It’s not every day one gets to see the penis of a sex god. But Tom Ford, among other ostentatiously masculine habits, doesn’t wear underwear. And on a recent afternoon, while we were talking about the ladies who also do not wear underwear—Spears, Lohan, Hilton—Ford is saying that he doesn’t necessarily think they are gauche. “I don’t know, I’m not sure,” he says in his flirty baritone, accented by a macho Texas twang. “Why shouldn’t women have sex for enjoyment? Why should showing off be a bad thing?” He throws one hand in the air, snarls, and reaches down to grab it. “Men have been very crude for a long time—I mean, you walk down the street and guys scream, ‘Hey, baby!’”
One could be embarrassed by looking at Tom Ford’s package if he didn’t draw so much attention to it himself. In the ten years he helmed Gucci, and the four he designed for Yves Saint Laurent, Ford taught American women to become sexual dominants, supplying them the costume of stovepipe trousers and Halston–meets–Elsa Peretti white jersey dresses, as well as leather spankers and sterling-silver handcuffs. Women were personally bewitched by him, the straightest gay man alive: In the way that gay men dream of getting hot straight guys to play on the other team, women are enticed by Ford because his heavy-duty flirting encourages the fantasy that he could fall for you. “I feel,” he says breathily, “that I am keyed into the female consciousness.”
Today, Ford has moved beyond sex professionally, which has been confusing to him in a way. Three years after leaving Gucci, he’s opened a menswear store on Madison Avenue, providing suits, shirts, shoes, perfume, eyewear, and everything else for “all the guys I know, all my friends, who can’t fucking find anything to wear,” he says. “I mean, ‘Hello!’ Okay?” The brand will go global by 2008. “There’s really nowhere in the world that my name isn’t known,” explains Ford, recently returned from a trip to Asia with Sotheby’s, where he was happy to find that young women in Shanghai still recognized him and snapped pictures with camera phones. With a fortune of at least $250 million from his work at Gucci, and his ex-Gucci CEO Domenico De Sole as partner, Ford owns the new company that bears his name. “It made more sense for me to own it,” he says, shrugging. “If you have the money, why pay someone to give you money?”
At 45, Ford is still the only handsome male fashion designer, with perfect stubble, manicured nails, and not an ounce of fat: “When my clothes are getting tight, that’s not a sign to me that I need to go to another size—it’s a reminder that I have to stop eating, or suffer,” he explains. He has been scrutinized for signs of a toupee, Restylane, and lifted shoes. However, the Tom Ford chest hair remains in fine form, a forest of manliness barely concealed by a polo shirt, usually with merely three or four buttons undone.
“I am my own muse,” he says.
It’s a lot to handle being a muse and a brand, especially in a time that isn’t necessarily responsive to your look. Today’s fashion is recycling the eighties, and Ford has always been about the seventies. Resurrecting ’77 in ’97 made sense, since fashion tends to repeat itself every twenty years, but hausfrau trends and disposable H&M styles have little communion with Ford’s view of the world. Plus, in the last couple of years the sex thing started to seem like too much humbuggery, uncool and oily—like Madonna after her sex book, he started to feel like a parody. There was the clamorous cover of Vanity Fair’s “Hollywood” issue, where he was featured nibbling on the ear of a naked Keira Knightley. “Well, I was illustrating, in that photo,” he says. “I don’t know—it’s always nice to have your picture on the cover of Vanity Fair.” He shifts in his seat. “I guess I’m hyper- self-conscious about people thinking that I’m egotistical, but there’s a difference between being egotistical and knowing your value as a product and an actor. I know my value as a product, and I’ve divorced myself as a human from myself as a product.”
As a human, Ford is nervous about almost everything, sleeping only a few hours a night, budgeting every minute of the day. “I’m a Virgo,” he explains. “Virgos tend to make things look easy because we are perfectionists, so people think Oh, there’s not much there, because I’ve made it look easy, but that’s not the case.” Even by the standards of today’s overdesigned world, where urban centers have been taken over by too many stores selling armless chairs, Ford may be the most overdesigned creature alive—this is the guy who had an orange tractor at his property in New Mexico spray-painted black because he couldn’t stand the color, okay?
The son of middle-class real-estate brokers who lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and then Texas, Ford grew up entranced with his glamorous grandmother and loving clothes himself, putting his new pairs of shoes on the table beside his bed before he went to sleep at night. He came to the city to attend New York University at 17. “One night, I was sitting in my room at Weinstein dormitory, thinking, God, please let someone knock on the door, because I was so lonely,” he says. “Then this nice guy from my art-history class in this cute little blazer came in, and he asked if I wanted to go to a party. Andy Warhol was at the party, and he took us to Studio 54—wow. Even today, I still start shaking when I hear Donna Summer, because it’s the music of my coming of age. Every party I have, if I’m not careful, I end up putting that music on and whirling some girl around the dance floor.”
