October 24 2009
Tom Ford, as many who have met him will tell you, could sell bags of sand in the Sahara, such is his personal charm. Today he is selling perfume – the latest addition to the Tom Ford Private Blend Collection – with a personal appearance at Selfridges in London, where the music has been ramped up to nightclub levels and the atmosphere is as highly charged as one of his former Gucci ads. His entourage includes two personal bodyguards and an army of PR girls in black dresses and high heels. There are at least 200 fans in the well-dressed line, many of whom have been waiting several hours to meet the man labelled Mr Sex.
Watching Ford, in his signature black suit and unbuttoned white shirt, signing bottles of scent, his status seems to straddle both rock star and religious leader. It’s hard to think of any other fashion designer, let alone perfumery brand, that commands such a feverish following. Ford, in short, has managed to create the same frisson in the fragrance world as he did with the slinky satin shirts, velvet hipsters and metallic stilettos he designed for Gucci in the late 1990s.
When Ford left Gucci in less than harmonious circumstances in 2004, few would have guessed that it would be the beauty world (often seen as the second division to the big egos of fashion) that he would conquer next. Since his departure he has launched an eyewear line and a high-end menswear line, produced a film and opened a series of exclusive menswear boutiques – but increasingly, it is his highly acclaimed perfumes, produced in collaboration with Estée Lauder, that define him.
The marriage of Mr Sex with the US beauty giant seemed an unlikely collaboration when it was announced in 2005, rather like a maiden aunt acquiring a raunchy younger lover. But both parties have benefited greatly from the deal: the association with Ford has given the Lauder brand an injection of youthful sizzle, while Ford has been able to tap into Lauder’s unrivalled beauty expertise. Since its UK launch in 2007, Tom Ford Private Blend has become a beauty world phenomenon. Last year it generated over £2m turnover in Selfridges, which is extraordinary for fragrance. “It’s the second bestselling brand after Mac cosmetics,” says David Walker Smith, director for beauty at Selfridges. “It’s phenomenal. No one could have anticipated the success of this brand.” (Not even, it seems, Lauder itself, which imagined that the broader-distribution Tom Ford for Estée Lauder line, rather than the upscale Private Blend range starting at £100 per 50ml bottle, would drive the sales.)
At a time when global fragrance sales generally are flat, to turn a bottle of perfume into a “must-have” purchase (selling out in the case of Tuscan Leather when it was launched) is quite a feat. So how has Ford done it? “The look of the bottle, the juice – it’s all beautifully done,” says Walker Smith. “But above all, it’s the Tom Ford factor. People are buying into the Tom Ford lifestyle.” Daniela Rinaldi, director of perfumery and concessions at Harvey Nichols, believes that Tom Ford Private Blend has raised the bar on designer fragrance, taking it into the area of haute parfumerie. “He has brought to fragrance all the design characteristics and attention to detail that he applied to the Gucci brand,” she says.
Others also point to the meticulous attention to detail for which Ford and his entourage are famed. Everything is tightly controlled, right down to the flattering lighting and the colour of the velvet ropes at his personal appearances. But it all seems to boil down to his movie-star charm. “He just exudes charisma,” says Walker Smith; while, according to Rinaldi, “He is absolutely the most charming, charismatic man and the customers who meet him would say the same.”
On the morning of his Selfridges appearance, I meet Ford at The Dorchester hotel to discuss his latest addition to the range, the Tom Ford Private Blend White Musk collection, launched this month (more of which later). He is holding court in the floral-and-gilt Oliver Messel suite on the seventh floor where, after a little obligatory small talk about the late theatre designer, we move on to the business in hand.
What, I wonder, is the starting point when he creates a new fragrance – an idea, a particular ingredient, a place? “It can be any or all of those,” he replies in a velvet voice (with a mesmerising cadence that calls to mind Jack Nicholson and Kevin Spacey). “I never think of trends. I just think of what I’m feeling at that moment in time. And I usually think, if I’m feeling this, other people are feeling it. One day that will fail me [he laughs] and it will mean that I should quit…”
He is no longer motivated by money. “I do it out of pride and love. At this stage in my life… I could have just retired, ridden horses, played golf – but that would have bored me, so I do this out of a passion.” Fragrance, he points out, is an affordable luxury: “Not everyone can afford a Maserati but most people can afford a bottle of perfume. It is something that can make your life feel more luxurious for not a lot of money in comparison to other things.”
Working with top perfumers from fragrance creation houses Givaudan and Firmenich, Ford has produced a staggering 26 fragrances in less than three years. In addition to the Private Blend collection (which he launched with no fewer than 12 scents), he has also designed wider-distribution fragrances for the Tom Ford for Estée Lauder line, including Black Orchid and White Patchouli, as well as several for the Tom Ford For Men range.
