Tom Ford is already sitting at the corner table of 34 Mayfair, a steak and seafood restaurant on the corner of Grosvenor Square, London, when I arrive for our midday appointment. He looks as suave and impeccable as the posters on which he promotes his products. Now 55, the close crop of ebony-coloured hair is flecked with few greys, the 72-hour stubble is not a minute overgrown. His black Tom Ford suit, white shirt and black tie, fastened with a gold pin at the neck, are pristine.
Yet despite the aura of immaculate poise, Ford is suffering from jet lag. It’s a condition he doesn’t allow, and forearms against with “very powerful” sleeping pills. He is also nursing the tiniest germ of a cold. “I’m sorry, I’m sniffling,” he apologises, his smooth Southern accent evoking both the dashing Rhett Butler and the debutante Blanche DuBois. “I don’t like being human, but I have a sniffle.”
For someone who doesn’t like being human, Ford is quite the super one. When he arrived at Gucci in 1990 as the head of womenswear, the company was an unfashionable Italian leatherwear label on the brink of bankruptcy. When he left, 14 years later, in the murky wake of the Pinault family buyout, he had risen to become the group’s creative director and transformed Gucci into an $10bn luxury conglomerate, incorporating Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen, among others, with an influence to rival LVMH. He left with $250m in stock options and a bucket full of ire.
Down but not defeated, Ford soon bounced back. In 2009, he released his debut film, A Single Man, which he self-funded, co-wrote and directed, and which won a Bafta for its star Colin Firth. He also launched his eponymous fashion empire. Today, Black Orchid, his first perfume, alone contributes $150m in annual revenues to his business. Tom Ford Cosmetics (there are also eyewear and fashion divisions) is on track to break $1bn by 2020. “And it will be a $3bn business by 2025,” he adds. “I’m determined that it will become so.”
The restaurant is a popular destination for similarly determined Mayfair elites who like to dine at spacious, white-clothed tables, though none of our fellow diners exudes quite the same polished cool as Ford, whose suave machismo seems from another era. Born in Austin, Texas, and educated in the artsy hippie enclave of New Mexico’s Santa Fe, Ford was raised to demonstrate “a certain amount of manners” and his brand of charm is both discombobulating and magnetic.
Based in London for 18 years, he has temporarily relocated his family, husband Richard Buckley and their four-year-old son, Alexander John Buckley Ford (“Jack”), from their John Nash house in Regent’s Park to their other home in Bel Air, Los Angeles, where Jack is enrolled in school. “I love London, I love the people. But I really couldn’t take the weather any more.”
A committed Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton with “no reservations at all”, Ford is still conflicted about the move. “There’s zero culture in LA,” he says. “There’s like an oil slick of interesting, intelligent people floating on the water, whereas here the layer is much thicker....” He sighs. “The sad thing for me about America is that we used to aspire up. Even if you had no money, you pressed your pants and you shined your shoes and you tried to better yourself. Today, people think Obama — a man who should represent the fulfillment of the American dream — is an elitist. They don’t understand what he’s saying. It’s a failure of our educational system, it is the result of reality television, it is the result of capitalism. It’s the downward spiral of American culture.” He is especially bemused by PBS, “a fancy channel for regular British television programmes like Poldark”. He assumes the plummy diction of the American broadcast network: ‘Tonight on Masterpiece, we have Michael Portillo’s Great British Train Journeys . . . ’ ”
A waiter takes our order. Ford orders a steak frites “rare”, with a green salad starter, and water. I do the same. “I really like LA, I sound like I hate it,” Ford says. “But it was easier for me to live in London when I drank. And I don’t drink any more.”
We drink our water and talk about his new film Nocturnal Animals, which was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. A thriller, it stars Amy Adams as Susan Morrow, a successful art gallerist trapped in a superficially perfect career, home and marriage, who is shaken from her emotional analgesia by the arrival of a manuscript, dedicated to her and written by her first husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). The film is then split between a dramatisation of the book’s brutal fiction, about a family being terrorised in the wastelands of Texas, and Susan’s reading of it.