Ford has a wicked, awesome sense of humor, but he is fanatical about the way he is presented in the press, drowning reporters in preprepared sound bites. He’s a lot like an actor: He mostly communicates his humor through physical comedy—throwing himself against a banquette in a re-creation of traveling on the Concorde, or doing a masterful impression of President Bush, who he believes should be “impeached for war crimes.” He wishes he did not have to speak at all. “Everybody thinks Tom’s some big press whore, but he’s painfully shy, and it’s hard for him to put on his social face,” says his longtime partner, Richard Buckley. Says Ford, “I wish I could’ve been a rock star, because they don’t have to talk—their music talks for them. Plus they get to sleep all day, do lots of drugs, and have sex with anyone they want.”
Though the metatext of the Tom Ford comeback is that he’s no longer just about sex—he’s about posh!—pretty much the only conversational subject Ford warms to is sex. Suddenly, his demeanor changes, and he assumes the sultry tone of voice of a 976 telephone worker. It’s his fashion-superhero sex costume, and he’s really comfortable in it. There are reveries: “I still like looking at naked people, even if I don’t quite look the way I used to without my clothes on,” he says. “It’s part of our nature, wanting sex; you eat tonight and you think you’re full, but then tomorrow you’re hungry again. Now there’s all this cartoon sex because porn is so widespread—the girl going he he he he and the guy going uh uh uh uh—so boring. Imagine a hundred years ago, when you were just drawn to the person—imagine all the weird sex that happened! They didn’t know what to do, they just did what they liked. Think of how perverted it must’ve been…”
As a brand, Ford thinks he’s the biggest rock star ever. In fact, his own book, Tom Ford, proclaims, “He identified an emerging cultural moment, bottled its essence, and created a commercial sensation that will be studied by sociologists and business analysts for years to come.” The reactions to Ford’s departure from Gucci in 2004 were cast in similarly heightened terms: “A catastrophe,” declared Anna Wintour at the time.
“I went to my house in London at 4 p.m. on the afternoon that I left Gucci and got into bed,” says Ford. “I was super-depressed. I had terrible, terrible nightmares. My life at Gucci was like being married, having two kids, and living in a house you’ve built. Then you come home one day, the door’s locked, and your wife is in there fucking someone else.”
At first, he spent a lot of time playing tennis. He bought fancy golf clubs. He opened an office near Beverly Hills, a sweet thirties suite in the old Geffen Records building. He spent three or four months learning to use the Internet—“I had never used a computer until I left Gucci,” he says. “We just had our system: The assistants would put everything on my desk, and I would circle and scratch and write, and dictate and dictate and dictate.” He pursued a career directing film but found that producers were mostly sending him projects for “the guy who put a G in a girl’s pubic hair.” He started to write screenplays, but sometimes his brain would freeze. He thought about designing a car. He thought about designing a plane.
“Then, I went into analysis for six months, with an analyst who didn’t just listen but really told me what to do, and I learned that I have to create!” he says. “I had a real-life ah-ha epiphany. I knew I wanted to go back into fashion, but I also still want to do a film—I don’t even want to get into it, because everybody will laugh at me and I’m sick of it, but I am really serious about making movies and I will get one made. I hesitate to say when I will come back to womenswear, because it’s such a big job and you’re completely married to it, but I will never retire. I will work until the day I die.” He has the dying part figured out as well: At his 15,000-square-foot compound in New Mexico, where it takes half an hour to drive from the gate to house, and there’s nothing for miles around except empty air, he and Buckley have designed two sarcophagi, their resting place for eternity.
He laughs, a hearty, jovial guffaw.
“Now I have my passion back,” he says.
Ford’s new vision for men is very Ken Barbie on the jet for the weekend for razzle-dazzle business and pleasure in Dubai. The store, which comprises one ready-to-wear floor and a mezzanine of made-to-measure suites, is an Egyptian temple of metrosexuality—gleaming vitrines of diamond-and-onyx cuff links, eyeglasses with 18-karat-gold bridges, monogrammed hand-knitted socks, and a perfumery of Estée Lauder–produced scents. Ford has said that they are supposed to smell like the sweat of a man’s balls. A woman wants a man to smell like a man, he thinks. “You know, when I was young, men were very attracted to me, and teenage girls were attracted to me, but women weren’t, and now women are very attracted to me,” he confides. “So I think that I know what kind of men women want.”
Ford has decided that since customers are here visiting his “house,” they should be waited on in the way he has become accustomed to, and has hired a half-dozen young models dressed as French maids and butlers in gray suits and white gloves. They stand against walls trying to blend in. Two of the younger ones, both with sandy-blond hair, chat in the corner: “I’ve got a wedding this weekend,” one says to the other, smoothing his vest. “Do you think I could wear this?”
