An invitation to an intimate dinner party with Tom Ford has caused more excitement among my male and female friends than almost anything else I’ve ever done. Except a week later, I find “intimate” actually means about 150 people, with the main man so far away from my table that I can almost see the curvature of the earth between us.
We’re at the impossibly fashionable Chiltern Firehouse to celebrate the London menswear collections and the launch of Noir Extreme, Tom Ford’s latest men’s fragrance. A great deal of anxiety has gone into what I should wear to meet a man widely regarded to have unattainably perfect taste. A man who, Victoria Beckham once observed, flies long-haul in a three-piece suit, releasing just one waistcoat button to lie down and sleep.
Others have made an effort, too: Lily Allen has new peach hair, Paloma Faith turns up in something made of smashed mirrors. Umpteen teenage male models arrive fresh from catwalk shows, jackets borrowed from Mr Ford’s office for the party. Every Tom Ford employee is wearing Noir Extreme.
Midway through a tiny purple risotto, I’m ushered into a private room where Mr Ford awaits, almost laughably immaculate. He’s wearing a black velvet tuxedo, the most perfect – and most deeply unbuttoned – white shirt I’ve ever seen, narrow trousers (all his own label), a full head of hair and young, smooth skin (if not his own, then very convincing). He’s that Clooney brand of unfeasibly handsome, an “everyone’s type”. Candles are freshly unboxed, the lighting is filmic, the flowers are a masterpiece. I wonder if the room’s oxygen molecules have been specially selected and filtered for the occasion. He stands as I enter the room and his kiss lands warmly on my cheek, rather than being of the airborne fashion variety. He’s immediately flirty, quick, complimentary (“Oh, I know exactly who you are,” he says, not knowing at all who I am).
Impeccable manners are one of the reasons Ford has made Britain his home for the past 17 years. He moved his own Gucci Group headquarters from Italy and stayed while he helmed the Gucci-acquired Parisian house of Saint Laurent, rescuing both labels from irrelevance and, in the former’s case, near bankruptcy. After leaving Saint Laurent in extremely rude health to concentrate on his own label, he set up his entire creative operation (menswear, womenswear, opticals, movie development: he adapted and directed the Oscar-nominated A Single Man in 2009) near Victoria station. Even my cabbie describes Ford as “a Londoner” on the way to the restaurant. He’s pleased to hear it. “Oh, I like this! I’ve lived here a long time. I like it. I like the manners, I like the eccentricity, the wackiness, the humour. The people are great.”
The European sensibility may suit Ford, but his provenance is all-American. Born in Texas, where his comfortably-off family settled in the 1830s, he relocated to New Mexico aged 11. He landed in New York at 17 to study art history at NYU but left when acting jobs (mainly TV commercials) proved lucrative enough to fund a nice lifestyle in LA. Ford returned to New York to study architecture at Parsons School of Design; this was followed by a year in Paris, where he landed an internship at the Chloé press office. He spent his days filing and packing samples, acting as general dogsbody and learning the fashion business fast.
He now feels a disconnect with his home state. “I don’t think of myself necessarily as a Texan. I think of myself as international, because I’m comfortable in LA, comfortable here, in Paris, Milan – I’ve lived in all of them. My favourite place is a new city with its history and memories.”
Ford does admit, however, that the 1970s spent in New York proved most influential on his design aesthetic. “I love the 70s,” he says. “That was my coming of age and of first seeing things that were so beautiful. I was 17 in 78 and 18 in 79, so that’s the period where I first thought things like, ‘Oh my God, she’s so beautiful,’ ‘His body is so amazing,’ ‘This house is so incredible.’”
Significantly, Aids had yet to take down New York’s creative scene, and Ford’s new friendship group with it. In those days, he made the most of the sexual freedom. “Yes, totally. I didn’t realise I was gay until I moved to New York. I was 17 and I just went crazy. The music, discos, drugs: it was amazing.” He admits that his looks and age made it extremely easy to get past the rope at the best venues and into the city’s most celebrated – and hedonistic – social circle. “I went to Studio 54 the very first time with Andy Warhol, so I was exposed to a lot of people through that,” he says.
This artistic and decadent environment inspired his fashion work. “Those were the years of Halston [the late American designer who dressed Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor and Angelica Houston]. I went to Halston’s house one night when I was drunk and he made us eggs. And I knew all these people like Bianca Jagger – I still know them – who look at me now and say, ‘When did I first meet you?’ I was just a 17-year-old kid who was dating a friend of theirs, but I was taking it all in. So I was exposed to a lot of things that really did permanently mould my aesthetic.” Halston’s influence on Ford’s collections is well-documented – Ford’s breakthrough autumn/winter 1995/96 collection for Gucci featured Halston-inspired satin blouses slashed to the waist, tight velvet pants, skinny belts and huge disco hair.
The fashion industry is currently enjoying a 70s revival, but the designer is keen to maintain his signature look without going to the lengths seen on other catwalks. “You design whatever it is you think is both relevant now and true to yourself,” he says. “You don’t want to slip into a world where it’s like fancy dress.”
It turns out Ford loathes fancy dress. “Brits love it. All my English friends invite me to parties and get mad at me for not wearing it. The reason is, one day, when some scandal happens, the press will drag up that picture of you in fancy dress.”