It’s a terrific suspense story that recalls the malevolent elegance of Hitchcock and the raw nasty grit of John Boorman; frightening, lovely to look at and terribly sad. It’s also a far more personal film than his first. Susan, with her Jeff Koons sculpture and exquisite Modernist home, inhabits a world that mirrors Ford’s own. Her friends are based on his friends. Her art is his art. “She is me,” says Ford of his red-headed heroine, though he insisted her wardrobe be made by other designers. “I didn’t want it to be a film commercial,” he insists, “the only thing that is Tom Ford in the film is the handwriting.”
But what to make of Susan’s unhappiness? Does Ford, the architect of modern corporate luxury, similarly revile the world he helped create? Ford picks at his salad. “These little watercress are just so hard to keep on the fork,” he says as the leaves evade its tines.
“I’m very torn because I’m one of the people producing all this stuff that people consume,” he continues. “And all it is doing is taking us away from our connection with the universe, with the earth, with other people.” He stops. “On the other hand, in defense of it, we are material creatures. Cashmere feels great,” he says, motioning towards my sweater. “Certain things make us feel better. Certain things make us feel constantly refreshed even though we’re decaying — a new pair of shoes, a new suit. And so there is a value to creating beauty, in a way, that gives things meaning. It’s the thing that makes you sad and it’s the thing that helps you. Because it’s inevitably transient, as all things are.” He smiles cheerily. “We all die in the end.”
Is his own decay a subject of personal anxiety? “No,” he says. “I’m about to put pictures of Georgia O’Keeffe all over my house so that I can start to embrace age. Now that I’m moving towards 60, I need to start demanding less of what I look like.”
In times past, Ford kept a vice-like grip on any signs of creeping decrepitude. He was once an unusually vocal advocate for Botox. Today, not so much. “See, I can move my forehead,” he says waggling eyebrows that do appear to enjoy a modicum of independent movement. “I watch what I eat, I exercise,” he continues. “But I don’t ever want to look silly. I sort of like to think of it as looking Best in Class. I’m 55, so let’s look as good at 55 as you can look. But I’m not trying to look 40, or 30. It’s not attainable.”
The steaks arrive alongside a silver bucket of frites. “I think there’s a certain beauty that comes with adults that maybe we don’t admire or respect enough in our culture,” he continues as he picks through the chips. “Louise Nevelson, the artist, was great looking. Really wrinkled, she had that look and dark eyes, and she kept it right up until the end.” I suspect the secret to this kind of beauty is to stay very skinny. Skinny enough to slip into a slinky Tom Ford dress. Ford agrees. “Stay thin and stay limber. Do yoga.”
Wrinkles aside, how is raising a four-year-old in one’s mid-fifties? Does he regret not having children sooner? “No.” Ford is emphatic. “I was drinking too much. I mean, I would have probably dropped him down the stairs or burned him with a cigarette. I wasn’t actually capable of having kids. And, this will sound silly because you probably won’t believe it, but I’m at a point where I’ve had enough of me. I can really focus on another life, and help Jack become what he is destined to be — whatever that is.”
Becoming a parent, getting older and seven years of sobriety have all contributed to Ford’s mellower outlook. But the man who once described his control-freakery as a “mental illness” still enjoys some odd peccadillos. Just get him on the subject of orchids — “Orchids are my flower. But not Phalaenopsis orchids, those cheap white ones you buy in the supermarket, they’re banned from my house. Nothing sadder ...”
These days, however, he tries to reserve his more exacting behaviours for things that really matter. “If your name is on something, and someone is buying something thinking, ‘Oh, Tom Ford designed this’, then guess what? You should design it. And it should be exactly the way you wanted. It’s the same with film. I don’t think of it as control-freakery. I couldn’t bear to look at something I wasn’t proud of. However, I think I’ve maybe been a little uptight in my control ... So I’m trying to relax a bit.” He waits a beat. “Of course, there are always going to be people that disagree with you, and then you have to fire them.”
But for a few frites, we have cleaned our plates. They are cleared and I order coffee. No desserts. Ford switches on a saucy smile. “What else can I tell you? I’m a very open door.”
Ford has been in therapy for the past eight years. Does he recommend it? “Oh my gosh, yes,” he insists. “Most people over the age of 50 need a therapist because the things you don’t work out when you’re younger come back to haunt you. You have to acknowledge them, realise them, forgive them and move on. I’ve watched Richard struggle with things that were planted in his childhood. And those things can consume you if you don’t work them out.”
