Tom Ford interview: on watches, underwear and putting the fun in fashion

In a decade, Tom Ford has turned his brand of heady sexual charisma into a $1.5bn fashion and cosmetics business. Now he’s giving a new genre the Ford factor. Jo Ellison meets a polymath in playful, provocative mood. Portrait by Tom Ford

Tom Ford is about to launch watch and underwear ranges
Tom Ford is about to launch watch and underwear ranges | Image: Tom Ford

Tom Ford isn’t one to watch the garden grow. In the year since wrapping up work on the red carpet, promoting his award-winning film Nocturnal Animals, he’s turbo-charged his creative output. In September, the day after his spring/summer 2018 show, he launched a new fragrance, the profanely named Fucking Fabulous (£485 for 250ml EDP), which went on to become his most successful Private Blend perfume to date. He closed his autumn/winter 2018 men’s show last month with the debut of a new underwear line, likely to go in store in the autumn. And now there’s the Tom Ford watch, a unisex collection of eight classic timepieces that come with interchangeable straps, available from the end of April.

Moonlighting as a film director must fire up some fierce creative juice. “It’s nice to jump back into another industry,” he says of the creative ping-pong that now characterises his career. “It’s great to be able to daydream about another thing. It reduces stress, in a crazy way, because your mind can drift to the fantasy of what you will create in another medium. But my main intention right now is to give my energy to the fashion business. I’m trying to embrace 2018 and the world we live in. Because this is how things are. And I’m feeling reinvigorated.”

Tom Ford’s men’s underwear is likely to arrive in store in the autumn
Tom Ford’s men’s underwear is likely to arrive in store in the autumn

Ford is sitting in an oak-panelled anteroom at the Park Avenue Armory, New York, following a double-whammy performance that has seen him deliver two catwalk collections – men’s and women’s autumn/winter 2018 – in just under 48 hours. Dressed in his customary uniform of a black suit and tie, he has the immaculate élan of a man unruffled by anxiety and appears as elegantly poised as ever. Ford started the process of relocating to Los Angeles 18 months ago with his son Jack and his husband Richard Buckley. It followed a 20-year stint in London and, while he still claims to be suffering from the culture shock of American life, the granola coast seems to suit him. Might his mien of smooth wellbeing be the result of his new vegan diet? “No!” he gasps. “It’s the Tom Ford cosmetics! Besides, I’m a vegan who cheats. I still eat baked goods. And I eat sugar.”

Los Angeles has yet to rob him of his suit, dry sardonic wit or drawling humour. But the move has given him a shifting appreciation of the luxury landscape. And a determination to make fashion more playful. “I don’t know if you noticed,” he says, his rich Texan accent undimmed even after decades away from his home state, “but there was a lot of colour in that womenswear show, and you haven’t seen that from me for quite a while.”

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Not only that, there were a lot of leopard-printed tights, “pussy power” beaded bags and Beverly Hills diamanté-studded sweatshirts. (Tom Ford’s muse is a high-glam girl, though he always delivers chic tuxedos and smart suiting.) Likewise, the men’s collection featured python-print shirts, lilac suits and zebra dinner jackets (£3,220) – mixed with more traditional weekend pieces, such as shearling-collar bombers and coats (£4,540) and oversized puffas.

Both autumn/winter collections may have more outré moments than those in stores now, but these aren’t short of head-turning pieces: current womenswear includes a hot-pink velvet jumpsuit (£1,200), tangerine leather coat (£6,850) and ruched bodycon full-length dresses (from £5,390) in pink and black with sequinned arms, while for the men there are suits (jackets from £2,470 and trousers from £650) in teal, powder pink and champagne, plus sage-green silk combats (£670). “I don’t know why fashion has to be so serious,” he says. “Everything is so horrible – I just want to see some fun. Why not put flowers on a bag?”

