Opulent sensuality. If you could trademark an aspiration, fashion designer and sometime film director Tom Ford would have dibs. The king of swagger has crafted a career out of selling us our most luxurious fashion fantasies.
Two decades ago, Ford revitalized a bloated, floundering and nearly bankrupt Gucci when he was made creative director at the age of 32. His purview expanded to include YSL in 1999, which he also revived. Ford’s jaw-dropping and register-cha-chinging maneuvers—including a banned ad campaign shot by Mario Testino that featured a female model with a Gucci logo shaved into her pubic hair—won the daredevil designer accolades and fame. But in 2004 he broke free of both legacies and steadily began building his own eponymous luxury brand, which now encompasses menswear, women’s wear, beauty and a periodic table’s worth of perfumes and colognes.
At 54 he continues to play muse to his own master: an impeccable stud serving up a swirl of bons mots, earthy scents and debonair fashion. Ford spoke to TIME from London, where he’s wrapping up edits on his second film, Nocturnal Animals, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams. He and his husband, editor Richard Buckley, split their time between the U.K. and Los Angeles, with their toddler son Jack in tow.
Though he’s got no time to dilly-dally, Ford’s success has afforded him the freedom to do what he wants when he wants. And that means bucking convention when something just doesn’t sit right. Ford recently announced that he would no longer present his fall 2016 men’s and women’s collections during this month’s New York Fashion Week but instead would show his fall clothes in the actual fall, within a see-now-buy-now, consumer-friendly time frame. Earlier that same day, Christopher Bailey, chief creative director and CEO at Burberry, had announced a similar groundbreaking change. The two men sent shock waves through an industry that has been grappling with what many have decided is an antiquated model: showing clothes five months before shoppers can buy them. Now Ford aims to change the game he’s been influencing for so long.
TIME: Why make the move to skip an entire Fashion Week season?
Ford: I am not forgoing the season at all but will simply be communicating directly with the consumers at the time the clothes and accessories will be available to buy. As for the buyers, they will see the collection, as usual, well in advance so that they can place orders. There are still many kinks to be worked out, as this will be a complete shift in the way that we show and sell our collections. We will have to adapt and maneuver as we are transitioning to a new production calendar, so I honestly don’t have all of the answers yet.
When it comes to luxury brands, how much does the anticipation of a product add to its exclusivity?
Luxury and exclusivity are about the quality and service of the goods being sold. That will not change at all. The clothes and accessories will still be as beautifully made as always, and the service to the customer exceptional. In most other areas of the luxury market, instant gratification has also become part of the luxury experience. In fact, the ultimate luxury now is to not have to wait at all. It is a romantic notion to think that people want to wait for things and anticipate them, but I’m afraid that no one really wants to wait for anything anymore.
You have been a consistent disrupter of the conventional fashion-show business model—from your hyperexclusive presentations that forbid social media to a digitally released music video starring Lady Gaga, in which models sashayed down a Soul Train—style runway wearing your designs. Is this more about extending the boundaries of your brand or about fixing a broken system?
I hate the word disruptive because it sounds like the idea is to be, Ooh, that will be disruptive. I own my own company. I can do what I want. I want to be excited about what I do. If I am bored about the way I am going to show, that’s ultimately going to translate. I have to think what would be fun and what makes sense now. And with Gaga I had millions of hits, in terms of brand recognition. But I am not going to do a music video every season–that would get boring. And you can’t really see the clothes, feel the clothes, touch the clothes as you can in a show or presentation. It was the right thing at the right time.
Is there such a thing as absolute good or bad taste?
Behaviorally, there’s being elegant and being human. But visually no. Taste is really just formed culturally. And if you say I am a “tastemaker,” it’s that I am a tastemaker working within the framework of what is considered contemporary taste.
So, there’s no one beauty ideal?
As humans we do respond to certain things on some sort of very deep level. We find symmetry of the face generally more pleasing than not. But overall we are so completely conditioned to think certain things are beautiful and certain things are not. With the latest film I am working on, I cast some people in it who I did not necessarily originally think of as beautiful. And through filming them, watching them, editing them, I now find them so beautiful and so moving. I have been wondering, Why did I think they weren’t beautiful? If you can divorce yourself from what contemporary culture has told us is beautiful, you can then find it in places you would not expect.
How does your personal aesthetic play a role in defining our idea of what’s hot, sexy, beautiful right now?
I have always had this amazing ability—and I’m not saying I’m an amazing designer—that is one of the reasons I am successful: you put five shoes on a table, I will pick the one that more people than not will find attractive and that will outsell all the others. Simply by saying, “I like this one best,” it will sell the most.
Is that an inherent talent? How are fashion people like you able to be so influential?
