Intrepid New Yorkers have several ways of making the most of summer’s swelter: There’s the day at the beach. There’s the day at the spa. And then there’s the day of climate-controlled, super-luxurious shopping, ducking into the city’s most delicious boutiques (whether to buy or just to ogle). Tom Ford, creative director of the Gucci Group and designer for both Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche and Gucci, knows the impulse well. And just in time for those 90 degree days, he has opened a new Yves Saint Laurent store at 3 East 57th Street. It’s got all those welcoming things one needs: a white-lacquered proscenium arch; an ebony sculptural staircase; white satin walls; plenty of horsehair, mohair, and Mongolian lamb upholstery. Then there are those jewel-like clothes, not to mention a whole room for shoes and a special salon dedicated to YSL Beauté products. Ford welcomed New York to his fabulously massive Mayfair office in London recently to discuss his new project (“It’s designed by Bill Sofield, who I’ve worked with on all the YSL stores—there’s a strong focus on accessories and beauty in this one”), explain his design philosophy, and give his theories on why we’re all about to do some serious shopping. He was as charming as he’s reputed to be and even more handsome than he appears in photographs. As a bonus, he was wearing a navy pinstripe Gucci suit with a stiff-collared white shirt, both of which were unbuttoned to just above his navel.
Q: Since you took the reins at Gucci in 1994, it has become a truly global brand. And you yourself spend a lot of time hopping between the United States and your offices in London, Milan, and Paris. Do you see a difference between the way, for example, a Parisian woman and a New Yorker might wear your clothes?
Ford: They do wear them quite differently. But then you can see and feel the history of each culture being expressed in the way anyone dresses. You can put a Frenchman and an American man in the same outfit, stand them next to each other, and you’ll still see a difference; you’ll see it in the way the Frenchman stands, the way his tie is tied. I’ve been in trouble before for saying that Americans are too perfect in their approach to dressing, but Americans are descended from Puritans, and sometimes that comes through in their style. To have too much style is looked down upon in America, whereas for the French it is something to be celebrated. But things are changing with globalization. You never used to see a Frenchman wearing tennis shoes at night, and now you see it all the time.
Q: Do you think we’ll all be wearing the same thing before long?
Ford: Sure. Good or bad, it’s inevitable. I think we are becoming more and more linked, and before long, we’ll all be one culture. It’s happening in every field, not just fashion. Actually, I think the only hope for peace is if culture is homogenized. Unfortunately, money seems to be the only solution to political disagreements. If we are all linked through culture and trade, it won’t be worth fighting each other.
Q: Has it been hard being an American in Europe, in Paris particularly, because of the war in Iraq?
Ford: Not at all. I am obviously American, but I’ve lived in Europe for years, and I feel very comfortable here. I speak French and Italian. Though I have to say my French is much worse now than it was in the eighties. Now that I’m the boss, everyone speaks to me in English.
Q: Do you like being in charge?
Ford: Yeah. I’m a natural-born boss, I have to say. I just like to be good at things. Even as a child, I was boss of my family.
Q: Are you easy to work for?
Ford: I think so. I’m very direct. I don’t have tantrums. I don’t yell or shout. I do expect an awful lot from my staff, but no more than I expect of myself.
Q: Did you know, growing up, that you wanted to be in a position of authority?
Ford: Probably. I think you make these things happen. You find the things that make you happy. I think also that the older you get, the more you become your true, essential self. You whittle away the parts of yourself that mean less to you.
Q: So life gets easier as you get older?
Ford: For me, it’s better. I’ve never been happier. Though there are nice things about being young.
Q: Like what?
Ford: Well, your skin. Your muscle tone.
Q: Did you always think that fashion was what you were going to do?
Ford: When I was young, I wanted to be a movie star. But I realized that you have no control being an actor. So I went to architecture school in NYC, because I was crazy about buildings. Then I began to realize that I got more excited about Vogue coming out each month than I was about my projects. I also realized that the way I approached architecture was with a somewhat fashion brain. That didn’t get me very good marks in school, because everyone thought fashion was lightweight. In architecture they say, “Well, why is the door pink? Where does it go? What does the pink mean? What does it symbolize? All the other doors are beige, why is that one pink?” I was like, “Well, it’s pink because it’s pretty.”
Q: Do think of yourself as an artist or a businessman?
Ford: I’m a fashion designer. What I do is artistic, but I’m not an artist because everything I do is destined to be sold. That’s not to say that you can’t be an artist and a fashion designer. I think some designers are artists.
Q: Like whom?
Ford: Alexander McQueen. His clothes are designed to be sold, yes, but there is a poetry to his work that is truly artistic.
Q: You’re an art collector, aren’t you? Who do you collect?
Ford: Different people. Warhol, Reinhardt, Calder, Ellsworth Kelly. Sam Taylor-Wood.
Q: I’ve seen photographs of you in front of a series of large female nudes.
Ford: That’s Warhol. I have his male version, too. Penises are harder to hang, though. But in the same room as those Warhol nudes, I have these amazing Ellsworth Kelly paintings of slits. So that room has become a themed room. It’s the vagina room.
