Fashion: A bigger splash

Gucci has turned its back on monochrome and come bursting into vibrant colour. Susannah Frankel talks to chief designer Tom Ford about his latest reinvention of the label. Styling by Sophia Neophitou. Photographs by Julie Sleaford

om Ford, in appearance at least, more than lives up to his reputation as fashion's modern-day matinee idol. He arrives at Blakes hotel in south-west London very slightly tanned, more than slightly toned, perfectly groomed with impressive designer stubble, a dense crop of thick, dark hair and immaculately, but immaculately, dressed.

"I'm so sorry I'm late," he sighs in an almost implausibly sexy, all- American drawl. "To be honest, I'm just so tired I dropped off on the sofa before I came out. And now look at me." He looks down at himself in dismay. "I'm a mess - completely covered in dog hair."

He is, I tell him, hardly "a mess", and no more covered in dog hair than I am which is, in fact, not very covered in dog hair at all because, unlike Tom Ford, I don't own a dog.

Invisible dog hair aside then, the designer is, on this occasion at least, clad from head to toe in his own designs.

"Of course!" he exclaims, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Gucci jeans" - they're dense black, turned up just so, to reveal that tell-tale red and green Gucci stripe running alongside the inside seam - "Gucci boots, Gucci shirt, Gucci jacket ... " He pauses for a moment before adding triumphantly: "Gucci everything!"

Like any modern-day matinee idol, even before he has had a chance to sit down, Ford is subjected to the full star treatment - mobbed! - by a perhaps inappropriately excitable member of staff. This is Blakes, after all, London base to everyone from Dolce and Gabbana to Madonna. Anyone who works at the hotel is presumably exposed to more than their fair share of serious glamour, but then, matinee idols are rather thin on the ground these days.

"Oh Mr Ford, I just had to introduce myself to you," she gushes - she clearly can't help herself. "We just love your stuff here." She's clasping his hand so fervently it seems she may never relinquish it. Ford is clearly in some pain, although, ever the perfect gentleman, he would rather die than show it.

"We have your watches. You know, Gucci watches. We just love them. Love what you do. I just had to introduce myself. Had to say hello."

It is by now the stuff of fashion legend that, in less than five years, Tom Ford has single-handedly transformed Gucci, a tired old status label and family concern beleaguered by in-fighting and intrigue, to the label to see and be seen in. Only four years ago, Gucci was facing bankruptcy, worth a meagre - by international fashion standards - $250m. It now boasts international sales of $2.1billion.

Gucci today is the label of choice for just about any fashion editor, model or general jetsetter about town worth her - or indeed his - salt. Anyone who was anyone just had to have Ford's boot-cut pants one season, his long, slinky dresses the next and his polished chrome heels the one after. Gwyneth Paltrow, Uma Thurman and Meg Matthews (yes, her again) are all Gucci devotees. Madonna wore jewel-encrusted Gucci jeans and skinny leather jacket for her recent TV interview with Johnny Vaughan.

In Spiceworld: The Movie there's even a Gucci joke: "What shall I wear? The little Gucci dress, the little Gucci dress or the little Gucci dress?" The Great British high street, meanwhile, is jam-packed with knock-off Gucci designs even before the originals that inspired them have made the rails. Ford has had a fairly significant effect on the designer fashion industry too. Since he took the helm at Gucci and, in his able hands, the label became such a spectacular success, other more established companies have snapped up the services of brighter, younger designers to overhaul their labels too. Among these are John Galliano at Dior, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, all of which are, of course, part of the LVMH fashion conglomerate. As if that weren't enough, two weeks ago LVMH president Bernard Arnault decided he liked Gucci so much he bought 5 per cent of the company.

It is just as it should be that Ford's own appearance is every bit as seductive as the advertising campaigns which promote his label. Originally photographed by superstar fashion photographer Mario Testino, these showed the kind of utterly gorgeous young men and women draped here, there and everywhere that make we lesser mortals feel somehow outdated, shabby even, like we really ought to invest in the label - or at least buy the fragrance - if we are to have any sort of life at all. Significantly, Ford, sitting today on an overstuffed banquette beside me and perhaps the finest Gucci endorsement of all, positively exudes fragrant wafts of his self-styled and very aptly entitled fragrance - Envy. We could all be forgiven for wanting to be him.

