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?