With his endless supply of creativity, American fashion designer Tom Ford (born 1961) transformed the Gucci label from a nearly bankrupt maker of leather goods into a flourishing fashion powerhouse. Ford took over as Gucci's creative director in 1994 and for the next decade, churned out high–voltage collections of sexy, yet sophisticated, clothes that were snatched up by women around the globe. "He makes women feel confident and sexy," actress Mischa Barton told People magazine's Jennifer Wulff in summing up the Ford phenomenon.
Inspired by Grandmother's Over – the – Top Persona
Ford was born August 27, 1961, in Austin, Texas. Growing up, Ford spent a lot of time at his grandparents' dusty ranch in Brownwood, Texas. From the beginning, his parents, both real estate agents, gave him free reign to explore his interests. "If I wanted art lessons, they found paint and a teacher," Ford told Texas Monthly's Anne Dingus. "I was always very visual, always interested in design. I don't mean that I sat around at age five sketching clothes. But if my parents went out to dinner and left me alone, I would rearrange all the living room furniture before they came back home." He recruited his little sister to help him.
During Ford's teenage years, the family relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where his grandmother lived. The move was good for Ford, who felt more at ease in fun–loving Santa Fe than in the Texas ranchlands. "Growing up in Texas was really oppressive for me," Ford told Sara Gay Forden, author of The House of Gucci. "If you're not white and Protestant and do certain things, it can be pretty rough, especially if you're a boy and don't want to play football and chew tobacco and get drunk all the time."
During his years in Santa Fe, Ford found an ally in his paternal grandmother named Ruth. The two were virtually inseparable. Grandma Ruth was a lively, larger–than–life lady. She wore big hats, big hair, fake eyelashes and huge papier–mâché earrings. "She was the kind of person who used to say, 'Ooooh, you like that honey? Well, go ahead and get ten of them,' " Ford told House of Gucci author Forden. "She was all about excess and openness and her life was much more glamorous than my parents' life—she just wanted to have fun!"
One of the most valuable lessons Ford learned during childhood was the importance of expressing yourself. It was a mandate his grandmother lived out daily. Speaking to Texas Monthly's Dingus, Ford was the first to admit that his grandmother's sense of style left an indelible mark on him. "The images of beauty you get in your childhood stick with you for life, and so there's a certain flashiness at Gucci," Ford said after he had made it big.
Ford attended an elite Santa Fe prep school and developed a taste for Gucci loafers, blue blazers and white button–down shirts. As a teen, Ford was intrigued by fashion designer Calvin Klein. Ford bought Calvin Klein sheets for his bed and pored over magazines that featured the stylish young designer, one of the first in the fashion industry to achieve movie–star status.
Starred in Commercials
After high school, Ford made a beeline for New York City and enrolled at New York University (NYU). One night, he went to a party and pop artist Andy Warhol showed up. Ford followed Warhol and the other partygoers to New York's famed Studio 54 nightclub. Ford began frequenting the nightclub and skipping classes to catch up on his sleep. He dropped out of NYU in 1980, after just one year.
Next, Ford moved to Los Angeles, California, where his boyish good looks and piercing dark eyes landed him plenty of work in commercials. At one time, Ford had 12 commercials on the air simultaneously. Ford was content in this line of work until one day, during the middle of filming a commercial, he found his mind wandering. Ford began to scrutinize everything about the shoot, thinking he could direct it better. He looked over the set—was there a better way to arrange it? At that moment, Ford realized he did not want to spend his life taking directions from others; he wanted to be the one in charge.
After this epiphany, Ford went back to New York City to study architecture at Parsons School of Design. Partway through his studies, Ford transferred to the school's Paris campus and landed an internship at the French fashion house Chloè. Ford found the fashion world energizing and decided architecture was not for him. It was too late, however, to switch majors without starting over, so Ford reluctantly completed his architecture degree, graduating in 1986. Undaunted by his lack of a proper degree, Ford sketched himself a fashion portfolio and sought work. During his job search, Ford was low–key about which department he had graduated from.
Entered Fashion World
Ford had a tough time breaking into the fashion field. No one would hire him. Speaking to House of Gucci author Forden, Ford summed up his determination this way: "When I want something I'm going to get it. I had decided I was going to be a fashion designer and one of those people was going to hire me!"
Ford pestered designers daily until finally, New York–based contemporary sportswear designer Cathy Hardwick agreed to meet with him. Ford's portfolio more than impressed her. According to the Dallas Morning News' Tammy Theis, Hardwick was stunned. "What I saw was heaven. He had such a fantastic presence, a beautiful face and elegant hands. I hired him 10 minutes later!"
