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Fashion History Lesson: Tom Ford

by Hollie Moat

Tom Ford on the cover of Another Man magazine in 2011

‘Communication is a big part of design – your designs should say something, certainly – and then sometimes you need to speak up yourself’ Tom Ford certainly puts his money where his mouth is. Throughout the course of the American’s three decade career his designs have spoken volumes – some controversial, some universally adored, and the way he has spoken up for himself during his tenure at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent has ensured that his status as celebrity designer endured even a prolonged hiatus from the art.

Ford’s presentations have always featured the modelling A-list, the most famous and the most beautiful in the industry, yet he has always been the star of the show. He was born in Texas, exactly fifty one years ago, and after an underwhelming spell trying to make it as an actor in New York he enrolled in the city’s famous Parsons School of Design, studying interior architecture. He scored his first job in the fashion industry with designer Cathy Hardwicke after she asked him at his interview who his favourite European designers were and he noticed she was wearing Armani, so answered the Italian and Chanel.

Tom Ford's collection for Gucci S/S 2000

Ford was always upfront about the fact he didn’t want to work in America, preferring European style, and at that time, the once famous Gucci brand was lying in the sartorial doldrums. In 1990 the label took a risk and hired the young Ford as their womenswear designer, but by their creative director’s own admission ‘no-one would dream of wearing Gucci’.
So began one of fashion’s most enchanting fairy tales. Within a few years Ford totally revitalised the brand, borrowing inspiration from his days spent hanging out at legendary nightclub Studio 54, and served up high-octane collections of clingy satin shirts, velvet hipsters and slinky dresses that exuded glamour and sex. Within three years he was designing 11 of Gucci’s product lines, including ready-to-wear, menswear and fragrance.

One of the most famous Gucci campaigns under Ford's control of the label

Ford then brought in exciting creatives like Mario Testino and Carine Roitfeld to work on the branding, resulting in campaigns like the infamous Gucci ‘G’ in the pubic hair shot. By 1995, sales for the company had shot up 90%.
When the flourishing Gucci acquired Yves Saint Laurent, they drafted Ford in to oversee that brand too, and he repeated the success (who doesn’t remember that famous Sophie Dahl Opium advert) but ended up designing sixteen collections a year and working twenty hour days. Having always clashed somewhat with the company chairman Maurizio Gucci, Ford left in 2004, amid creative disputes.

Tom Ford

By then one of the industry’s most influential figures (in the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada it’s explained that the titular magazine editor has only ever smiled at one collection – one of Tom Ford’s for Gucci), the American took a step back from fashion, and paused only from his self-imposed absence to dabble in lipsticks and sunglasses.

Tom Ford A/W 12

Once everyone had had real time to miss him, he staged his comeback, an eponymous collection for S/S 11 that showed in New York, with the provocative Terry Richardson the only authorised photographer and Lauren Hutton and Beyonce amongst the models in a disco-tinged show.

But Ford has been careful not to rely on past glories, with his latest collection, for A/W 12, focusing on his strengths – his flair for colour and ability to give the most basic of pieces an erotic edge, but transforming them into something new, something sharper and more modern – metal corset belts, flannel suits and a touch of the super-hero (a la Gwynth Paltrow at the Oscar, her Ford caped dress was an undeniable hit).

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in A Single Man

And so he has remained the go to man for the A List elite, it’s just that over the past few years, Ford has been establishing himself as one of them himself (appearing on the cover of glossy fashion bible Another Man is some indication of his status). What has cemented his status as not just another fashion designer, however, is his film work, notably 2009’s A Single Man, the Christopher Isherwood novel adaptation which Ford directed and produced, and earning lead actor Colin Firth an Oscar nod.

‘Multi-tasking. It’s the one thing I can’t do’ Ford has said. Ironic, since it’s exactly Ford’s ability to do just this which is likely to help him go down in fashion’s history books.


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