"Sex appeal to me," Ford purrs, sexily enough, "is someone who's relaxed. I don't think you can be sexy if you're not relaxed. Especially in America, the beauty standard has become so uptight, so worked. I don't find that sexy at all. You know, sexy people are usually very comfortable with themselves - comfortable with themselves while you're falling apart."

The Gucci look then is louche, lean, a little flashy, if always intended to be ironically so, and, at the same time, and very cleverly, ever so slightly deshabille: a cobweb-knit sweater pulled deliberately off one shoulder; a pair of trousers that sits dangerously low, just so, on the hip bones.

There's just a hint now of the pre-Ford, ludicrously ostentatious branding - the word Gucci carved oh-so discreetly on the bone buttons of a slouchy pair of trousers; tiny interlocking Gs gracing the perfect kitten heel or the glossy black lining of a narrowly tailored jacket. Wearing it might look easy - Ford himself makes it seem entirely effortless - but every last detail has been pored over by the designer himself. Attempt to buy a Gucci belt, for example, and you'll find that the current model has only three holes - any more would just look messy - and is specifically designed to be fastened through the middle hole. Lose any weight and you'll ruin the symmetry; gain any weight and, frankly darling, liposuction is your only option - and arguably cheaper than forking out for a new belt.

"I think people should look after themselves," Ford says, very firmly. "Plastic surgery? Sure, why not? But there's plastic surgery and plastic surgery. There's plastic surgery that leaves you so tightly pulled you don't look like a human being any more. I think people become obsessive about it. But if, you know, you have a saggy chin or something you need to have fixed and if it's done properly ... Of course, I'm big on being thin. That doesn't mean you have to be skin and bones but you absolutely should be as fit as you can be."

It might seem like an unforgiving formula but it's also one that has worked beautifully. More than any other designer, Tom Ford will go down in history as the man responsible for dressing the final years of the 20th century, just like Courreges, say, dressed the Sixties, Saint Laurent the Seventies and Armani the Eighties. The knowingly super-slick, super- sexy, hard-edged glamour the Gucci label has come to signify is perfect end-of-millennium fodder, after all. Small wonder then that The New York Times recently described Ford as "the ultimate fin de siecle designer".

A self-confessed control freak, Ford is now responsible for no less than 11 merchandise lines, from handbags and watches to cat and dog collars and soft furnishings. He is also busy personally controlling the revamping of Gucci stores worldwide as we speak - right down to the sinks in the guest bathroom (guest bathroom!) of the recently refurbished London store. Ford is, by all accounts, very proud of these sinks, of the fact that the water runs down the edges of the basin rather than the centre before making its way down the (Gucci) plug hole. But then, with Gucci, you don't just wear the clothes, you live the lifestyle. Ford himself has a Gucci fur blanket on his bed in his Paris home and, not to be outdone, his dog, a terrier called John (a regular name for an above averagely lucky mutt), is the proud owner of a leather Gucci dog bed.

Ford, 37, was born and raised in Texas. Fashion folklore has it that, at 12, he owned his first pair of Gucci shoes.

"It's true!" he admits. "People used to tease me. But, you know, wearing anything Gucci in Texas was just totally about status. After all, the people who settled in Texas came from nowhere, they started off as farmers or ranchers so it's a flashier society than you'd find here."

His parents were both real estate agents. His mother who, Ford has said, looked just like Tippi Hedren - all pinned-up ice-blonde hair, tailored clothes and high heels - and his paternal grandmother both influence his aesthetic to this day.

"My grandmother was - still is, she's 87 now - this big, loud Texan woman. You know, had six husbands. Very attractive, very beautiful. She wore Courreges lace pantsuits in the Sixties and turquoise bracelets right up her arms. She was a big influence on me as a kid because, you know, she was like a cartoon. You could see her one time and she was one way and the next she looked completely different ... " He pauses then adds as an afterthought: "You know, she always jingled and clinked when she moved."

