail and trackpants.
In his new life in LA, Tom Ford goes to bed early and wears sweatpants – cashmere sweatpants, but sweatpants nonetheless. He plays tennis three mornings a week, drives his son Jack to school, reads him bedtime stories and has dinner about 19.00. “It’s not the sort of life I think people imagine,” says the inestimably suave fashion designer and film-maker in his honeyed Texan twang.
He is speaking over the phone from his office in Hollywood; he relocated from London to California last year. He’s been on a roll since then, with fashion the focus: he’s unveiled watches and underwear in quick succession. The rectangular-faced, unisex watches were released in April. The men’s underwear, out in November, was displayed in his February catwalk show in New York. Models donned flesh-coloured briefs or boxers splashed with leopard print or zebra stripes. Oh, and the waist-bands were velvet. It was vintage Ford.
These product categories represent two of the final missing links in the $1.5bn Tom Ford empire. The brand was founded in 2005 after Ford left the Gucci Group, where he was creative director at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. It has amassed a fortune by selling a vision – and lots of eyewear and fragrances – that is polished and sexy. Both new product lines have the hallmarks of cash-cows. The watch straps can be swapped and collected, while the underwear is an entry-point into the label. “Underwear is men’s lipstick,” says Ford. “Women who aspire to wear the brand’s clothes but can’t necessarily afford to yet can buy lipstick. There wasn’t a product category that fulfilled that for men.”
The Tom Ford brand is an outlier in the luxury industry, young in comparison to the heritage houses that dominate and not owned by a big group; Ford retains a majority stake. The independence enables him to be agile and outspoken. “Freedom is part of our success. Because I do have the ability to call a fragrance Fucking Fabulous [a 2017 release]. I only answer to myself.” We caught up with him to talk about selling sex in the current climate, how the Tom Ford “world” is almost complete – and why work is a welcome distraction from our painful existence.
Why did you decide to launch underwear and watches?
Other than a home collection, they’re two of the last categories I don’t have. I’ve thought about launching underwear in the past but what stopped me was the fact that, in order to do a big business, you had to go into very broad distribution: really into thousands of doors, where you couldn’t control how your product was sold and merchandised. For me that was just too damaging to the brand. But I realised that now you can do a huge business being primarily an online-driven product. I can put the underwear in my stores, in a few key retail partners and on tomford.com, neimanmarcus.com and Mr Porter. I can control how it’s merchandised and displayed. I can still control my image – the image of the brand.
I’ve wanted to do watches for a long time. I had a particular watch in mind. With the [new] watches there’s a simple way you thread the strap through like a belt. As a teenager I used to buy these webbing-strap watch bands from Brooks Brothers. I would feed them through my watch. It used to drive me crazy because you had to pick the pins to the watch out and I thought, “Why doesn’t someone make a watch where you just thread the thing through?” So I’ve wanted to do it for a while. It’s about finding the right partner. I met Tom Kartsotis, whose company Bedrock does Shinola, and he set up an operation for us in Switzerland.
You cover almost every category now. Did you have a plan all along?
I had a plan but the order in which those products developed has been organic. Back in the 1980s when I first became a fashion designer, I wanted to be Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren because they had an entire world. They didn’t just design clothes. Calvin designed sheets – I had his bed-sheets when I was a teenager – and towels, fragrances, cosmetics. It was a world. That was always what interested me. So that was ultimately what was going to happen with my own brand. However, I was in a wonderful position because I could start with fragrance, cosmetics and eyewear and instantly be profitable. I don’t think anyone else was ever able to do that before they even had ready-to-wear. So it developed organically but there was always a masterplan.
With designers at luxury brands changing so often, is the phenomenon whereby the likes of Ralph Lauren were able to create entire worlds now disappearing?
I’m afraid we’re losing it. When I look at the way brands change designers, it’s going to be interesting to see what it ultimately does to those houses. Because the house loses its identity so I think it is hard to have that kind of world. A world has to be a world. You go to Mars, it’s Martian; you come to Earth, it’s Earth; you go to Prada, it’s Prada. You go to Tom Ford, it’s a world; it’s a Tom Ford world.
I do find it strange how people now stay at brands for two or three years and then it all radically changes. I do think that this is eroding what a brand says. Because you need consistency and you need to know that you can expect a certain look and a certain quality. I think that is one of the keys for Hermès’ continued success, for example. There is a look, it’s Hermès, and you know what you are going to get. It endures. Chanel does that too. Karl [Lagerfeld] has been doing the same thing there for a long time and there is a world; you know what Chanel is.
Your brand is associated with sexiness. In the current climate, is there a change in the way we view and market sex?
I don’t know. That again is so strange. At what point does it all become so ridiculous that we can’t exist in the world? When does it get to a point where you can’t flirt or compliment someone? In so many ways the world is so liberal – especially in America. Everyone is allowed to be whoever they are. My son is five and at his school they’ve already talked about gender reassignment and how we have to accept everyone for who they are. It’s so advanced and then also so backwards at the same time because you have all these guns at the opposite side of the spectrum.
I don’t know that I’m answering your question; I’m veering off. I mean, sex is forever, isn’t it? It’s like eating. How is that going to go out of fashion? I mean, sure, I have to be very conscious when I do things now. It’s like, “Ugh, can someone misinterpret this? How will this be taken?” So, yeah, you do have to give it a thought; you can’t not give it a thought. Even the outlets that you’re going to use to put advertising imagery out don’t accept things anymore. Everyone’s very, very, very conscious about it.