The couple met when Ford was 25, and got married in 2014, “within months of it being legal with the federal government of the US”. The decision was one part romance and two parts pragmatism. “We didn’t want Jack to be a bastard,” says Ford, before adding, “that’s kind of a joke ... And from a tax standpoint it adds a lot of money to Jack’s inheritance, which is just the responsible thing to do.” (Considering Ford’s personal fortune is currently estimated at $70m, it’s hard to disagree.)
The secret of the couple’s longevity, says Ford, is “hard work”. And Buckley has worked harder than most. “You know, during a bad stretch, you sleep in the guest bed, but eventually you go back to the same room. I’m surprised Richard didn’t leave me when I used to drink a lot, and was very, very verbally abusive and volatile. He is as good a human being as I will ever find. It would be ridiculous to throw that away.”
Ford is not in the habit of letting things go. Loyalty is a huge theme of the new film — and his life. “People either work for me for two weeks, or 200 years,” he says of his managerial style. “Dawn Mello [who hired Ford at Gucci] once told me: ‘Only hire people you want to have dinner with.’ And it’s so true. Every time I’ve hired someone I haven’t wanted to have dinner with, it’s been a disaster.” His 30-year business partnership with Domenico De Sole, meanwhile, is one of the strongest in the business. “We trust each other completely, and if someone clicks with you, I’m not going to let you go, you know. Because you might never get it back.”
Ford still bears the scars of those months after Gucci when he was engulfed with depression. “I had no voice in contemporary culture,” he says of that time. “I had such a powerful voice in the '90s, and an identity that I worked very hard to achieve. And all of a sudden I didn’t have that, and I didn’t really know what I was going to do.”
Surely, I say, his name still carried influence regardless. “Fashion is evil,” he replies. “You stay out for very long and people forget who you are. And your name loses power.”
Today, Ford occupies a carefully curated space within the fashion industry that allows a more casual relationship with its currents. He cleared his calendar for three months in 2015 to shoot Nocturnal Animals in LA, and then edited the film in his London studio while simultaneously designing his next collection. “I think I would be bored if I didn’t have fashion to go back to,” he says. “I enjoy being able to switch my brain back to something else.” But fashion for him has lost much of its charm. “There’s not a lot of grace in it any more,” he says. “It seems to have escalated to a point where there’s not a lot of respect for the designer. And that’s really sad.”
I wonder whether, as the man who helped build the Gucci conglomerate, he doesn’t feel partially responsible for the corporate climate, where designers are sacked at will and contracts rarely renewed. Didn’t he help usher in this new era of gracelessness?
“It wasn’t like that,” he insists. “The way we were able to acquire those brands is that I went to each of them and said: ‘We’re buying you because we believe in you, and we’re not going to bother you.’ And we didn’t. But I’m a creative person, so it’s easier for a creative person to understand another creative person’s needs, and not smother them to the point where they can’t perform any more because you’re right there on top of them. Which is why, actually, I think I’m good with actors, because I know you can’t breathe down their neck. They all want to give the best performance, so it’s your job to give them the space to do that.”
It must be a sweet irony to realise he may yet make his greatest contribution to contemporary culture as a film-maker rather than a fashion designer. “I hope so,” says Ford. “As Susan says in the film, ‘I’m too cynical to be an artist’, but now maybe I have it in my expression in film. And film — though I hate to say it — is more powerful.”
We’re ready to leave: Ford has an appointment and a chauffeur awaiting. I wish him luck with the awards season — Ford is open about his desire for an Oscar. He also radiates the same unwavering self-confidence that saw him decide, aged 25, to become a world-famous designer, armed only with a degree in architecture.
“I usually do exactly what I say I’m going to do,” he explains. “And this sounds egotistical, but I’m always surprised when people don’t realise that. You know, when I said, ‘I’m going to make a movie’, everyone was really nice about it. It was only afterwards that everyone said, ‘Oh my god, we thought you were a complete fool.’ The surprise to me was, ‘Well, why? I told you I could.’ And it might be a disaster, by the way, because I’ve had disastrous collections, but it’s very clear in my head when I launch into it what I’ve set out to do. And then I kill myself to make it the best thing it can be.”
We fashion-air-kiss goodbye; he heads to the car. And then, like most super humans, he whooshes off.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016