Tom Ford answers my phone call in precisely the way I’d hoped he would: with a voice as smooth as butter and the grace of Cary Grant.
We are in touch to discuss his latest project, a coffee-table book charting the past 15 years of his career – or “post-Gucci”, as those familiar with luxury fashion prefer to describe the era that has followed Ford’s departure from the Italian super brand.
Tom Ford 002, which spans 444 pages, includes imagery by photographers such as Mert and Marcus and Inez & Vinoodh and a foreword by Anna Wintour. The list of celebrities featured reads like the lineup of one of Ford’s fashion show front rows with Drake, Rihanna, and Jennifer Lopez among the headliners.
But first, the gentleman prefers small talk. “You’re in London? How wonderful. I miss it,” he says of the city he used to call home.
Texan-born Ford speaks to me from Beverly Hills, where he has lived since decamping from the UK in 2019. It is lunchtime where he is, and the sun is shining. “I do a lot of Zooms, but it’s good to talk like this. It means I didn’t have to get up and take a shower beforehand,” he says. It’s reassuring to discover that the man credited with reinventing sex appeal is enjoying a duvet day of sorts.
Laid back is not a phrase commonly associated with Ford. As a designer, he remains fiercely loyal to the breed of high-octane glamour he used to transform Gucci into a billion-dollar business. His brand, which spans womenswear, menswear and cosmetics, is a status symbol for the super-rich. Its scintillating ad campaigns, instantly recognisable as Ford’s, are an extension of his aesthetic.
A self-confessed “hyper Virgo”, Ford has an unforgiving eye for everything from floral displays (single-stem bunches only) to the length of a shirt cuff. He is also fashion’s starriest designer. Catwalk shows for the eponymous label he launched in 2004 attract a guest list to rival the Oscars. Julianne Moore and Rihanna are regulars. In 2013, Jay-Z named a song in his honour.
Ford is at ease among Hollywood’s top tier because he is in it. After parting ways with the Gucci group, he switched from fashion to film set. Ford’s movies – A Single Man (2009) and Nocturnal Animals (2019) – were nominated for Academy Awards. Both are beautiful to watch.
At home, where he lives with his nine-year-old son Jack, Ford’s life has been upended. Richard Buckley, his partner of 35 years and Jack’s other parent, died in August. It seems poignant that Ford’s new book, the result of much reflection, should appear on shelves when he is processing such loss. “When Richard saw the book, he said: ‘That’s a lot of water under the bridge’ and turned and left the room,” Ford says.
A photograph of Jack is among Ford’s favourite additions to the book. “It is the only shot I have ever released of him publicly. He was five when it was taken, so no one would recognise him from it,” he says.
A candid Q&A with Women’s Wear Daily’s Bridget Foley is also featured. In it, Ford discusses everything from exiting Gucci to being part of the only gay couple at the golf club and describes his son as his “number one focus”.
The designer also highlights the potency of good taste in the Buckley Ford family’s genes. “One time when he was five, somebody at school asked what was the worst thing you could think of. Jack said: “Brown shoes with a black belt.”
Work on the book meant that Ford spent lockdown sifting through thousands of images. “It was an interesting thing to spend so much time looking back,” he tells me, “it is not something I do often.”
His reluctance to take stock is a hangover from his days at Gucci, when there was no time to pause for reflection, a period that led to burnout, and he had what he has called a “mid-life crisis”. “It’s hard to look back when you’re constantly expected to produce,” he says. “I remember having dinner with Karl Lagerfeld and him telling me that I’d only understand how well things were going in the future once I had the chance to go back.”
Undoubtedly, this time of contemplation has enabled Ford to recognise how much things have evolved. He cites an “obsession with political correctness” as a drawback for this generation of fashion designers. “Cancel culture inhibits design because rather than feeling free, the tendency is to start locked into a set of rules. Everything is now considered appropriation. We used to be able to celebrate other cultures. Now you can’t do that.”
Ford, the elected chair of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and perhaps, the world’s chicest environmentalist, welcomes the call for the luxury world to lessen its impact on the planet. He started by doing his bit at home. “I switched to aluminium straws, got rid of single-use plastic,” he says. In 2017, Ford announced he was a vegan. “I really don’t need to meat,” he says, and credits the Netflix documentary What the Health for inspiring the change in diet.
He is applying the same mindset to his business – Ford’s label turns over $2bn (£1.48bn) a year, while Tom Ford Beauty turns over $1bn – paying attention to details such as packaging and workers’ rights. “People are well looked after,” he says.
In Ford’s mind, true luxury fashion is sustainable by its nature. He tells me that he recently paid $90,000 for a dress he designed during his tenure at Yves Saint Laurent to add to his archive. “The clothes we make are not meant to be thrown away,” he says.
Ford seems to be fascinated and repulsed by the digitalisation of fashion.
“The future of fashion is increasingly cartoonish,” he says. “Instagram has broken down the rules. People dress up to take pictures of themselves to post online, everything is exaggerated – especially the eyebrows.”
He recently watched Fake Famous, the HBO documentary about influencers, and found the revelation that Instagram users were using toilet seats to give the illusion of being on a plane “completely hysterical”.
Can we expect to see an airport selfie of him soon? “Never!” he says. “I’m very private.”
You can count on Ford to keep it classy.