With his best Vanna White moves, Ford leads a group of European fashion editors on a tour, gesturing at stacks of shirts, which come in 350 colors, 35 fabrics, ten collars, and two cuffs. He draws his hand over a display of ties, barely skimming them with his pinkie. “A lot of our competitors only do a few ties per season,” says Ford. “We do every type of color, every kind of fabric, every shade of pink and purple, with pocket squares, bow ties, evening scarves, silk scarves, top hats—well, we may not sell so many top hats, but I want the customer to understand that we have that if he needs it.” He spins down the hall. “For evening, we have double-breasted, single-breasted, peak lapel, notch lapel, shawl collar, white dinner jackets, dinner vests, and dressing gowns, which is one fantastic way that a man can be flamboyant. They retail at $3,900, which I think, actually, for all the work that went into it in today’s world, is not crazy.”
Ford’s Scottish butler, who lives with him at his London townhouse and Neutra home in Los Angeles, circles warily with a tumbler of cola.
“Thank you, Angus,” says Ford, eyes fluttering. “I was about to die.”
He moves on to the shoe department; red velvet slippers, and moccasins, loafers, ankle boots, and golf shoes all handmade with Italian leather.
“The shoes, they are like Berluti,” declares a Frenchwoman, handling a pair.
“Well,” says Ford, drawing himself up, “I like to think they’re like Tom Ford.”
The store is partially a replica of Ford’s house in London, with perforated suede walls and beaver-fur carpet, Makassar ebony cases, and dressing-room fixtures from the foundry used by Diego Giacometti. He’s even moved in some of his artwork, like twenties French urns, a Jean Arp sculpture, and a commissioned Claude Lalanne bronze desk.
In the entry foyer, a stainless-steel Lucio Fontana sculpture with a slash down the middle hangs on a gray wall. “Did you see there?” Ford whispers to me. “I thought the men’s store had to be designed around a vagina.”
A spring Sunday on the Upper East Side: schoolgirls with beach towels sauntering down Madison after sunning in Strawberry Fields, pearl-wearing biddies grasping MetroCards at bus stops, sleek men parking mint-colored Vespas at sidewalk planters of saffron crocuses. Everything is clean and orderly. The Carlyle Hotel is quiet, filled with couples from Houston in wide-brimmed hats tucking into booths for an early supper. In a blue velvet suit with a white shirt unbuttoned to a navel-baring level, Ford dashes into the bar from the airport, recently arrived from Los Angeles—the sexiest man in the room. “I looove the Upper East Side,” he says. “It’s so perfect here.”
Ford always stays in the same room at the Carlyle he’s kept for fifteen years, along with Buckley and their two fox terriers. They take good care of him, and that is Ford’s favorite thing, to be coddled. In fact, when he was late for this meeting, no fewer than four waiters and managers approached the table to excuse his absence (“If you need anything, we are here for you,” they declare, backing away). Upon arrival, he basically lies on the banquette—Ford doesn’t sit so much as slither, shimmying his butt down low on his seat, propping himself up with his forearms, and looking out from under long eyelashes with a postcoital stare.
Honestly, he’s a little hurt by some reviews of his new store, and the talk that’s been going on about him among the fashion clique, and I’ve been summoned here for an unexpected meeting. The New York Times sent an undercover reporter who wrote that, among other offenses, Ford’s scowling doorman made him feel like Oprah at Hermès. “It was a nasty article, and I was upset, of course,” says Ford. “Though, honestly, with something like a secret shopper, how do I even know for sure the man came into the store? But I will do better.” He sighs. “Maybe people who have known me as innovating in terms of silhouette or fashion are irritated in a way that I’ve chosen to play a different game, and not their game. We are running a business that’s not for everyone, and I’m not trying to be an asshole, but some people can’t afford it and maybe there is a sort of resentment about that.”
In a way, Ford has disappeared into fashion. Here he is on a jacket’s functioning buttonholes: “The more you learn and are exposed, the more you want them,” he says. “Functioning buttonholes start to stand for something more than buttonholes that don’t.” Just as starched shirts and perfect cuff links have become too fetishized in his mind, the muse and the brand have become a bright shiny object as well. Today, that object may be too ripe, yet the sex salesman still needs to hike up his skirt. It can be exhausting for someone who may not be at his core a sex superhero, but merely a charming man. “I don’t care about being the cool kid anymore—I’m so over that,” he says. “I’m getting too old to care about sex anyway.”
He downs a vodka-and-tonic. “Sometimes,” he says, “I feel that I’ve controlled my image too much, and no one knows who I really am.”