Two things strike you immediately when you first meet Tom Ford. First, that he is as beguilingly, implausibly, airbrushed handsome as his photographs have led us to believe. And still is, even though he’s now turning 50. Whether that’s down to a pact with the devil or, more likely, a strict regime at his personal gym – and, rumour has it, regular peels – who cares? It works.
When I was a kid I always wanted to be 50
Second, Tom Ford is very, very polite, unfailingly so, a quality that is arguably as unexpected in a fashion designer as it is in a film director, which, since the well-received A Single Man in 2009, you could call Ford’s other job.
He is nice to the doorman, nice to the waiter, and polite but firm to the luxury blogger keen to get an interview. He’s even nice to that generally mis-treated figure at the bottom end of fashion’s food chain, the assistant. (Then again, he started out as a fashion assistant, as many people in the fashion industry have, but he seems just one of the few who can remember what that feels like.)
And back in the day, he was nice to me when, as the newbie editor of the American gay glossy, Out magazine, I went backstage after a Gucci show to congratulate him. Lovely show, I think I said, or something to that effect. At which point Ford told me (and in front of my boss, too, which you’ve got to love someone for), “I like what you’re doing, too”. Is that a self-serving anecdote? Well, maybe, but it illustrates that handsome is, sometimes, as handsome does.
It was at Gucci where Tom Ford made his name and his fortune. He joined the almost-bankrupt, family-owned Italian luxury house in 1990 and turned it into the coolest brand in fashion, overnight, with a debut collection that channelled his memories of New York’s Studio 54 and led to 90 per cent increase in sales in one year.
Initially, it wasn’t easy for Ford to get his way at Gucci. It was once said that, while Maurizio Gucci wanted everything Gucci made to be round and brown, Ford tended towards the square and black. It was an aesthetic conveyed brilliantly in the ad campaigns he commissioned from stylist Carine Roitfeld and photographer Mario Testino. The Guccis would eventually lose control of the fashion house bearing their name.
Ford finally left the company in 2004, with more than $100 million worth of shares and the Gucci Group valued at $10 million (having also spent a less than comfortable time heading up YSL, where the American in Paris’ unashamedly commercial instincts ruffled some fancy French feathers).
For Ford, fashion was “the perfect mix of art and commerce”. His life after Gucci also combined both. In 2005, he launched his own lucrative eyewear and perfume line. Next came menswear, then lipstick. In September a Tom Ford beauty range will be launched, produced with L’Oreal, and is expected to sell like hot cakes, despite steepish prices.
Behind the camera
Then in 2009 came A Single Man, based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel about a gay middle-aged British academic living in California. The Brit was played, with Oscar-winning success, by Colin Firth. This was a personal triumph for Ford also; a success that silenced the doubters, who had questioned whether a fashion designer’s move into movie-making could be anything other than a vanity project. He demonstrated once again that he is not just a pretty face.
At 50, Ford is now a gay, middle-aged American who lives mostly in London, has homes in California and New Mexico, and travels widely, famously hitting the ground running wherever he lands. (He is reputed to believe that jetlag is for amateurs, though flying privately doubtless helps when you’re crossing time zones.)
He is anything but a single man, having been married in all but name for 24 years to fashion journalist Richard Buckley.
In any industry, any milieu, that longevity in love is exceptional. Ford and Buckley still seem genuinely sweet on one another, as revealed in a joint interview the couple gave Out magazine earlier this year. In this, they recalled the day they first met, soon after an eyes-across-a-crowded-room moment at a fashion show. Buckley was 38, Ford was 25, a mere assistant at a New York fashion house, sent to Women’s Wear Daily’s offices to collect some clothes used for a shoot.
“I was directed to the roof where they were being photographed,” Ford recalled, “and as the elevator opened, there was the man with the eyes the colour of water. He rushed over and introduced himself and told me that the clothes were downstairs and offered to take me down to the fashion closet.
“He was sort of dancing around, flashing his eyes at me and trying so hard to be charming. I decided in that elevator ride that I was going to marry him. I’m very pragmatic… He ticked every box. He seemed so together. He was so handsome, he was so connected, he was so grown-up, so he was very intimidating.
“We spent almost every night together after our first few dates. It was probably a few days before we were saying things like, ‘I think I’m in love with you’.”
While we’re on the subject of a romance that began in a fashion closet, it’s worth pointing out that Ford and Buckley were out about their relationship right from the start. This in an era when such open-ness was by no means a foregone conclusion, even in their industry, and at a grief-filled, anxiety-ridden moment when many of their friends were dying of AIDS (though the life-threatening illness to which Buckley later nearly succumbed was cancer).
Yet for all that, there’s something old-school about them as a couple, including those famous good manners. Buckley told Out magazine: “Tom is the perfect modern gentleman. We’re both old-fashioned that way. We both stand for ladies at the table and open doors.”
Ford the grown-up
Is Ford growing old gracefully? Well, he clearly puts a lot of effort into maintaining his looks, one could almost say his trademark looks, complete with those narrowed eyes and the signature open-neck shirt revealing a bit of manly chest.
As for the clothing lines, interestingly, the Tom Ford luxury label now eschews the built-in, here one season, gone the next obsolescence of fashion. (If he likes a style, he’ll keep it for a few seasons.) For the launch of his new womenswear collection earlier this year, Ford employed women of all ages, including veteran model Lauren Hutton, rather than the 16-year-old girls many fashion houses send down the catwalk.
As for the man himself, earlier this year, Ford felt sufficiently at ease in his skin to conduct an interview at his Mayfair home with The Sunday Times’ AA Gill in which both were in the nude (saying, “I spend most of my time here naked”). Perhaps it’s easier to feel good about ageing when you’re ageing so well, but hats off to Tom Ford at 50.
“When I was a kid I always wanted to be 50,” he told an interviewer earlier this year. “I wanted to read things other kids weren’t reading. I wanted to be at my parents’ cocktail parties and mix martinis. I wanted to live the fantasy life I saw in films.”
I think he’s probably got to where he wanted to be.