Milan says goodbye to the guiding light of Gucci as Ford unveils final collection

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Fashion's most glamourous designer, Tom Ford, was bathed in adulation - and a shower of rose petals - at his final catwalk show for Gucci last night.

Gucci's ritzy fashion shows are always a high point of the Milan collections. But for many in the emotional crowd, which gave Ford a standing ovation at the Piazza Oberdan theatre, it was a fashion extravaganza to remember. And Ford, 42, dressed in black velvet tuxedo, was in the mood to reminisce. For his last Gucci collection, the Texan-born designer re-interpreted many of his greatest hits to sensational effect. Clingy white disco-era gowns with cut-out details, constricting black satin pencil skirts and belted fur coats fit for 1980s bombshell were all classic va-va-voom Ford designs from the past decade, and drew spontaneous bursts of applause.

Despite the sentimental mood, much of the collection was dedicated to drop-dead sequinned or beaded frocks in moss green, black and flesh, which are bound to re-appear next Sunday at the Oscars. The audience lapped it up.

"I thought it was just magnificent," said Anna Wintour, who, as editor of American Vogue, is the most powerful woman in fashion. She joined the mêlée that surrounded Ford after the show and offered him kisses to the suitably selected song, "I'm Free".

But before he is entirely free Ford must show a final collection for Yves Saint Laurent on 7 March in Paris, where he is also a designer. The fashion industry has been in turmoil since news broke last November that both Ford and Domenico De Sole, the president and chief executive of Gucci Group, would depart their high-profile roles on 30 April when contractual negotiations with Gucci Group's parent company, Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, (PPR), reached stalemate.

But last night it was all about the clothes.Ford's erotically charged designs for the brand over the past 10 years have been beloved by footballers' wives and high street copyists alike. Even those who had never laid eyes on the slick, 1970s-inspired clothing designs that Ford created for the brand will know that Gucci - and its double G logo - was a name to be flaunted, not understated.

Ford's influence went far beyond mere clothing design: in the pursuit of a more sexy and glitzy status, Gucci advertising campaigns were always risqué and sometimes downright rude. These flashy images boosted the all-important sales of handbags, sunglasses and watches, and profits soared. Ford was a figurehead for the brand. His easy charm and good looks matched Gucci brand values. And he continues to look like one of life's winners. The collection that he unveiled last night draws a line under a success story that has reportedly netted him a personal fortune of $250m (£134m).

Ford has been as adept on a corporate level as he has in fashion design. Gucci Group, the luxury goods conglomerate that grew out of the Milanese brand, has spent the past few years buying up a lot of fashion's biggest names: Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney are all Gucci Group-controlled labels. And it is the celebrity designer Ford who has been at the centre of this constellation.

As much as the fashion industry adores the charismatic designer, it is fickle. In the weeks leading up to Ford's final hurrah for Gucci last night, insiders have been gripped by speculation as to who would take over his design roles at Gucci and his other post at Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. Alexander McQueen, Julien Macdonald, Narciso Rodriguez, Stella McCartney and a host of formerly behind-the-scenes designers have been mentioned as possibilities.

Ford, who in design terms, at least, will be leaving on a high, has created two plum vacancies for those who might fill his shoes. The company maintains that no announcement of his successor will be made until after Ford shows his final collection for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche in Paris. So, luckily for Ford, no talk of other designers interrupted his valedictory show for Gucci.

And he deserved the attention, one last time. While he has been the master of brash status logos and the kind of high-shine, tight-fitting clothes that have blatant sex appeal, Ford's achievements should not be dismissed as superficial. When he joined Gucci in 1990 it was a fusty Italian accessories house which was riddled with infighting. Within five years the partnership of Ford and De Sole had turned Gucci into the glossiest of fashion brands, a position that they managed to maintain until the end.

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