In that time, he has set several trends, from the use of esoteric ingredients such as oudh (he was the first to use it in a mainstream fragrance with YSL’s M7 in 2002), to the vogue for mysterious black bottles, which Ford kicked off with the beautiful art deco Lalique flacon that he commissioned for Black Orchid. “I did that because all the bottles in the 1990s were clear,” he says. “I thought, ‘We’ve gone as far as we can with this trend for transparency; it’s time to go back to something heavier.’”
Another strategy with Private Blend is to make fragrances specific to different stores. “I’ve just developed a fragrance for the LA store featuring a lot of lime,” he says. “It’s something that smells good in warm weather.” But really, he continues, “the local customer for us is the same all over the world. The guy in Russia wants the same thing as the guy in New York and the guy in Osaka, because of the internet and TV. Our customers travel all the time and they are exposed to the same things.”
Ford has also established an interesting brand vernacular, using colour to describe scent in the case of Black Orchid, White Patchouli and the new Grey Vetiver (£50, 50ml). “Purple patchouli, for example, really does smell purple,” says Ford. But wasn’t he worried about the negative connotations of using the word “grey” to describe a fragrance? He looks surprised. “Dove grey is one of my favourite colours,” he says.
“If you go into our stores, grey is the colour of the packaging, our carpets and our walls; in a sense it’s the Tom Ford colour. The idea was to convey a cool, silvery, very refined vetiver.”
Unlike some fashion designers who are quick to stick their name on a fragrance but have little involvement in the process, Ford clearly has a passion for the métier. “I’ve always had an aptitude for fragrance, if not the know-how,” he says. Prior to launching his own line, he wore Monsieur de Givenchy, Guerlain’s Habit Rouge and a lot of Creed. He now favours Neroli Portofino (a cologne-like citrus blend) from his own line, though his favourite smell, he says, is the “scent of cigarette smoke and vodka on someone’s breath”. His nose, he says, has developed considerably in the past few years. “I can smell a fragrance now and pretty much pull out the principle ingredients,” he says.
“Perfumers like working with me because I don’t market-test,” he continues. “I say, ‘Bring me something that you love.’ One of the most important things you can do when people work for you is to excite them. Then you get the best things in the world. Perfumers are so passionate about what they do and if they get excited working with you, they will kill themselves to create something great.”
“You’re due at Selfridges,” interrupts one of Ford’s aides, even though the personal appearance is still five hours away. We haven’t yet spoken about the new musk collection – the reason I am here. There are four variants, including the very pretty, floral Jasmine Musk (Ford’s favourite), White Suede (rose, musk and a leather-suede note), Pure Musk and Urban Musk, an animalic musk created using (synthetic) headspace technology to capture as closely as possible the essence of the original animal version, which is now banned.
So why musk and why now? “Musk hasn’t been used much in fragrance since the 1970s. I like it because it’s very animalic; and it’s an interesting ingredient because of how it changes the smell of other ingredients that you put it with,” Ford rattles off. “It has a human quality that can really disturb some people. I like sensual fragrances and I like the way we smell as humans, so that doesn’t scare me.”
Does scent say something about the time we are living in? “Sure,” he replies, with conviction. So what do the new musks say? “I think it might be a return to humanity,” he offers. By this, I think he means human smells. And as always, Mr Ford’s timing is impeccable, since the general trend in perfumery is away from clean, laundry-light sensibilities towards “dirtier” smells centred on musks, incense, exotic woods and spices. “When you think about it, it’s so obvious for him to do musk,” says one leading perfumer. “You look at him, you look at his dark bottles, the sex thing – the only surprise is that he hasn’t done it before.”
Ah yes… the sex. “It’s so funny,” says Ford looking aggrieved, which is entirely disingenuous of him. “People have always labelled me Mr Sex, but I do what’s instinctive and what’s natural to me. I happen to love the human body. I happen to feel comfortable with the fact that we are human and the way we smell. I guess people just equate all that with sex. But I don’t think, ‘Ooh, Iet’s make a sexy fragrance.’ I think, ‘How am I gonna make something that smells great?’”
“I prefer to describe them as sensual rather than sexy,” he concludes about his fragrances. “Sex is an act. Sensuality is something different.” But watching those customers at Selfridges, I would wager that sex is only part of the Tom Ford story. What people are really after when they buy one of his fragrances is a bit of Ford’s charisma. You can’t bottle that – but wearing his scent is the next best thing.