Tom Ford is the consummate American: ambitious, idealistic, and brash. His combination of sex and celebrity helped reshape fashion from a European subculture into a global force of popular culture—images like Gwyneth Paltrow in the red velvet tuxedo he designed for Gucci, or a model with a bottle of Tom Ford perfume wedged between her breasts. “I think whenever you do something that’s very much about a particular time,” he says, speaking recently from Los Angeles, where he is based, “and then you live long enough to see people looking back at that particular time, or having grown up with that image in their head, you’ve become part of what forms their sense of beauty.”
He created the first luxury brand of the 21st century, the eponymous Tom Ford. And he decided, at 48, to begin directing films, which were embraced as queer cinema touchstones and have received several accolades. In 2019, he became the chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America—less an American king putting on his crown than a cowboy putting on his ten-gallon hat. “My chief goal, really, was to help American fashion become more internationally known,” he says, adding that “European editors and people in the European fashion industry need to travel to America and see what’s happening.” Still, he admits, laughing, “I don’t know how to help Americans understand how important it is to look at the rest of the world.”
Ford is also distinctly old school—genteel, warm, funny, and snobby, though not an elitist. He turned 60 recently, and now releases his second book, Tom Ford 002, a gloriously enormous, very glossy tome that encompasses the years since his first volume, which was released in 2004, and reviews the collections, celebrities dressed, advertisements made, and films created annually like the world’s most extravagant yearbook. He believes in glamour—though “it isn’t glamour,” he says, “it’s just the way I like things to look”—and remembers fondly the days when you’d wear a sport coat to ride on the airplane. But he is also, in an industry that gleefully chews up and spits out its geniuses, something of a survivor.
We spoke about why he decided to include some of his most controversial moments, what American fashion needs to become a truly global phenomenon, and why he believes celebrity stylists should have less power. His book is on sale November 9.
GQ: I’m curious about the choice to present the book chronologically, rather than, perhaps, thematically. Why did you decide on that approach?
Tom Ford: Well, I had approached the first book that way, and there is a reason. But I also wanted this to follow in that same format, as a kind of chapter two. I think fashion makes more sense when it is chronological, because what you do in one collection influences what you do or don’t do in another collection. I think that it’s a kind of continuous stream of things that play off of each other, [that] react to what, you know—fashion’s a pendulum, it swings back and forth. So it just made sense to me to present it in a chronological format, [to look at] where my head was at in a particular year. What was happening in my life, what I was thinking, what I was feeling, where I was living. When you look back over things, it’s like when you look at family pictures, you immediately remember, that’s what was happening and that’s where I was living, that’s why I did that. And it brings back a whole time, not only personally, but culturally, and what was happening in the world.
Are there any of your collections that you look back and interpret in a different way?
Well, there were a couple I hated, so I threw them out of this book! With a book, you can sort of get rid of the things you didn’t like and put in the things that you did. I mean, I thought for a minute, should I include the Terry Richardson pictures of the perfume bottle between the woman’s breasts? But I ultimately decided yes, because it was a different time. You know, what we did culturally, what we talked about, was different, what was considered tasteful, not tasteful, too far in one direction, then was different. So historically, at least for me as a designer, it’s so important to not censor those.
You have this great quote, that menswear is like Vicodin: “a warm and wonderful high,” and womenswear is like a rush of cocaine. In other words, menswear changes much less, whereas womenswear changes rapidly, and women like to experiment more. It seems to me that male-identifying and menswear shoppers are actually shopping more and more in that “rush of cocaine” style, and even dressing more in that way. Do you see that much slower pace of change in menswear speeding up or changing in any way?
I do think it is speeding up. I think it’s still dramatically behind womenswear because women, for generations, have either been taught by our culture—which probably is the case, rather than having it come from within—that one season you can wear this, and the next season, you can throw all that out and wear this. So I think women are more comfortable making radical swings and maybe have even become used to it, and have become [more] used to thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t want anymore of this, I want that’ than men. And yes, I do think it’s changing. I think that it will take a while for it to change. Because right now, it’s changed with the fashion community and with a red carpet celebrity. But by the way, there were celebrities—look at some of the costumes Elvis started wearing. I think celebrities have always been more comfortable with flashier clothes. I do think it’s changing, however, in the design process, it still feels very a bit… You know, I make a lot of tailoring and somewhat classic clothes and I make things for myself and I still fit things on myself. And so I have those classical—I don’t know, I don’t want to say the word “roots,” that’s not a very attractive sounding word, but my core is quite classic, certainly for menswear. But I do think it’s changing.