It’s a combination of things. Part is innate. I also have the track record and the consistency and the platform. I also think it’s confidence, a kind of dictatorship mentality. We’re dictators. We say, “I hate that.” We don’t say, “I kind of don’t like …” And we have the confidence to say, “That’s awful” or “Yes, that’s beautiful. Wear that!”
Wearing designer logos cycles in and out of high fashion, and it’s safe to say shopping for a logo is less about a beautiful garment or an incredible shoe. As a designer, you’ve so deftly reignited logo lust over the years. What is it about logo mania that continues to intrigue consumers?
The logo is only as valuable as the thing it is on. I shouldn’t say things about another brand, but I love Alessandro Michele (creative director) at Gucci. That logo hasn’t changed, but only in the last year, now everyone wants to wear it. And that’s a compliment to him. He’s terrific. And the same thing happened to me at Gucci. The logo was there, and no one wanted to wear it. I had a couple good collections, and everyone wanted to wear it.
Are logos in good or bad taste?
If you are someone who takes it all very seriously and is covered in logos, I wouldn’t call it good taste. In my opinion, I would call it sad and pathetic if you believed that this made you “better than,” or more attractive. If you are covered in logos and it’s kind of kitsch and you realize this is kind of funny and you have the right attitude, it can be great.
Is directing a film a stretch for a fashion designer?
For me it’s the exact same process. You have to have a vision. You have to know, I want my collection or my film to look like this. Then you assemble a team. Then you lead them and push them and direct them into getting exactly what you want–whether it’s working with a shoe factory to get the exact heel shape or with an actor editing a film. I have to know what I want.
You received critical and commercial success for writing and directing A Single Man (2009). Were you concerned about tempting fate with Nocturnal Animals?
No, because it’s so much fun. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. Why would I deprive myself? It’s the ultimate design project! If you want to come close to playing God, write, direct, produce, edit a film. You design a world, you design everything about it and everyone in it–what they say, do, whether they live or die. It’s just so exciting.
How do you find inspiration collection after collection?
Sometimes you have to lock yourself in a room and think, “O.K., f-ck! What the hell am I going to do? I just did this, so that’s not going to work. And I’m tired of that. What am I not tired of?” And of course there’s always a thread that links it all because that’s your core.
What’s your thread?
A certain sensuality. Lately, though, it’s a lot less sexual. I’m bored with that. I don’t start out saying, Wow, I’m going to make this woman as sexy as possible! It’s just in my nature. If I take a dress and it’s on a woman, I will pin it here, pull it there, drape it there. And she will end up looking, in most people’s opinion, sexy.
Are you your own barometer for when you’ve got it right?
I generally know in my heart. I will try to convince myself that it is it even when some little voice inside is saying, Ooh, I don’t think you got it this season. And that little voice is unfortunately—or fortunately—right.
And do you sometimes just run out of time?
No, sometimes it’s just that maybe you feel things don’t really need to move that season. The difficult thing about fashion is that you don’t get to wait years until your next inspiration strikes. An artist can have a show and go for years. People don’t understand it and they will probably laugh when they read this, but fashion is one of the most grueling, brutal industries in the world because we create a constant stream of product that is perishable. And it’s speeding up so fast. People consume. They’re bored. They consume. They’re bored. They consume. They’re bored.
Is this mad intensity a factor in all the firings and resignations at so many of the major fashion houses?
I think that businessmen often don’t realize what goes into a creative brain. People have bad seasons, bad moments. But I am a loyal person. If I placed my bet on a horse, I would let it run a bit. I started my company for personal reasons: I had something to say, clothes I wanted to see made, and I wanted control of it.
How does celebrity factor into your overall brand messaging?
I would never dress someone who was popular who I did not respect–someone who I didn’t think had great style or was not a great talent. I have turned down dressing people because I think, I don’t care that people think she’s hot. I think she’s awful, and dressing her would be a statement.
Why have you resisted social media, as a celebrity designer?
I am a personal person. I literally cannot go to the supermarket without someone coming up to me and wanting to take a picture or tell me that they are wearing my glasses–which is always nice–or ask me if they are wearing the right shade of lip gloss. If anything I would like to build a wall around myself, which I kind of have. The real me who’s at home now that I am not an alcoholic or a drug user is very, very quiet. It’s a family dinner at home, and it’s watching some television with Richard. It’s very domestic. And nothing can prepare you for having a child. You hear this all the time when you’re not a parent and you think you understand it, but only now can I actually relate to how it changes everything in your life.
Does Jack get to pick out his own clothes or do you dress him?
You have to let them. It’s a big part of their development. It’s very important that he feels he can make choices in his life. Let’s realize, though, that when I open those drawers every morning and I say, “Take out what shirts you want to wear,” that I have preselected by buying all those shirts. So he can’t screw up. But he is making a choice. He happens to like wearing a red shirt. He wears one almost every day. I don’t wear red, but I’m not Jack. So he gets to wear red.
This appears in the February 22, 2016 issue of TIME.
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