Ford helped Hardwick design her women's ready–to–wear collection. During a photo shoot one day, Ford crossed paths with fashion editor Richard Buckley. By November 1986, the two men were dating and on New Year's Eve, they moved in together. While Ford has never hidden his sexuality, he has never dwelled on it either and prefers not to be labeled. When asked about his sexuality, Ford told the Advocate's Brendan Lemon, "I'm certainly gay at this particular moment in my life." At the time Ford made the remark, he had been living with Buckley for more than a decade.
In 1988, Ford joined Perry Ellis. A year later, Buckley was diagnosed with cancer and given a 35 percent chance of survival. After a series of treatments and surgeries, Buckley pulled through and the two decided to move to Europe for a change of pace. Buckley used his fashion connections to get Ford interviews with designers Donatella Versace and Carla Fendi. Ford also met with a representative from Giorgio Armani, but no one would hire him. Finally, Gucci creative director Dawn Mello agreed to give Ford a trial project. Mello quickly spotted Ford's potential and offered him a permanent job with Gucci in Milan. Buckley found work as the European editor of Mirabella.
Revived the Gucci Name
Ford joined Gucci in 1990, about the same time the company was trying to break into the mainstream apparel market. At the time, Gucci was best–known for its horse–bit loafers and leather handbags with the double–G Gucci logo, both of which had lost their popularity. When Ford came on board, the company itself was a wreck and nearly bankrupt due to family power struggles and scandals. Soon, he was design director. He replaced Gucci's stiff loafers with supple suede moccasins. The out–of–date wallets were replaced with bamboo–handled satin bags. Ford retooled Gucci's products, making them sleeker and sexier. The transformation had begun.
By 1994, Ford was creative director. His 1995 collection was a smashing success. Ford hit his stride with a 1970s–inspired collection of low–cut velvet hip–huggers, feather–and–bead adorned denim jeans and form–revealing satin shirts in siren red and hot pink. According to Forden's book, one Harper's Bazaar writer critiqued the runway collection by saying, "The effortless sexuality of it all had a chill factor that just froze the audience to their seats."
Soon, Hollywood's biggest stars were sporting the Gucci look. At the 1995 MTV Music Video Awards, Madonna walked onstage wearing a Ford silk blouse and low–rider pants. Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and Julianne Moore followed suit. Ford's fashions had rejuvenated the Gucci name. In the first six months of 1995, sales jumped 87.1 percent compared to sales during the first half of 1994. Sales topped $500 million by year's end and Ford imitations showed up at malls all across the United States.
For the next decade, Ford set just about every new fashion trend and succeeded in resuscitating the Gucci name. He brought back low–slung waists in 1996 and patent leather in 1997. Ford also acquainted the world with killer heels, slinky jersey dresses and form–fitting shirts. At one point, Ford was single–handedly designing 11 of the company's product lines, including men's and women's sportswear, evening clothes, home furnishings, footwear, bags and accessories, luggage and gifts. Ford slept only a few hours each night, keeping a notepad at his bedside so he could jot down ideas if he was inspired during his sleep. The demands were grueling, but Ford loved the control. Besides working on the design end, Ford also took an interest in the company's ad campaigns and store displays. He even insisted on approving the color of the cellophane wrapped around the fragrance boxes.
Ford also picked his own models because he was interested in the image Gucci portrayed. Jon Tutolo, of Trump Model Management, told the Dallas Morning News' writer Theis that Ford used more ethnic models than anyone else—and they all loved to work with him. "He really has a worldly vision of beauty and what's exotic and what's sexy. It's funny, the girls, even though they know he's gay, they love to flirt with him. They think he's very sexy."
Though Ford's fashions were a high–flying success, the beauty of his genius is that he never really invented anything new. Ford simply had a knack for taking an idea of the past and re–creating it with a modern twist in such a way that it stirred up a connection with consumers. Mostly, Ford relied on films for inspiration. If a film captured his attention, he would watch it over and over again, trying to figure out the mood so he could capture it in a design. According to Forden's book, Ford would watch the film, asking himself questions like, Who is the girl wearing this outfit? What does she do? Where is she going?
Ford also traveled extensively, hoping to spot the next new trend. He sent his staff to flea markets around the world. Speaking to Theis, of the Dallas Morning News, Ford summed up his approach this way: "All you can do is saturate yourself in modern culture so that you get bored before everybody else. And hope that you can sense what they'll want to buy next, before they know they're bored with what they have now."
