How Tom Ford became the toast of Hollywood

His racy collections for Gucci defined a decade of style. Now fashion's 'Mr Sex' is making movies – and winning huge acclaim. Veteran Tom Ford-watcher Tim Blanks explains why the designer's new role is one he's always been destined to play

Tuesday 22 December 2009 01:00

Before he took the career path which turned him into one of the most influential individuals in the history of fashion, Tom Ford acted in TV commercials. He made a decent living from it, at one point featuring in 12 national advertising campaigns simultaneously, but once he surrendered himself to the siren song of fashion, that act in his life seemed over. Except that Ford went on writing the script, honing the role of a lifetime: himself.

"When I was asked as a child what I wanted to be, I'd say, 'I want to be rich, I want to be famous, I want to live in the big city, I want to have a fabulous life'," he once said. "All I've done my entire life is fulfil my destiny."

The critics who have been galled by such supreme self-confidence (and he has had to deal with his fair share of snipers) should prepare for a further galling, because now, at the age of 48, Ford could be staring down the barrel of an Oscar nomination, every actor's dream – and for his very first film, to boot. The fact that he's likely to be nominated for writing or directing or producing (if the acting is recognised, it will be leading man Colin Firth who scoops the pool, as he already did at the Venice Film Festival) isn't remotely ironic because, make no mistake, Tom Ford is the star of A Single Man. In the age of the sham celebrity multi-hyphenate, he makes a remarkably convincing Renaissance man.

But there's always been something out of time about Ford. I mean that in the modelled-on-the-past sense, rather than out-of-date. He recently told Entertainment Weekly that in another era he would have been working at MGM, the studio that embodied the spirit of haute Hollywood. His fascination started early. Growing up in Santa Fe, he was a regular at an arthouse theatre that played old movies. If watching the likes of Cary Grant and Gary Cooper over and again put the seal on the Thirties as his favourite decade, it was also a dream lesson in the unflappable smoothness of the matinée idol, which Ford took to heart along with the notion that nothing crystallises an iconic presence like a consistent style affectation. What would "Tom Ford" have been without the designer stubble, the white shirt undone just so, the perfectly manicured chest? (And those glasses he has been wearing lately could easily become as emblematic as architect Philip Johnson's.)

But it's actually less matinée idol than mogul – another show business archetype – that I think of when I picture Ford. Several years ago, his close friend Lisa Eisner published a book called Height of Fashion in which she canvassed several hundred stylish acquaintances to choose a photo from any time in their lives "when you knew you were the most magical person in the room".

Slap dab in the middle of the blurry family snaps and posed party pics was a photo by arch-celebrity-portraitist Herb Ritts, originally taken for Vanity Fair in 1997 but never run. It depicted Ford with his signature look (unbuttoned shirt, black pants, stubble, squint) book-ended by two naked Adonises.

Remember, this was the designer's personal choice of a peak moment in his life – although he later insisted he'd sent that particular picture because he'd run out of time to really dig through his old snaps. "But one reason I liked it," he added, "was that it's like the classic picture of the playboy man who's made it, with a babe on each arm, but now re-interpreted with a homosexual. I have these two really beautiful boys curled up on my lap as the ultimate trophies. It's like, 'OK, I've made it, here are the babes'."

To list just a hundred or so of the thousand words that the picture was worth: power, vanity, manipulation, self-control, dominance, transgression, ambiguity, narcissism, provocation, sex ... If the tongue-in-cheek campness was Ford's own particular twist, the rest of the list could have been lifted from a "Hollywood Mogul's Handbook" (as ghosted by Harold Robbins). And, to extend the analogy, although it was a fashion house rather than a film studio that Ford applied the formula to, his collections for Gucci, and later Yves Saint Laurent, were blockbusters.

In the script, this act would be called "The Tom Ford Decade". The 10 years between the Gucci show for autumn/winter 1994, which catapulted Ford into the fashion stratosphere, and his final collection for Yves Saint Laurent, consolidated fashion's new role as an arm of the entertainment industry. Hollywood bought in. That had a lot to do with the way in which Ford himself embodied the seductive glamour, the power, the sex appeal of fashion in the Nineties.

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"I am a product," he would often say, all the while insisting that it would never be his own name on the label (so that he could, he said, "back out one day and do something else"). Still, he sold himself as efficiently as the clothes, accessories and beauty products which bore the Gucci brand name. The carapace of complete and utter control Ford created for himself seemed so impermeable that the crumbling of the edifice, when he fell out with his paymasters at Gucci in 2004, truly seemed the end not just of a career but an era. Except that the emotional overload of his final show for Gucci – the weeping fans, the cascading rose petals – was pointedly underscored by singer Ultra Nate blaring out, "You're free to do what you want to do," over the sound system.

