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Feb / Mar 2010
Cool Hand Tom

WRITER: Govind Dhar

Tom Ford, far and away the most exciting man in fashion, is the latest, greatest icon to stalk the catwalks of the world; undeniably suave, intelligent and adventurous, Ford has taken the world by storm. Here, he talks to Bespoke.


If the Zeitgeist manifested itself and required a suit, it would probably appear at one of Tom Ford’s stores and get fitted for a made-to-measure velvet tuxedo. With the superstar designer’s first Middle East outlet opening in Dubai, the region’s fashionable offspring are already looking forward to the additional venues planned for Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi and Lebanon. “This is a really important market for us,” says Ford, the polite Texan Adonis. “We do a lot of business with customers from this region. There’s a real understanding of quality here. People simply want the best things.” But let’s back up slightly. I am not one who can acquire a piece of Tom Ford-shaped distinction without receiving a Jimmy Choo-sized reprisal – I am after all a hubby with a spare tire and a highstreet wardrobe. What on Earth would I wear to the interview? After behaving like a disturbed teenage girl before prom night, I finally settled on a smart jacket and jeans with some trusty loafers. And now I find myself awaiting an audience with Tom Ford himself at The Address Hotel in Dubai.

A door opens. Bright light bursts forth and I am standing in the silhouette of Fashion’s saviour, the exclusive outfitter of the aforementioned Zeitgeist. With the shoulders of a matador and the waist of a dancer, Tom greets me with a strong handshake and ushers me into his suite overlooking Dubai’s hazy skyscrapers. “You know, growing up in Texas wasn’t entirely dissimilar to this,” he says pointing behind him. “We had an ice skating rink in the middle of every mall. Our parents would drop us off to go shopping, so I’m a really good ice skater.” So far so good. Mr Ford hadn’t given me the disapproving top-to-toe scan. I was in. The man’s attention to detail is legendary. “I remember getting a new pair of shoes when I was eight or nine,” he says. “And I remember looking at the toe.” He makes an admonitory tutting sound while looking at his black patent leather shoes - and scowls.  “And I just hated the way it bulged on one side.  It drove me crazy. It was probably just a few millimetres off, but I remember just hating that. I didn’t really want to wear those shoes any more.”

I froze. Has Ford secretly noticed my shoes? Is he being oblique with his disapproval? Would he be startled if I prised open a window and flung my unworthy footwear to the pavement below? Perhaps he’d think I was another Muntadhar al-Zeidi! The story goes that Tom Ford started his own clothing line because other suits just didn’t excite him. “Does Tom Ford only wear Tom Ford suits?” I ask, speaking about the designer in the third person for about the third time in the interview. “Absolutely. That’s why I started this company. Initially, I had my suits made on Savile Row and even that was painful. If there is something that I don’t make that I want to wear, then I make it.”

Being self-conscious in front of Tom Ford is understandable. The man is his own brand ambassador, muse and model. Admittedly, it helps being a superb specimen of the male form. Would the brand be as successful if he wasn’t so good looking? “Probably not,” he says chuckling. “I mean I don’t think of myself as that good looking. When I was an actor and a model, I had to learn to see myself as a product. As a marketing tool, yeah the fact that I can be a model for my brand - I’m sure it’s got a lot of value. But I really watch my weight. I’m obsessive about it. Staying thin is the key to youth.”

Looks aside, Tom Ford is a tour de force in the fashion industry and is loved almost unconditionally by just about anyone with an opinion on the subject. He famously resurrected the Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent houses into billion dollar industries when their stars had begun to fade. His reputation and canny ability to meld risqué advertising and high fashion into one delectable must-have package was becoming a signature style for the Parsons School of Design graduate. When Ford left Gucci in 2004, the fashion world momentarily stood still. Several journalists, notably Ian Frazier of The New Yorker reacted with dramatic and funerary fervour. Ford himself notes the advent as the start of a sort of mid-life crisis. “It was hard, very hard,” he says. “When I left Gucci, all of a sudden I had no identity. I was faced with the emptiness of having devoted a good part of my life to materialism. I had everything you could possibly want, but I wasn’t happy. But I never really stopped working…”

And the rest is fashion history. In 2004, when Ford launched his eponymous label, we saw a stellar return to form for the designer. His signature retro-styling and monochromatic ensembles bore the genius he demonstrated at Gucci, yet were reintroduced with his own steroidal boost of sartorial finesse. His Savile Row discipline and irrevocably roguish sex appeal caused the world to sit up and take notice yet again.  Essentially, Ford has brought his famed flair to bear on luxury clothing that remains classic, timeless and yet so modish in the 21st century. “You have to stay a true luxury brand,” says Ford about his ethos. “What we did at Gucci was to democratise luxury. My own company is a bit of a reaction to that. It’s about bringing back the human touch to service - real quality for a real luxury brand.” If this is the definition of the Tom Ford mid-life crisis, I think everyone will want one just like it.

With accessories, luggage, eyewear and even fragrances, Tom Ford’s repertoire is expansive, with each range demonstrating the brand’s trademark for plush refinement. In stark contrast to a famous namesake that offered any colour car as long as it was black, Tom Ford offers shirts and ties in 340 colours - just in case, of course. Hemmed in by Alexander McQueen, Valentino and Oscar de la Renta, Tom Ford’s new store at Dubai Mall stands conspicuously apart. It’s all deep shag carpets and dark wood panelling with a fireplace nestled in clean lines of sophisticated living room elegance. “We’ll have a 100 in the next seven or eight years,” says Tom of his imminent empire. “You have to have that many stores if you want to be a truly global brand. And that’s not even a lot. Gucci had about 280 when I left.”

And what about his unrelenting creative streak? His Tokyo and Dubai store openings come hot on the heels of the promotion of Ford’s first film, A Single Man. “I don’t know what rest is. Last night on the plane I worked on a screenplay for six hours and it was fun. Movies and fashion for me will hopefully stay as parallel careers for the rest of my life. If I can create even five movies that I’m proud of between now and the time I die, I will be very satisfied.” Wowing festival audiences worldwide, Ford’s adaptation of John Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name has already garnered a couple of awards. “I think a lot of people will be surprised by this film. I’m actually very romantic and very shy.”

Imagining Tom Ford as demure is difficult. The designer’s trailblazing life story is embellished with enough spectacle, sex and drama to make for a larger-than-life biopic already. With designs for a mausoleum and sarcophagi designed by Tadao Ando for him and his partner, the subject of Ford’s passing has featured in many of his interviews. After meeting him and witnessing firsthand the cheekiness behind the controlled brand icon, I wouldn’t put it past Tom to simply vanish, leaving behind him a Peter Pan legend.  “You know, I would love to actually just disappear. Like if we were just chatting and...” (he flutters his fingers and makes a buzzing sound like a bulb surging with power and then flickering out.)  “...I just, faded away.  That would be the best.”

But before Mr. Ford can exit the world in a Zen-like whisper, our time is up and he ushers me to the door. With enough time to have gleaned various diet, exercise and style tips, all for myself of course, I exit the audience with a renewed sense of purpose for my impending personal reformation. The one Fordism I can share with you is this: “How happy you feel when you undress and look in the mirror will always outweigh how good a piece of cheesecake makes you feel.” And with that little nugget and a sense of regret for my doomed spare tire, I vow to follow the makeover mantra of Tom Ford. After that, here I come velvet tuxedo.

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