Ford’s love of the 1970s makes more sense because he lived through it. “The generation right after me, like Nicolas Ghesquière [of Louis Vuitton], they’re all about the 80s, because that’s when they came of age. Giorgio Armani is all about the 1930s – his whole aesthetic, his whole brand is built around Italy in the 1930s and 1940s. I think that’s a personal thing.”
Ford’s isn’t the Laurel Canyon hippie 70s, but the hot, sexy 70s, all shoulder pads, slit skirts and skin. This brand of sexiness is key in everything he does, from Helmut Newton– and Guy Bourdin-influenced campaigns, often featuring nude models, to pubic hair shaved into logos (Gucci perfumes) and penis/crucifix medallions (Tom Ford menswear). He’s referred to frequently as fashion’s King of Sex, and is just fine with that.
“You know what, if you don’t like it, don’t buy it. Sensuality and sexuality is what drives so much. If you’re of a certain age and you go out at night and you’re single, then what’s the end goal there? You’re at a bar looking beautiful, the light’s great, you’re chatting with people. You might not meet someone you’re going to sleep with that night, but you connect. It’s what drives many things. It’s part of being human. We come with that feature.”
Does he consider feminism in his depiction of women? “I always think about feminism,” he says, describing his mother as a “real 1970s feminist”. “I’ve been criticised for objectifying women. But I’m an equal opportunity objectifier – I’m just as happy to objectify men. The thing is, you can’t show male nudity in our culture in the way you can show female nudity. We’re very comfortable as a culture exploiting women, but not men. But I don’t think of it as exploitation [either way].”
Ford cites a former campaign as an example of this hypocrisy. “I did a men’s nude ad at Saint Laurent. Yves did the first one where he was nude [but with legs crossed], and I thought, why don’t we go to the next step and do full-frontal nudity, with a male model? It’s interesting, because we did the picture, it ran in some European publications and then it was pulled.”
Meanwhile, the Tom Ford woman in his campaigns and catwalk shows is formidable, overtly sexual, often intimidating. “There’s nothing stronger and more powerful than a beautiful woman. I don’t think expressing what nature intended you to be is anything but powerful. My women are not sitting there waiting for someone, they’re taking charge. Doesn’t matter whether they’re naked – they’re powerful, they’re smart, and you’re not going to get them if they don’t want you.”
It’s true that the same models are always preternaturally good-looking, of course, but his muses and models tend to be strong, older women: 70s icon Lauren Hutton (71), socialite Daphne Guinness, actor Emmanuelle Seigner (both in their late 40s) and, most prolifically, his close friend, the 54-year-old Oscar-winner Julianne Moore. He was the first to sign a then plus-sized Sophie Dahl to a major fragrance campaign, once again in the nude.
Ford’s feminism isn’t a token political engagement; he is a Democrat and openly supported Obama’s election campaigns. His public admission that the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq made him “ashamed to be an American” caused a temporary public backlash against him in the US.
The Tom Ford empire has thrived in a chaotic financial and diplomatic climate, turning over $1bn a year in retail. His designs cost fortunes: shoes are upwards of £500, a dress or suit in the thousands. A pair of trainers in the current collection is $950. He attributes the prices, in part, to skilled and ethical manufacture by craftspeople in Italy. His perfumes are similarly refined (Ford is credited by some as having brought “real” perfumery back into fashion) – Noir Extreme is £70, but his Private Blend scents sell for up to £330. Today, he’s wearing the new fragrance layered with another favourite, Tobacco Vanille, and expertly explains how these work together.
He’s unapologetic about the fact that his exacting standards cost his customers dearly. “There are more rich people than ever before, and we live in a material world. You can fight it or not, but the ways things smell, the way things taste, they add to our lives. It’s a sort of meditative escapism.”
Increasingly, Ford escapes to his home life. He lives in Mayfair with his partner of more than 28 years, fashion writer Richard Buckley. They met at a fashion show, fell quickly in love and say they can’t imagine life without each other. Buckley – 13 years Ford’s senior – was diagnosed with cancer three years into their relationship and wasn’t expected to survive. The couple’s son (reportedly via a surrogate), Alexander John Buckley Ford –known as Jack – was born in September 2012, and two years later Ford announced that he and Buckley had got married in the US.
Things at Ford’s house are, he implies, blissfully mundane. Now teetotal, he hates parties of more than six people, practises Pilates three times a week, is surrounded by the kind of gaudy, aesthetically displeasing plastic toys he swore he’d never allow in the house, watches trash-doc TV and no longer parades naked for fear of offending the nanny.
It’s been a natural, if dramatic, transition from international player to London dad. “I’ve always wanted to have children, I’ve talked about it for years. I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to happen and who it was going to happen with, but I knew I had to do it,” he says. “You don’t know what’s on the other side until you have them, then it changes everything. It all sounds cliched, but you see yourself as more of a link and chain instead of the one and only.”
Does he, a lifelong overachiever, worry about failing as a parent? “I don’t get scared of doing it wrong, but I’m really conscious of doing my best to do it right. I’m so lucky and happy that I have Jack at this stage of my life. I’m ready to focus on helping another person develop.”
He smiles. “I’ve had me. I’ve been there and had success. I’m tired of me.”
- Tom Ford Noir Extreme, £70, is out on 13 April.