In 1999, Gucci purchased Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche (YSL) and in 2000, Ford became creative director at YSL, too. In 2001, Ford made a splash with a new YSL purple peasant blouse. After this blouse came out, Ford realized how desperate people were for his designs. Speaking to New York Times Magazine writer Lynn Hirschberg, Ford described his astonishment this way: "On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in New York and the YSL store was supposed to open. On the day the planes went into the twin towers, we received 42 calls from customers looking for the purple peasant blouse. The World Trade Center is going down, and women are calling a store for a blouse. The power of fashion can be a scary thing."
Left Fashion World Behind
In the fall of 2003, after a series of failed contract negotiations with Gucci's parent company, it was announced that Ford would leave the company the next spring. On December 4, sales at Gucci's U.S. stores hit an all–time high of nearly $4 million in one day as consumers rushed to snatch up Ford's last Gucci fashions.
Ford left Gucci at the end of April 2004 and said he was interested in directing films. He read many scripts but did not like any of them, so he decided to write his own. Ford told People that the script he is writing is more about romance than fashion or sex, which is what most people expect of him. "I've been with the same person for 18 years," he said, referring to Buckley. "To me, human relationships and hoping to connect with someone you love is the thing in life that keeps everybody going."
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Born: Austin, Texas, 27 August 1961. Education: Studied at New York University, Parsons School of Design both in New York and Paris. Career: Started working on the creative staff of Cathy Hardwick, 1986; joined Chloé for a brief period, then Perry Ellis as a design director, 1988; went to Gucci, 1990; named creative director, 1994; resigned with Gucci for five years, 1998; Gucci buys Yves Saint Laurent, 1999; named creative director, Yves Saint Laurent Couture and Yves St. Laurent perfumes, 2000; wowed critics with second YSL collection, 2001. Awards: VH-1 Fashion and Music Awards, Future Best New Designer, 1995; Council of Fashion Designers of America, International Designer of the Year, 1996; International Designer of the Year, Fashion Editors Club Japan, 1996; VH-1 Fashion and Music Awards, Menswear and Womenswear Designer of the Year, 1996; People magazine, among Most Beautiful People, 1997; VH-1 Fashion and Music Awards Womenswear Designer of the Year, 1999; VH-1 Fashion and Music Awards Elle Style Icon award, 1999; Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), Designer of the Year award, 2000; nominated, CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year, 2001; Commitment to Life award, AIDS Project Los Angeles. Address: Gucci Group N.V., Rembrandt Tower, 1 Amstelplein, 1096 HA Amsterdam, Netherlands.
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Tom Ford has earned a reputation for his strong, sexy designs. "Sex is something I think about all the time," he commented to Los Angeles Magazine. "Is that sexy? Is she sexy? Sex is not a new thing but everything comes down to interaction with other people." Since 1995, his clothes and accessories have been on the pretentious fashion wave; his sensuous styles are in demand around the world.
As an American designer who works and designs for the Gucci empire in Europe, Ford visualizes the moment of fashion over and over again. Each time he is more successful than the last. He sleeps for only four or five hours a night and turns out two collections per season, Gucci and YSL. Very few people can keep up with his frantic pace and maintain a fashion following, yet Ford won't be nailed down to one look or one couture house. He has the vision to change just as moment changes and is one of the few designers who understands the ambiguous mind of the consumer. With each passing collection, Ford seems to grow and understand not only the fashion industry but the fashion consumer who embraces his fashions.
Ford moved to New York when he was a teenager. He started his postsecondary education at New York University studying art history, later he studied architecture at Parsons School of Design in New York and then completed his studies at the Parsons School of Design in Paris. He began his career as part of the creative staff with designer Cathy Hardwick in 1986. Two years later, he moved to Perry Ellis, then in 1990 joined the Gucci Group N.V. as a womenswear designer in Milan. Gucci originally wanted to fire him because he was too trendy; two years passed and Ford was promoted to design director. His foresight into fashion trends helped him become the creative director of Gucci in 1994.
Ford became responsible for the design of all Gucci product lines, from clothing to fragrance, advertising campaigns, store design, and the Group's corporate image. At the time Gucci was a struggling brand as a result of family disputes, yet Ford built Gucci into a megabrand producing and distributing high-quality goods throughout the world in company-owned stores, franchises, boutiques, department stores, and specialty stores. In the early 2000s, there were approximately 180 Gucci stores worldwide.