Ford recently launched the fragrance Fucking Fabulous, £485 for 250ml EDP
Ford recently launched the fragrance Fucking Fabulous, £485 for 250ml EDP

He does have some considered observations regarding shifts in wardrobe, however, and the changes in how men and women like to dress. Where 10 years ago some clients wore full-look designer ensembles, today they have a more insouciant attitude; “there’s an increasing polarisation between high and low”, but people are more likely to mix high street with high fashion. “A decade ago, when I started my label, people wouldn’t want to admit they were wearing Zara, or other such brands. Now there’s no stigma attached to wearing a mix.”

Ford is not about to create budget-priced fashion: his clothes offer high-net-worth individuals membership of a very exclusive club, and he has little desire to change that. In launching a men’s underwear range, however, he will open the door to a new consumer. The prices – still under discussion, but likely to start at around $70 for a plain cotton boxer and going up to $300 for a leopard-print silk short with velvet trim – will make for a compelling new entry point to the brand.

Gold watch on leather strap, £8,490, part of a collection released later this month
Gold watch on leather strap, £8,490, part of a collection released later this month

Just as women buy his lipsticks to be part of the Tom Ford universe, now men can buy his boxer shorts. “That’s exactly what it is,” he says. “Underpants are the lipstick for men. And while we’ve had a men’s grooming range for a while, the underwear will appeal to a more traditional male who admires the brand.”

The underwear was partly inspired by his mother – which is not as creepy as it sounds. “I remember my mother would buy flesh-coloured underwear in the 1970s,” explains Ford. “And I thought it would be really cool to have a flesh-coloured pant, so that when you put it on you looked naked because it matched your skin tone. And so we did them in several skin shades. Then I thought: I should also do some special pants. Because women buy special underwear, right? And why wouldn’t a guy want silver underwear?” Why indeed?

From left: cashmere and suede blouson, £5,390, cotton hoodie, £890, jersey V-neck, £540, and cotton trousers, £640. Linen jacket, £2,570, poplin shirt, £400, and linen trousers, £740
From left: cashmere and suede blouson, £5,390, cotton hoodie, £890, jersey V-neck, £540, and cotton trousers, £640. Linen jacket, £2,570, poplin shirt, £400, and linen trousers, £740

For a designer whose aesthetic has always drawn on a heady sexual charisma, and who is himself a powerful advocate for the state of undress, one wonders why he didn’t do underwear before? “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” says Ford. “But previously, the sort of volume required to make a real underwear business – where you have to be in 10,000 points of distribution and you can’t control your image or how your product will be displayed – would have eroded the brand I’ve worked so hard to build. About a year ago, I realised that I buy everything online, so why not have an online underwear business that we can control? So, we’re only selling it in Tom Ford stores and online – though I can’t yet say where other than Tomford.com.”

As a complement to a $1.5bn+ empire that already includes cosmetics, eyewear and fashion, the men’s underwear will make up another category in this well-rounded lifestyle brand. Alison Loehnis, president of Net-a-Porter group, which may or may not be one of the stockists Ford is not at liberty to reveal, is convinced the pants will be huge. “Tom Ford performs very well in ready-to-wear across both men’s and women’s on Net,” she says. “For the men, it’s certainly one of the more aspirational tailoring labels, but there’s also a strong representation in the weekendwear he does so well. The Tom Ford man is extremely elegant and beautifully put together, like Tom Ford himself. But the exciting thing about the brand is that there are still places it can go. There are categories that can be explored, and killer products it could develop. The underwear is one.”

From left: velvet men’s jacket, £2,350, silk satin V-neck, £1,040, and stretch gabardine shorts, £850. Tulle jersey and sequin gown, £7,150. Leather trench coat, £6,850, and twill mini dress, £940
From left: velvet men’s jacket, £2,350, silk satin V-neck, £1,040, and stretch gabardine shorts, £850. Tulle jersey and sequin gown, £7,150. Leather trench coat, £6,850, and twill mini dress, £940

Watches will be another. Ford has designed watches before; as creative director of the former Gucci group (now Kering), he created them for Gucci, Boucheron and Saint Laurent. Like the underwear, he’s been considering a Tom Ford timepiece for a while. “I had this idea in my mind for years and, though I worked on lots of other watches, I saved this one for myself.”