Q: What about real vaginas? Did you ever have girlfriends?
Ford: Yes, yes, absolutely. And I liked it and I liked them, but I prefer men. And I’ve been with my partner [Vogue Hommes International editor Richard Buckley] for seventeen years.
Q: Would you like to have kids?
Ford: I’d love to, but Richard is firm about not having them, so, you know, I guess not at the moment.
Q: Do you find that men feel threatened by you?
Ford: I don’t think so. I usually try to seduce them. I suppose I try to seduce everybody.
Q: You are well known for your sex appeal and for selling sex; making sexy clothes. Is sex something you think about consciously when you are designing a collection?
Ford: I suppose everything I do has sexual undertones, but I don’t set out to make everything about sex. My clothes are more about sensuality. What I do is dress and beautify the body. My feeling is, if you have something beautiful, then show it. I don’t start out by saying to myself, What can I do that’s sexy? It’s more that what I find beautiful is also sexy and sensual. That doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily making clothing to go out and pick someone up in.
Q: Is there a particular zone you home in on, in terms of designing clothes for women?
Ford: The hips. Hips are absolutely key to every shape I do, because whatever you do at the top or bottom, you want to keep it slim and narrow on the hips. One thing is for certain: No one, man or woman, wants big hips.
Q: Is there anything a woman should absolutely not wear?
Ford: Yeah. Anything she isn’t comfortable in.
Q: Has New York—and the life you led here during the late seventies, at Studio 54 and all of that—been an important influence in your work?
Ford: I love New York. It’s given me so much as a designer. When I moved here, I wanted to tap into the glamour of the city immediately. More than anywhere else, New York offers itself up—you arrive and get a rush in a flash. It’s dazzling. Everywhere you look, there is decoration, from a pair of jewel-encrusted shoes in the window in Bergdorf Goodman to the Chrysler Building. And New York is incredibly democratic. Everyone is packed into this tiny space. You are confronted with all manner of people, and I love that.
Q: Do you think the kind of carnival energy of Studio 54 will return?
Ford: Oh, sure. Maybe not to New York for a while. Right now, we’re having one of those in-between times of rest and recuperation, but you can’t get too down about it. Soon enough, the time will come when everyone thinks: I’m tired of feeling depressed, I’m tired of not buying anything, and I’m tired of never going out. Let’s throw a party. New York is always changing, and it will change again. But I do think not being able to smoke in a bar is carrying things too far.
Q: Has the recession affected the way you work?
Ford: I think the world around you should always seep into your work. My last show for YSL was full of color and pattern: color, color, color. And I think that was a reaction to what is going on right now; a desire for happiness and life, for excitement and escape. Fashion is, after all, a form of escapism, and in fact people are buying more special things than ever, right now. They deny and deny themselves, and wait and wait, and then they get sick of it and spend to make themselves feel better.
Q: Can you remember the first extravagant piece of clothing you bought?
Ford: It was a pair of white Gucci loafers. I was 13 years old. I had to have them. I drove my mother crazy until she got them for me.
Q: The Gucci man and woman are quite defined now; would you be comfortable handing the reins over to someone else?
Ford: I have no plans to hand over either collection. I don’t want to get into that at all. I’m not going anywhere. I love what I do.
Q: But you recently sold a lot of shares.
Ford: I did, but I sell some shares every few years, so there was nothing unusual in that.
“Real fashion change comes from real changes in real life. Everything else is just decoration.”
Q: Is the House of Gucci planning on doing any more shopping?
Ford: Not for the moment, no. We’ve got ten amazing brands. That’s enough for now.
Q: What is your relationship with your business partner Domenico De Sole like?
Ford: It’s great. We are similar in that we are both competitive, but very different in terms of our eyes and brains. We had a famous first argument, and we’ve been through a lot together, but Domenico is honest. I would trust him with my life.
Q: What was the argument about?
Ford: It was in a handbag meeting in the factory, in 1994. Domenico interrupted me. I screamed at him and told him he couldn’t ever ever do that to me again. We screamed at each other like crazy. Since then, our roles have been clearly defined, and there haven’t been any more problems.
Q: Is it true you get only three hours of sleep a night?
Ford: Sometimes I sleep even less. I find I can get so much done between midnight and 4 a.m. Everything is quiet, no one is disturbing me, and if I go to bed then, I just lie awake thinking of ideas. They are very creative hours for me. One night a week I crash out, though.
Q: What are you proudest of?
Ford: My personal relationships, and the fact that I’ve been able to maintain them for so long. I’ve had most of my friends since I was 16, 17, 21 years old. And a lot of people have been working for me for twelve, thirteen years. I’m very proud of that.
Q: Do you dance?
Ford: Of course I dance! I went to a party in Milan just the other day where I danced.
Q: Who or what inspires you?
Ford: Life. It sounds corny, but it’s true. People always ask me how I start a collection, and I tell them that I just look around. What am I tired of? What am I in the mood for? Real fashion change comes from real changes in real life. Everything else is just decoration.