Gucci acquired Yves Saint Laurent and Sergio Rossi at the beginning of 2000. As if being design director wasn't enough, Ford took on the role of creative director of Yves Saint Laurent Couture. He works with the overall image of YSL, helping to position the brand in the marketplace. As a designer, he has set a certain standard for modern style and is beloved by the press, who dubbed him the "King of Cool." In his 1999 collection, Ford used Las Vegas and Cher as sources of inspiration for his clothes. In a 1999 article in Los Angeles magazine, Ford was quoted as saying, "I like to make [my designs] a little tacky. Push them so they're a little too much. When things are too perfect, they're kind of dull."
Ford has been viewed by some in the fashion industry as too commercial. His reply is "Commercial is a compliment. It means people will buy it." He was further quoted in a July 2001 Time magazine profile as saying, "I'm always perplexed by people wanting to divide this into business and fashion. My job is to create something amazing that sells; I don't think you can divorce the two." Ford is a designer with vision of what people want and what they will buy. He is truly one of the most exciting and successful designers of the last decade, dressing such famous people as Sting, Tom Hanks, and Jennifer Lopez. He designs for urban men and women, and in his Gucci runway show for fall 2001, he was one of the few designers who sent models out wearing clothes most clients would actually wear—like cargo pants and olive-colored suits. As he told Time, for him, "Fashion doesn't stop at clothes; fashion is everything—art, music, furniture design, graphic design, hair, makeup, architecture, the way cars look—all those things go together to make a moment in time, and that's what excites me."
creativity and innovation shared equal value with marketing and promotion in the positioning of the brands.
Born in 1962 and raised in San Marcos, Texas, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, Ford first began his career as a model for television advertisements before studying interior design at Parsons School of Design in New York City. In his final year of school, he changed his focus to fashion design. As a freelance designer on Seventh Avenue, he first worked for Cathy Hardwick and then in 1988 in the jeans department of Perry Ellis, under the short-lived direction of Marc Jacobs.
In 1990, the company's worst year financially, Ford was appointed womenswear designer at Gucci. Because of loss of strategic and creative direction and in-house family feuding, the company was losing 340 billion lire annually. In 1992 Ford was appointed design director, and in 1994, creative director; by the first six months of 1995, the company's revenues had increased by 87 percent. This financial turnaround was largely achieved by a consolidation of the company's product range, editing out weak licenses for vulgarly branded goods and redesigning core items, typified by the reappearance of the classic Gucci loafer in rainbow hues (1991) and the success of the Gucci platform snaffle clog (1992).
The international recognition of Gucci as a producer of prêt-à-porter collections was crystallized by the autumn/winter season of 1995–1996. From the prevailing aesthetic of pared-down minimalism and understated luxury, Ford presented a sleek, retro-inspired collection evoking a somewhat louche sexuality. The look was defined by velvet hipster trousers with a kick at the heel and a narrowly cut silk shirt, accessorized with a large, unstructured shoulder bag and matching platform court shoes in patent leather with a metallic shine normally associated with car chassis.
The collection was pivotal, as it established a trend for the consumption of seasonal fashion defined not so much by a total look as by how the look could be attained through buying the "must-have" accessory. As Ford later suggested, "You have to get the product right, it's the most important aspect." Much of this success was achieved through the advertising campaigns the company produced with fashion photographer Mario Testino, where the glamorous proposition of the dressed models was matched on the opposite side of the spread by an isolated close-up of the accessory. The close relation between the image of Gucci and its advertising campaigns eventually produced a lapse in confidence, when for the spring/summer collections in 2003 the company ran an image of a model who had her pubic hair shaved into the Gucci "G." The image was widely criticized for being too blatantly sexual and in dubious taste. Meanwhile, the Gucci Group had acquired the Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) brand after the legendary designer retired from the couture. From an uncelebrated opening collection (largely due to the French press berating an American ready-to-wear designer for having the audacity to step into the most hallowed of shoes), the brand developed consistently and confidently, particularly from Ford's gaining access to the YSL archive.
Through his close relation to Domenico de Sole, CEO of the Gucci Group, Tom Ford was central to the increasing dominance of the company in the designer fashion and luxury goods market, as Gucci acquired stakes in Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Bottega Veneta, and Sergio Rossi. The unexpected 2003 announcement of Ford's departure from the Gucci group, effective in April 2004, shook the fashion world, and speculation immediately began about his successor as well as about his own future plans.
Ford, Tom, for Gucci. Light. Visionaire 24. New York: Visionaire Publishing, 1998. Unique, multiformat album of fashion and fine art published three times yearly in numbered, limited editions. Artists are given freedom to develop a theme. In issue 24 Visionaire and Tom Ford created the first such publication that is battery-operated. Only 3,300 copies were made.
Forden, Sara Gay. The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed. New York: Perennial, 2001.