The designer went on to spend his teenage years in Santa Fe, then moved to New York for college. When a classmate invited him to Studio 54, then at its most heavingly fashionable, he knew he'd arrived. It was there, he claims today, that he first discovered he was gay and it wasn't long before he was a regular fixture at the club as well, of course, at Andy Warhol's Factory. "I'm not sure he wasn't a bit evil," Ford has said about Warhol. "But he was so smart."

Neglecting his college studies almost entirely, handsome Tom Ford set to acting in TV commercials - at one point there were, by all accounts, 12 running simultaneously - to keep him in the manner to which he was accustomed. Eventually, he ended up at Parsons School of Art in Manhattan studying not fashion but architecture.

"I was living in Paris and in my third year of Parsons and, honestly, I just woke up one morning and thought, what am I doing? Architecture was just way too ... It was so serious. Oh my God, the pretentiousness of architecture! So, I realised I was getting more excited every month buying Vogue and I thought, you know, this is what I love, this is what I seem to be drawn to the whole time. I mean, every architectural project I ever did, I worked a dress into it somehow. So I realised that fashion was the right balance between art and commerce and that was it."

There followed a period assisting New York-based designer Cathy Hardwick then, later, Perry Ellis. That was until September 1990, when, finally, with Dawn Mello, former president of chic New York department store Bergdorf Goodman, installed as creative director at Gucci, Tom Ford moved to Milan to design an expanded womenswear line for the label.

Ford still attributes his interest in the commercial side of the business to the fact that he cut his fashion teeth on New York's Seventh Avenue. Certainly, he's a far cry from the tortured artist agonising over the crafting of whimsical garments. "I love talking about money!" he says. "And I love thinking of how to make more of it! I don't understand people who say that business and creativity aren't compatible. You know, I started out in New York and, really, if the collection you designed didn't sell, you were fired the next day. What some fashion designers do is art and I have an incredible respect for it but I don't pretend to be anything other than a commercial designer and I'm proud of that."

It is equally, he says, his sense of commerce that inspires him to look at the label as a whole rather than simply occupying himself with the business of designing clothes.

"I enjoy it all," he says, "the advertising campaigns, the store designs, the packaging, working on all these different product packages, working out strategy and where to go next with it. That's what fascinates me."

Ford's breakthrough collection for Gucci came in March 1995, almost five years after he started working for the company. When a blonde and tousled Kate Moss came down Ford's runway in the most perfectly cut blue velvet trousers known to man, even though they did appear to be flared (flared!), teamed with a skinny shirt that plunged right down to the navel, the fashion world couldn't believe its eyes. The collection was basically inspired by the Seventies but, unlike any other Seventies revivals that had come before it, Ford's was far more than mere pastiche. This was the Seventies brought right up to date with a bang. It was also the most blatantly sexy thing that had been seen at the international collections for seasons. For the first time in years, Gucci made the front pages of fashion glossies and newspapers. Tom Ford had arrived.

But could he live up to the hype? He certainly did so with his next collection and with Halston-esque fluid black and white evening dresses finished with lozenges of gleaming metal in particular. Once again, these were the most photographed dresses of the season.

Then, having reinvented the Seventies and made them hip again, Ford moved on to the Eighties: killer metal heels, shoulder pads and even sack dresses. This was not as easy on the eye as the collections that came before it and, some said, an Eighties revival before the Nineties had even come to a close was taking the retro thing just a tad too far. But what Ford says, goes. Cue the barrage of Eighties revival stories that filled the fashion pages that same season.

There was, however, by March last year, the feeling that Ford had taken his impeccably edited and even more impeccably finished brand of glamour as far as it could go; that the excitement that had sprung up around the label was something that even he would no longer be able to sustain. What's more, the reviews for his two most recent collections were far from unanimously positive. There are those who might say that this is simply the nature of the fashion industry, however - to be everyone's darling one minute only to be cast aside the next.