To go back to your perfume ad shot by Terry Richardson, what do you think makes a really great fashion advertisement?
I think it has to make you stop. If you’re scrolling through [posts] on Instagram or you’re flipping through a fashion magazine, you have to stop and consider it for a minute. Like, Oh, what is that? Or, Ooh, I don’t like that. Or, I do like that. That’s the thing. And that was why I put the perfume bottle between the women’s breasts. I mean, how many times have you seen a man talking to a woman, not looking her in the eyes? So, put the product where people are gonna look! I’m wearing a pair of my own jeans, and right down at the crotch, there’s a liiiittle embroidered “TF” riiight at the tip of the crotch. So you want to put the logo somewhere someone’s gonna look. It’s true. Everyone looks at everyone’s crotch. Other men look, because they want to see: big? Not big? Women do it. So, put the logo there.
That’s a good point. We don’t need a logomania moment: we need one powerful logo in the most important place.
We traditionally put it on people’s butts. When you’re wearing a pair of jeans, people look at other people’s butts. Levi’s, forever, that’s where the logo was.
In that hedonistic spirit, I’m curious why your clothes make customers act and buy obsessively. People collect your T-shirts, Jay-Z raps about the power of your suits, and I ran into someone in Paris once who said he buys a new pair of your underwear every week. Is this something you try to cultivate with the design of your clothes?
I hope this person is not wearing them for a week! There are washing machines! I’m fascinated by that!
Yes, I think I am obsessive when I design. I’m very meticulous. I’ve said this before, but it’s true: when you’re excited when you’re designing something, I think that you can endow the product with that same excitement. And hopefully when people see it or they put it on or they feel it, it’s exciting. It makes them stop and they go, Wow, I want this. I’m obsessive in details and shape and cut and color. So I’m glad that your friend is buying one pair a week. Does he throw the last pair away when he puts on the new pair?
It sounds really hedonist but in fact, it’s not quite hedonist enough.
Yeah, I don’t know! Buy seven at a time and do the laundry!
You’re one of the few working designers who really believes in glamour, who’s really made that central to your work, from your films to your advertisements to the clothes themselves. What does that word, “glamour,” mean to you, and why don’t you think there’s more of it in our culture?
That’s a hard question for me to answer because it isn’t glamour, it’s just the way I like things to look. And I’ve always thought that, and you know, maybe it comes from my parents, I don’t know, but when we used to travel as kids, you wore nice clothes. I wore a jacket when I was a little kid and got on a plane. When you’re out in the world, you become part of the furniture. It’s a show of respect to other people to look your best because you’re looking at a beautiful building or you’re at a museum, you’re looking at a piece of art, or a group of people. And they are part of your visual landscape. And so I love it when people take time and energy to present what they feel—whatever it is, based on what they like or dislike—is their best selves. And I guess that would be called glamour to a lot of people. I like a fairly sleek and slick look to people and interiors and buildings. So I think a lot of people might call that glamour.
I was so charmed to read about your relationship with Alessandro [Michele], and that you two are so friendly with each other. He recreated a number of pieces from your time at Gucci in his Fall 2021 collection—
I was flattered!
I think to so many people, including those who may not have even been alive when you were at Gucci, things like that red velvet tuxedo jacket are very iconic. I’m wondering why you think that those looks, and that look in particular, are so iconic.
I think it’s perhaps my age! [Laughs.] I think whenever you do something that’s very much about a particular time—which I think is the goal, is to be part of your time—and then you live long enough to see people looking back at that particular time, or having grown up with that image in their head, you’ve become part of what forms their sense of beauty. I also have to say, I love Alessandro for doing that. And yes, we are friends. In fact, I got an email from him this morning, asking if I wanted to get together. He’s coming to LA for a Gucci event. And, you know, he’s just a lovely guy. And I think he’s done a terrific job. Most of what he does is very different than what I did, although there are some of the threads there, but I think he’s done a terrific job.