But I suspect we will have a radical swing back in the other direction. I introduced a fragrance last year called Fucking Fabulous and a lot of stores were like, “Oh we can’t have that, we’ve got to change the name.” I said we’re not changing the name and because it was a success, all of a sudden those stores wanted it. So I don’t know. But it is something I think about, whereas before maybe I didn’t think about it. I put a guy and a girl in handcuffs and had her pull down his pants and [him] spank her with a crocodile whip and I didn’t even think about it. Now I think about it. I may still do it – but at least I’ve thought about it.
Tailoring businesses are struggling as streetwear dominates. What are your thoughts on these contrasting movements?
Suits come and go in a 10 to 15-year range. The reaction to all this streetwear is going to be – I don’t think yet, but in another five to seven years from now – shirts, ties and suits. Because when the kids who grow up in a streetwear moment get to 25, they want to dress up and be glamorous. Everyone does that for 10 years and then they get tired of wearing suits and all of a sudden it’s cool to dress down. I launched my company when suits were cool and I started with tailoring. My image is tailoring and evening wear. But I straddle both; we make hoodies and tennis shoes as well. I like to think I can literally dress you from head to toe.
Millennials are often referenced in luxury. Do you think in terms of specific generations?
I just think about who my customer is. When you start chasing, you lose your identity. I try to stay modern and I can’t expect to wear everything in my collection. I’m 57. But if I can imagine myself at 25 wearing that then, OK cool, it’s on the collection. I don’t go much younger than 25; anybody who’s wearing my clothes who’s younger than 25 is very spoilt because somebody else is paying. But I need those 15-year-olds to want to wear my clothes when they get to 25. You don’t want the brand to die with your customer. Some of the customers who bought things I did when I was at Gucci are in their sixties and seventies now. Eventually your customers die and you need the next wave.
Has your style changed since moving to LA?
Definitely. London is a bubble because in terms of fashion, it is in a different era in many ways. People really do dress. They have a perfect bag and perfect shoes. It’s a much more formal city. At some of my favourite restaurants you need a jacket or tie. There’s a very trendy, young London but I lived in Mayfair, South Kensington and Chelsea. That’s a conservative and very, very, very rich bubble. You can also find a bubble in Milan and maybe a little bubble in New York. Other than that, I don’t think it exists any more. Living in Los Angeles, I am confronted with a lifestyle that is more congruous with the way the rest of the world now lives. It is more casual and my taste has absolutely changed. It’s looser, less serious, less conservative. I just put in an order for cashmere sweatpants. I mean, I would never have worn cashmere sweatpants in my life!
Your stores are opulent but then your London beauty shop is also super hi-tech. What’s the best way to get customers into shops?
I think brands will have fewer stores but those stores have to really be spectacular. I think the technology in the fragrance and beauty store in London is more appropriate to selling that kind of product. A cashmere jacket should be more of a personal thing. We have amazing salespeople: they’ll get you something to drink, order your lunch, tell you about how the shoe is made. That sort of personal service is going to be very important. We also do a lot of selling in people’s houses. Our sales team will get on a plane and fly with 30 outfits to someone’s house in Austin, Texas. They’ll go with a tailor and fit and tailor everything.
Personal service, whether in a store or in someone’s home, is going to remain and possibly become more important as a contrast to the ability to flip open your computer, order something and have it the next day. There are a lot of things I buy online. Even if I didn’t have my own collection I would still buy luxury things online. I think you’re going to need both to cater to a luxury customer.
Could you be tempted to sell your company and focus on designing?
No, I would never do that. Because I like to be my own boss. I’m not good with any authority figure dictating anything to me. Which is why when I make a movie, I write it, produce it, direct it and finance it. I don’t want to hear from anybody else. You can love it or hate it but it’s my singular vision. Same with my company.
The only way I would ever sell would be to sell everything, including my name, and walk away to make movies. I would never sell and then try to work for or with somebody else. I always feel sorry for people when I read they’ve sold 51 per cent of their company “but they’re going to stay on as creative director”. It’s like, “Yeah right; two or three years from now, guess what? You’re going to get fired and there’s going to be a problem.” And it always happens, because you’re not in control anymore.
What challenges do luxury brands face in the near future?
They have to be careful to stay luxurious. A logo is only as valuable as the quality of what it is on. It’s a different moment but when I went to Gucci in 1990, we were cleaning up the over-licensing of that brand. You found Gucci on $90 sweatshirts, on plastic flip-flops; there were so many licenses. At Saint Laurent we had 120 licensed products; their logo was on everything and it had been devalued. Avoid the temptation for the short-term gain. Play the long game. Great, your sales can bump up for the next year if you do all this stuff. But ultimately, is it going to erode the brand?
Do you find it hard to switch off?
I do. I used to have an alcohol problem and I had a therapist who helped me get over it. Now and then she’ll say, “You just transferred your addiction to a work addiction.” I work a lot. I’m highly scheduled; I do my schedule with an erasable ink pen and a clipboard, and have done for 30 years.
When I’m working I don’t have to think about bigger things like, “Why are we here? What does this mean and how insignificant is our entire planet and why are we all fucking with this when we’re all just going to be dead anyway and why am I worrying?” And, you know, “How many more years do I have before I’m dead?” That can spin you into a bit of a depression.
So I probably work to not think about that stuff. Life is less painful when you’re focusing on insignificant things to take up the time between birth and death. Don’t get me philosophical because I’m someone who, I’m afraid, believes life is for the most part very painful. But we can always look at a shiny pair of shoes and feel better for a minute; spray on some perfume and think, “Wow, somebody’s gonna fall in love with me tonight!” Give ourselves a little bit of hope.