Anticipating the novelty of leisure time, Ford bought golf clubs – and used them once. So it was back to work, as he orchestrated an unusual re-entry into the fashion world through a series of strategic alliances. First, a collection of fragrances with Estée Lauder. Next, a line of sunglasses with Marcolin. Then, a luxurious menswear range produced by Zegna, with the final masterstroke a global string of boutiques to showcase the lot. Ford defied expectations by holding off on womenswear, insisting it would come after he had made his first film. (With A Single Man on release, he has indeed announced that he will now design a women's collection.) He was also defiant in his bucking of the seasonal fashion cycle: no shows, no presentations, no reviews of this year's thing. He was chasing timelessness, not trends.

Still, he promoted his new endeavours with the same hard-edged lubriciousness – the kind that sought shock value in nudity – that had coloured the worlds of Gucci and YSL. And he himself stayed right in character as the polymorphous libertine, formed in the crucible of Studio 54, who indolently drawled during one interview, "Why can't optimism and decadence go hand-in-hand?" In other words, the Tom Ford people already had an opinion on. And those opinions got a 60-minute workout when the news came that he was to direct a film. "Who does Tom Ford think he is?" said it all.

The simple fact is, whatever you may have thought about Ford in the past, favourable or otherwise, A Single Man will force you to think again. The film follows the last day in the life of George Falconer, an Englishman teaching college in Los Angeles in the early Sixties, and one of its many pleasures is the way in which it defeats the low-balling expectation that Ford's movie debut would be a walking, talking fashion spread. Inevitable, perhaps – what precedent is there for his achievement? Fashion photographers like William Klein and Bruce Weber have directed films, but I can't think of any other designer who's tried; and – never mind directing – Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli both came a cropper when they tried to design for Hollywood. Fashion shares with film an ability to fetishise form, gender, sexuality – all the juicy subtexts of life as we know it, as a means of building characters.

This was certainly something that was understood by the greatest Hollywood costume designers – Adrian, Travis Banton, Edith Head, who designed Hitchcock's blondes, film's finest fetish objects. But, until now, the notion of a designer directing has been as off-piste as that of a director designing. Colin Firth will surely be the first Best Actor Nominee to turn up at the Oscars in a tux designed by his director.

That's not to say that there aren't fine fashion designers possessed of a filmic sensibility – we can only wonder what we missed when Galliano turned down Madonna's request to design her costumes for Evita – just as some of our finest film directors have an acute sense of fashion. I would include individuals as unlikely as Nic Roeg and Roman Polanski in that group, along with more obvious names such as Almodovar and Todd Haynes. Still, Tom Ford is the first real hybrid of designer and director. And, like the tyro writer advised to write what he knows, Ford has managed this feat by taking inspiration from a subject he is most familiar with: himself.

Something else fashion and film share is the autobiographical element that inevitably creeps into such auteurist endeavours. At Gucci, Ford knew how to make people want stuff because he wanted it too. "My mother's surprised that I've actually turned out to be a nice person with a heart," he admitted a few years back. "As a child, she always thought I was horrible and heartless and selfish and spoiled, because I was very obsessed with material things and things that weren't spiritual. What people looked like was often more important to me than the way they were. She saw through all of that instantly. It was only later in my life that I realised she was right." So now the past master of the glittering, seductive surface acknowledges that he has been neglecting his spiritual side. He wants to go deeper.

That element of personal quest adds poignancy to A Single Man. The surface is still gorgeous (the film is production-designed by Dan Bishop, who does Mad Men on TV) but the clothes and decor are at the service of the story. Ford's appeal to the senses includes a stunning soundtrack by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski, and the way the visuals and the music work together to prime you for the emotional core of the film reminds me of Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love. Yes, it looks beautiful, but ultimately, A Single Man is much more memorable for its depth – its heart and soul – than its surface. It's a heartbreaking meditation on one man's life.

Ford has infused Christopher Isherwood's original story with his own history. He's been with his partner Richard Buckley (to whom the film is dedicated) for 23 years, which offers a huge reservoir to draw on. A Single Man's flashbacks with their little domestic intimacies between Falconer and his lover Jim ring as true as a home movie. In fact, the film is a paean to lost love, with Korzeniowski's music tugging at the heartstrings. As Falconer attempts to deal with Jim's death, Ford subtly but steadily intensifies the mood, helped by Colin Firth's quietly devastating performance.

A Single Man is full of surface details that link it to Ford. Falconer was the surname of his first boyfriend. His fox terriers, India and Angus, put in an appearance. Buckley contributes a Hitchockian cameo. Jon Kortajarena, the model who is Ford's alter ego in his advertising campaigns, plays a young hustler. Ford acknowledges that Falconer's fastidiousness is his own, but below the surface, as I read it, the meticulous ritual of George's life is also Ford's acknowledgement of the supreme effort it has taken to keep order in his own life. He's had his own battles with excess, occasionally waged in public, where the bad behaviour seems reasonably typical of the congenital control freak cutting loose. When order fails, that way lies madness, which Ford contemplates in the scenes when Falconer finally falls apart. "There's a lot about me that people don't know," he has said. A Single Man hints at a double life.