I said in the book that it was hard for me to divorce myself from [Gucci]. I felt it for many years, the sadness of leaving, and it was really when Alessandro turned it around again with his own sense of style and taste that I started to feel fine about it. I like Alessandro very much, and I’m glad that those things are, to many people, iconic. I think it hopefully means that I captured that moment in time.
Do you plan to see the Gucci movie with Adam Driver and Lady Gaga?
Are you kidding?! In fact I’m reviewing it for a couple of people! I’m waiting for my advanced cut. I read the screenplay before it was made and, you know, for somebody who lived it, you have to realize that things are glamorized in film, because when I read some of the descriptions of things that were happening and the characters, and what they were wearing, what they were doing—I mean, I was there, and they weren’t quite so glamorous. I would be doing the same thing if I were making that movie. I would bump up the glamour level a bit. I can’t wait to see it.
Would you ever make a movie about your time at Gucci?
No. No, absolutely not. No interest. No interest at all. I lived that, I did it. I wouldn’t.
I want to talk more generally about American fashion. It’s something you spoke about wanting to expand the reputation of, when you became the chairman of the CFDA in 2019. It seems like between the Met Gala, and the incredible energy of New York Fashion Week in September, and this broader recognition of the influence of American style, that there is a turnaround in this inferiority complex with American fashion. How are you thinking about the state and identity of American fashion? Does it feel like that goal you set for yourself at the CFDA is coming to fruition?
I hope so. This season, I didn’t attend a lot of shows, but I was thrilled to see how many people were showing. Now, a lot of that was because of the pandemic and they weren’t able to show in Europe. I hope that some of the people who normally show in Paris—Americans—stay in New York! I would like to see that happen. My chief goal, really, was to help American fashion become more internationally known.
And it is so hard to find news about the rest of the world in America. We are so inward-looking as a culture, so isolated. It is the most isolated place ever. You turn on, whether you’re a Republican, and you watch Fox News or you’re a Democrat, [and] you watch CNN or MSNBC, it’s just “America, America, America.” You don’t hear anything about what’s going on outside of the [country]. I do think that for American fashion to become increasingly relevant in the world, American designers, just like Americans in general, have to look outside of America and that I think is key. And European editors and people in the European fashion industry need to travel to America and see what’s happening because I did think there was, certainly, a revitalization to New York Fashion Week this season, and I hope that continues. But also, I don’t know how to help Americans understand how important it is to look at the rest of the world. [Laughs.]
One of the points you make is that celebrity has always been this major vector for American style and American fashion. How would you describe your taste in celebrities?
Oh my god, my taste in celebrities? Well, I like celebrities in general because they’re unafraid of fashion. They need fashion. They need, when they walk down a red carpet, to get attention, so they’re not afraid. They’ll take much bigger risks. It’s great to see a celebrity wearing your clothes. Did you write down a question about stylists?
Oh yes. The celebrity stylist is one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, at this point. I’m curious what you think about that phenomenon.
I wish they were a little less powerful, I have to say. There was a time in the seventies, for example, if you look at old Oscar pictures, before celebrities had stylists, and my God, people took even more risks. There were great things going down the red carpet then. I think sometimes there becomes a little bit of homogenization, because it isn’t even the stylist. Before these men and women hit a red carpet, their agents weigh in on what they’re doing, there’s a stylist who weighs in, and things can become a little bit homogenized. I guess, when you asked my favorite celebrity to dress—it’s the ones who really know themselves. And if they’re working with a stylist, they assert themselves, or the stylist is kind of running around finding things that they asked them to find. There are those celebrities who have their own sense of style.
Lastly, do you like doing these super small fashion shows?
I like the intimacy. You know, I show in a very old-fashioned way, with a runway, and a spotlight. And I find that’s the best way to allow the audience to see the clothes and to not be distracted by other things going on in the room. I know that the trend today is that the environment is as important, or sometimes more important, than the clothes. And it does photograph well, to see models in a very choreographed, created, staged environment. However, I find the experience of the clothes diminished. But that’s such a personal thing. I like to see the clothes. I want people to be close to them and not be distracted by anything but the man or the woman and the clothes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.