The first collection, 001, produced in collaboration with Dallas-based Bedrock Manufacturing Company, will feature eight unisex styles, each with a rectangular face, in two sizes and in four materials and finishes. They will cost from £1,780 for the small steel version to £8,170 for a large version in 18ct gold. But the watch’s unique selling point, according to Ford, is the interchangeable strap. The watch will be sold with one strap, but there will be 61 further options – in different colourways and leathers – that clients will be able to swap “as simply as changing your belt”.

From left: silk/viscose and satin jacket, £3,220, silk turtleneck, £1,390, and satin trousers, £1,440. Cashmere/wool jacket, £2,320, cotton shirt, £415, and cashmere/wool trousers, £780. Felt and shearling coat, £4,540, calfskin and velvet jacket, £4,790, mohair/silk V-neck, £1,190, and polyamide trousers, £1,140. Silk crepon mini dress and jersey tights, price on request. Shearling coat, silk and sequin sweatshirt, and silk/cotton twill leggings, price on request
From left: silk/viscose and satin jacket, £3,220, silk turtleneck, £1,390, and satin trousers, £1,440. Cashmere/wool jacket, £2,320, cotton shirt, £415, and cashmere/wool trousers, £780. Felt and shearling coat, £4,540, calfskin and velvet jacket, £4,790, mohair/silk V-neck, £1,190, and polyamide trousers, £1,140. Silk crepon mini dress and jersey tights, price on request. Shearling coat, silk and sequin sweatshirt, and silk/cotton twill leggings, price on request

Ford is very excited about the strap. As a marketing strategy – sell a watch and then dozens of accessories (ranging from £170 to £480) with which to personalise it – it’s canny. Ford has had the idea in mind ever since, as a kid, he became obsessed with the woven watchstraps sold at the preppy American outfitters Brooks Brothers. “I bought one there. But you had to take the watch pins out and it was fiddly and never quite looked right. I’ve always wondered, why doesn’t someone design a watch with a strap that you can just yank out – like a belt? It’s a ridiculously simple idea.”

Launching a watch in this climate seems risky. The iPhone, the Fitbit and the Chinese government’s crackdown on gift giving have done much to slow the watch market, though it has lately shown signs of recovery. When we meet, the Dow Jones is fluctuating in the most febrile week of trading for years. The markets are looking wobbly. But Ford shrugs off such worries.

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“I’m a classic person. I can’t compete with technology,” he says of the product, which has taken two years to develop. “And a classic watch is one of the few accessories all men can confidently wear. There’s been an uptick in watch sales – and this is a beautiful watch.”

He’s right: the watch is very elegant, especially the model with the white face whose simple design was inspired by a speedometer. Priced to compete with watches such as the Cartier Tank or the Hermès Cape Cod, he’s not taking on the world of the master horologists. Neither is he launching a huge collection. Mainly, he was persuaded to launch a timepiece because he himself is a fan, and if the brand is made in the image of its creator, then Tom Ford knows his client is there.

“I’ve always loved them. I consume them,” he says of his own collection, about which he refuses to reveal anything except it’s “substantial”. What is it about watches that still drives men so crazy? “Well, for most men who would consider themselves traditional consumers, a watch is their only accessory other than a wedding or signet ring. It’s a mechanical instrument, like a car. And I think men share a fascination for mechanical implements, for machines: it works, it ticks. And it’s still a status symbol.”

Ford oversees a big empire. The cosmetics arm is on target to be a $2bn business by 2021, but the rest is private. Which is how Ford likes it. “The luxury of owning my own company is being able to launch something in an organic way. In many respects, I’ve done everything here backwards – I started with fragrance, eyewear and then ready-to-wear. But I can do things intuitively. I have the luxury of seeing what works, what doesn’t. I’m not forced to make decisions you’d only make if you had to worry about the sales figures off the bat. I can do things I believe in. Then see how they do. I think that’s the key to our success.”

So what’s next? Another movie? “At the moment, I’m not working on a film. But I do have a project.” He must be thinking about new categories also. “Well, other than home and a hotel, and women’s underwear, I already do everything…”

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