Just how double is made obvious in these irresistible synchronicities. At the same time as Ford is baring his soul on celluloid, his immaculately suited body is sprawled across glossy magazine fold-outs promoting his latest men's fragrance, Grey Vetiver. And, the week A Single Man debuted in the US, Ford opened an enormous new shop in the Crystals, a luxury retail development in Las Vegas (with an interior which, according to Women's Wear Daily, "serves the brand's core values of masculine opulence, privacy and customisation"). So, for all his talk of a new spirituality and a new value system, which finds an outlet in his movie, we are hardly looking at a Damascene conversion here.

"One of the reasons I'm often criticised is because people think it is easy," Ford told me during one of our last conversations. "But grace is about making things seem easy, and I find grace incredibly attractive. It's a great thing to strive for." Still, it riled him that people persisted in thinking he never really did anything, that it was all someone else's work. "Like someone asking me, 'Who designs your suits?'" he grizzled. "I designed my suits."

He has always been very conscious of his place in the wider scheme of things. And it can't be lost on Ford that fashion designers may be titans in their own world but unknown outside it. It's not just people like my fashion ignoramus of a brother in New Zealand who don't know his name. Nicholas Hoult, the 20-year-old actor who is one of A Single Man's leading players, also had no idea who Ford was when he first met him in LA.

Ford has often talked about the ephemerality of fashion vs the forever-ness of film. People's interest in other people's characters is much more durable than their interest in other people's clothes. So the $7m (£4.3m)of his own money that he spent on A Single Man is a small price to pay for a shot at immortality. Or, as the man whose name has become a byword for consummate control freakery told Entertainment Weekly, "It's the closest thing to being God that we have in our world." And that is the role of a lifetime.

'A Single Man' opens on 12 February 2010

Catwalk king: Tom Ford's life in fashion

* Born in the Texan state capital Austin in 1961, Tom Ford is known for his Southern charm and hospitality, rather than for a red neck or any fondness for honky tonk. He grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico before moving to New York and enrolling to study architecture at Parsons, part of The New School in Greenwich Village. A breeding ground for fashion talent, with alumni including Marc Jacobs and Narciso Rodriguez, Parsons opened doors for Ford – who omitted to specify that his training wasn't actually in dress design. That didn't stop him ruthlessly pursuing jobs in the industry; he was soon assistant to sportswear designer Cathy Hardwick.

* In 1988, Ford took a job at Perry Ellis, an all-American casualwear company, also home to the fledgling Jacobs. He left after two years – something he attributed later to an ennui with American design. "If I was ever going to become a good designer," Ford told The New York Times in 1996, "I had to leave America. My own culture was inhibiting me."

* Certainly his sensibilities were more suited to a European clientele. His suave, sleek and sexy aesthetic did not chime with the Nineties grunge and minimalism of New York, but it struck the perfect note in Italy, where in 1990 he became womenswear designer at Gucci (far left, in 2004). It now seems almost impossible to conceive of a fashion landscape without its interlinked 'G's, but back then it was a worn-out luxury goods brand. Ford was design director by 1992 and creative director by 1994, in charge of clothing, perfume accessories, advertising and store design.

* He revolutionised the industry, reviving glamour with his slick, and overtly sexy, skinny tailoring, hipster trousers, miniskirts, well-oiled torsos and patent knee-high boots. Ford's work with stylist Carine Roitfeld, now editor of French Vogue, and photographer Mario Testino, gave birth to the high-impact fashion ad campaign that consumers are now so used to. In 2001, the Gucci imagery featured a model with the brand's insignia 'G' shaved into her pubic hair. Nonetheless, Ford was voted womens-wear designer of the year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

* The sex didn't stop when he took the helm as creative director at Yves Saint Laurent after the Gucci Group acquired the French house. He overhauled it as he had done Gucci. An advert for the label's Opium perfume featured a prone Sophie Dahl naked but for heels and a necklace and outraged many a feminist pressure group. Ford continued to purvey a glamorous and moneyed modern look for both labels, until a disagreement over creative control forced his departure in 2004.

* Ford set up his eponymous label in 2006, and his boom-time exhibitionism hasn't deserted him; he continued his legacy with adverts that featured a bottle of aftershave cradled in a totally denuded female crotch, or nestling between a fulsome pair of breasts.

* His appearance on a 2006 Vanity Fair cover, between a naked Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley, now makes Ford appear a designer from another time – one before the words "credit crunch" were ever uttered.

Harriet Walker

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