The rise and rise of Tom Ford

The fashion designer and film director on how fatherhood has changed him as a person.

Tom Ford

Sitting on a sofa in the reception area of Tom Ford International in Westminster, London, I tick off some of the things I already know about the 53-year-old American fashion designer and film director. The self-confessed perfectionist insists his staff keep their workspaces so immaculate they could be photographed as still lifes at any time. His personal maintenance regime is legendary: he works out religiously and takes five baths a day. When he is not walking around his house naked, he is impeccably dressed and flies long-haul in a three-piece suit. Oh, and he likes to be formally addressed as Mr Ford. Don’t call him Tom, don’t call him Tom, don’t call him Tom…

Mr Ford appears, silhouetted in the door frame to his private inner chamber. It’s 11 years since his acrimonious departure from Gucci where, as creative director, he turned the fashion house’s fortunes around from the brink of bankruptcy in 1994. Within five years, it was a $6.1b mega brand that began buying up other luxury houses such as Yves Saint Laurent (for whom Ford was also creative director), Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta. But in April 2004, after a disagreement over control of business, Ford suddenly left. After taking a year or so out, during which he battled depression, Ford launched his eponymous brand in 2005 with eyewear and a beauty line before adding menswear in 2007 and womenswear in 2010. His ‘mass luxury’ empire now turns over more than $1.5b a year. Business of Fashion estimates his personal wealth to be in excess of $306m.

Then there is Tom Ford the movie director. When we meet, he has just returned from Cannes Film Festival. Following the debut success of 2009s A Single Man, for which he also produced and wrote the screenplay, with no formal training, Ford is about to start pre-production on his second feature, Nocturnal Animals, a thriller starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal. Film companies were so wowed by Ford’s presentation in Cannes that a bidding war ensued.

Tom Ford and Carine Roitfeld at Cinema Against Aids in France.

Tom Ford and Carine Roitfeld at Cinema Against Aids in France.

Today, before jetting out to New York for 24 hours, where he will pick up the Council of Fashion Designers of America award for menswear designer of the year, Ford is putting the finishing touches to his S/S 2016 menswear collection, which he is about to present in London. On top of all this he has a two-and-a-half-year-old son, Jack, to look after with his partner of 29 years, Richard Buckley, whom he recently married. Jack was conceived via in-vitro fertilisation and a surrogate. Earlier this year, the Italian designer Domenico Dolce was widely condemned for his views on children born to gay couples through IVF. “You are born to a mother and a father, or at least that’s how it should be,” Dolce told Italian magazine Panorama in March. “I call children of chemistry, synthetic children. Rented uterus, semen chosen from a catalogue.”

It’s a subject Ford feels strongly about. “I found [Dolce’s comments] incredibly ignorant and insensitive,” Ford bristles. “I was quite shocked.” Ford says fatherhood has completely changed him as a person and helped him learn to relax. Hitherto he’s had a reputation for being forensically pernickety, an exacting control freak. In the past he has described his perfectionism as “almost a mental illness”. He says he’s still “wound very tightly” and finds it difficult to switch off, especially since quitting alcohol and losing the “release” that gave him. But he describes his experience of fatherhood as “meditative”. It’s not a word that would spring to mind for most new fathers – at least not to those who don’t have a full-time nanny. “Yes, but it’s stress that’s not about you. It’s stress worrying and thinking about your child, which takes your mind off your work or what you were doing that day… It’s a break from yourself.”

What’s it like for fashion’s infamous neat freak having a toddler at home? “Our house is covered in plastic toys,” he laughs. “I cannot believe it! I used to just live for decorating. Our houses were flawless. I think for some gay men, their houses become their children. It was that case for me, but I don’t care as much anymore.” Sure enough, casting an eye around his lair-like office – all polished ebony, monochrome and, distractingly in my eyeline, a framed photograph of a man with his penis out from a controversial Ford-era Yves Saint Laurent fragrance advertising campaign – I note his desk is strewn with papers. Admittedly they are the only things out of place in the entire room and that is why they stick out, but still. “I would never normally have papers on my desk if I knew a journalist was coming,” he says. “There would be more flowers. Somebody would have spritzed perfume around. But I just don’t care.” I try not to take this too personally.

Tom Ford on set.

Tom Ford on set.

Ford’s new laissez-faire attitude has extended to other areas of his life – even his famously fastidious personal grooming routine. “When I got up this morning I was going to trim my beard because I knew I was having this interview and I needed to look good. It’s going quite grey, which I sometimes camouflage with Just For Men beard dye – do not put that in the article! – and I just didn’t even have the energy.” Still, he’s dressed as meticulously as ever, in one of his signature wide-lapelled black suits with a crisp white shirt, unbuttoned to the chest. Or maybe not. “This old dirty suit! I literally just pick up the suit from the night before and put it on. Sometimes I have another uniform – jeans, a jean shirt and a different jacket – and it’s one or the other of those outfits. I used to make more of an effort in the mornings but I don’t any more.”