"Of course negative reviews upset me," Ford says now. "When you work hard at something, you want it to be successful. You know, I went through a period, about a year ago, that was tough because I'd worked to get to a certain point and I was there. I had everything I wanted. Even on a personal level. I live with someone who I love, I've been with him for 12 years. I have a wonderful family, lots of friends, plenty of money, success, everything.

"So I thought to myself: Is this it? And, you know, sometimes you have to find a new goal and perhaps that goal isn't material, perhaps it's a personal thing. And during that period, yes, there were times when I didn't know whether I could design any more. Oddly enough, if you look at the collections from that period, they seem to me now to be a little, well, sad really." It couldn't have helped that the economic crisis in Asia last year saw Gucci stock plummeting (almost half the company's sales are in Asia) or, for that matter, that, last summer, arch rival Prada spent $240m buying up 9.5 per cent of Gucci's equity either. Ford refuses to comment. His spring/summer collection, however, is more than ample evidence of how this designer functions in the face of adversity. Not to be beaten, like any high achiever worth mentioning, Tom Ford took a big - if, as always, cleverly calculated - risk.

As the first outfit came out on the runway in Milan last October, it was clear that Gucci was set to undergo something of a transformation. Gone was the worldly, intimidating, thoroughly metropolitan glamour of past collections in favour of a far more optimistic and eclectic aesthetic, a more fresh-faced and, on the face of it, naive approach. Ford put aside his monochromatic palette too: a tall order for a man who, until recently, filled his entire closet with black. For spring/summer 1999, Gucci has exploded into colour.

There were psychedelic print dresses with little frills round the neckline (Gucci In Frill Shock!), there were faded, ripped-up jeans dripping with diamante and, it seemed, anything else Ford could lay his hands on - feather patch pockets, anyone? Surrounded, as fashion editors have been for too long, by a sea of wannabe conceptual fashion and a veritable ocean of grey (yawn), Gucci's latest collection, at long last, was what we had all been waiting for. And Ford - and herein lies perhaps his greatest talent - had handed it to us before we'd even realised we needed it. He received a standing ovation and is the man of the moment once more.

"It started out with the fact that I wanted the collection to be optimistic," he says. "And colourful. And a little bit over the top. I wanted it to be fun. Some of the inspiration is from Las Vegas and Liberace. You know, Vegas fascinates me because you have this place with no history and you have people who come to it with no background, no money, nothing and then they might become rich. So, they don't fall back on what they've been taught is beautiful or acceptable, they create their own beauty. And sometimes the vile, vulgar things, or the things we perceive as tasteless in our society, are actually really beautiful. Like diamonds. Culturally, a lot of us have been taught that overdoing diamonds is tacky, but, you know, they're beautiful, they sparkle and shine. If you can have them all over, then why not?"

Why not, indeed? Although there's rather more to the collection than that. Beaded belts, shoes and bags have their roots in native America. References to Ford's native Texas, Santa Fe and also LA are much in evidence as are more to Swinging London: the original, not the Nineties rehash. Perhaps most importantly of all though, Ford's spring/summer collection is a tribute - if unintentional - to his grandmother.

"You know, it's funny, I thought it was completely eclectic but my mother watched the tape of the show and she said, `It's just totally your grandmother.' I think a lot of our beauty ideals must be formed when we're kids."

Whatever, this summer season, Tom Ford looks set to find his way back on to the front covers, back at the very top of the Fashion's Most Wanted lists. With his drive and determination, it's hard not to conclude that he deserves his reputation and the fame and wealth that goes with it.

Ford is currently setting up home in London: at the moment he moves, almost constantly it seems, between Florence, Paris, Milan and America. Unsurprisingly then, he is looking to stay put for some if not all of his time.

There's only one thing about this particular capital city that irks him, however. "It's your damn quarantine laws," he snipes. Surely, I wonder, his dog doesn't travel with him.

"Oh but he does," Ford insists. "He has his own frequent-flyer card - Air France." The epitome of glamour

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