Now into his fifties, Ford remains the “exact size 48 perfect regular” in order to try on all his samples. You’d think his workout regime would be punishing. But since the arrival of Jack he’s had neither time nor energy for tennis or Pilates. “Working out has just gone away. In two and a half years I have not worked out once!” Yet he’s as slim as ever: “I really watch what I eat,” he sighs. Ah, so he hasn’t let himself go entirely. “And I’m lucky genetically, I think, too.” His diet is “really quite perfect — fish, vegetables, fish, vegetables, fish, vegetables” — but his one vice is cheap confectionery. “There may be a pack of Percy Pigs during the day or a couple of doughnuts, or if I’m in America, Hostess Donettes – those cheap little white powdery things. I mean, if I even see them, I have to eat the pack! So there’s junk layered on top of a really healthy diet. As you get older it’s all about calories and it’s about fewer and fewer and fewer. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, so I don’t binge-eat when I’m stoned or have all those alcohol calories.”

This wasn’t always the case. Ford is teetotal now, but in his thirties and forties he was a “very highly functioning alcoholic”. People close to him knew how much he drank, but his success and prodigious output disguised the problem to the outside world. Until “in my forties it really started to show and it really started to get out of control. My life had really started to unravel.” Things got worse after he parted ways with Gucci and he had what he has called a ‘mid-life crisis’. “I became quite depressed. When you’re depressed you drink more and when you drink more you get more depressed. And along with the drinks there were drugs. And when you have that kind of high you also have that kind of low. And I didn’t have a child and I didn’t have – y’know for a couple of years – a career. My life… I honestly don’t think I’d be alive if I hadn’t stopped drinking.”

Rihanna wears Tom Ford to an Amfar gala in Los Angeles.

Rihanna wears Tom Ford to an Amfar gala in Los Angeles.

Living in London didn’t help in his battle with the bottle. “I have to say probably one of the reasons that my drinking did get out of control was living here. You can very easily consume 10 drinks a day and be considered absolutely normal. You go to lunch, have a couple of drinks. Come five o’clock at the office, we’d have a couple of drinks. Then I’d get dressed for dinner, couple of drinks while I was getting dressed. Go out, three drinks at dinner. Going out to a club after that, three more. Add that up, you’re at 10, 12. Sometimes I’d say to my friends, ‘I think I have a drinking problem’ and they’d say,’ – he affects an English accent – ‘You don’t have a drinking problem! Have another drink!’ Once I stopped drinking I found this clarity, which can be painful for a while but my life has just fallen into place. I built a business, made a movie, had a child, I’m making another movie.”

Ford will film Nocturnal Animals in a very tight six-week window between designing collections. He will set up an editing suite at his London design studio – he must be the ultimate multitasker. “Actually, I can’t multitask. I don’t think of that as multitasking. I’m in the editing room and all I’m thinking of is that and ‘Okay, now I’m focusing on shoe heels — don’t talk to me about the bags because it’s shoe heels right now.’ I have to focus!” Soon, the focus will shift to menswear for his London Collections: Men presentation, about which he will reveal little other than to say it is loosely based on New York at a certain time in his life — presumably the Studio 54 years in the late 1970s when he hung out with the Andy Warhol set. Those were the hedonistic years that he has left well behind. He has absolutely no desire to drink again. “It’s interesting. I can mix cocktails for people, I like being at parties where people are drinking a little bit — until they start slurring and it gets really boring and I want to go home, get into bed and read a book.”

Ford says he’s an introvert and the glamour is all for show. “It’s putting on armour to play the part of what people expect Tom Ford to be. It’s almost a performance, like going on stage. And it’s exhausting, it’s exhausting, it’s exhausting.” He’s so dramatic. “I’m a very shy person. You probably won’t believe that, but I really, really, really, really, really am. I do not like big parties. I like dinner with six or four good friends or one-on-ones. Most people think I lead a very different life. They see me in a retouched photo selling perfume, or in a magazine, and probably think I’m drinking and girls are lying around my house naked and we’re doing a lot of drugs,” he says. “But, really, I’m at home having dinner with Richard and Jack and we’re probably going to watch television after dinner and I’ll be in bed by 10pm or 10.30pm.”

Not that he sleeps much. Ford has long been an insomniac. He occasionally manages six or seven hours but most nights he gets only three or four – and that’s with the aid of a sleeping pill. There was a time when he took up to five baths a day, but Jack has pulled the plug on that. He’s down to two. When he gets up he makes a giant iced coffee and comes to in the tub. “I’m getting the pill out of my system if I’ve been lucky enough to sleep. If I haven’t, then I feel like hell and I kind of ache all over and a hot bath can help that, too.” Ford says he resolves a lot of things in the bath.

Our hour is up. His focus must shift. “Thank you for your time, Mr Ford,” I say as he leads me out. “Oh please,” he replies. “Call me Tom.”

Words: Dan Rookwood/London Evening Standard/The Interview People
Photos: Getty Images