After Years of Selling Sex, Tom Ford Is Seeking Emotion

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Ever since 2004, when Tom Ford walked away from the Gucci Group, he has done things in his singular way. He’s made two movies (both of which have been nominated for all sorts of honors, Oscars included) and developed his own line in reverse order from everyone else (eyewear, followed by fragrance, followed by cosmetics, followed by clothes). He and his husband, former Vogue Hommes International editor Richard Buckley, became parents to a son, and Ford’s moved his design studio from London to Los Angeles, though it’s still kind of in London. There’s also an office in Milan, and one in Tokyo, because “that’s what fashion people do. It’s normal.”

So much about the way fashion works today — the designer star system, the luxury conglomerates, the cultish immersion in a house’s overall ethos — can be traced back to 1995, when Ford showed his landmark collection for Gucci. Even then, he was more than just the designer; he played a key role in assembling the Gucci Group (which was folded into PPR, which became Kering), and Kering acquired and still controls a group of top-end brands that includes Saint Laurent, Stella McCartney, Balenciaga, and Alexander McQueen. (His straddling of the business-creative divide was unprecedented and not always welcome. When Ford was appointed creative director at Yves Saint Laurent, Mr. Saint Laurent was not impressed. “The poor guy,” he said snobbishly, “he does what he can.”)

At this particularly chaotic moment for the fashion industry — which city should a designer choose for a show? When should the clothes we see on the runways be available to buy? — Ford projects his trademark calm. It’s the fifth day of a London heat wave, and there he is, crisp and handsome, emerging from some very tall black doors in his office with a half-grin. He smells “like walking potpourri. I spray on one and then an hour later I spray another. I just do it all day long,” he says, sniffing.

Ford has always been famous for selling sex, for embracing luxury and excess (for his first fragrance, he bred his own flower, the blackest orchid, and captured its heady scent), and for his ability to shock, and simultaneously enthrall, the bourgeoisie. But lately he’s feeling more romantic and maybe even a little nostalgic. Since he’s been designing under his own name, he’s embraced his talent for glamour, with an emphasis on sleek, grown-up, flattering eveningwear. “What are day clothes today? Yoga pants. But for evening? Boom. Red carpet, cocktail dresses, mega.”

You played a huge role in creating the modern fashion world, in elevating the star system of designers at old houses. It feels like it’s all gone a bit off the rails — what do you think about where fashion is right now?
This whole musical-chairs thing that’s going on now at brands I find so dangerous. I think Riccardo Tisci is brilliant, and he was doing a terrific job at Givenchy. I have no idea why he’s gone. Nicolas [Ghesquière] was doing a great job at Balenciaga. When the customer identifies with a brand and then you flip the designer and a new one comes in, how does that brand have consistency over time? How does it mean something? And with the number of collections that we’re expected to do now — before I show this one, I’m already working on that one — how is that supposed to work? It’s crazy. Maybe people will start longing for something that is not as disposable, but I really don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows.

Why do you think it’s gotten to this point?
I’m not taking credit for it, but when I was at Gucci, that was the first wave of globalization and I jumped on it and then everyone else did. It was the first time that your customer in Tokyo wanted to wear the same thing at the same time as your customer in New York and your customer in L.A. and in London. Now every airport in the world’s got the same chains of makeup brands. We’re one culture now, globally homogenized, except for the conservatives and the three levels of prudishness.

The three levels of prudishness: The worldwide edition of the Noir Anthracite ad. Photo: Mert and Marcus/Courtesy of Tom Ford

What are the three levels of prudishness?
Oh my God, we’ve gotten so prudish. We’ve gone in reverse. It’s so weird. We’ve become more extreme because now on television you can see full-frontal male nudity. Like, all the time. And the language! There are no rules on television. The word fuck, for example, is part of modern parlance. Yes, it’s one of those bad words your parents told you not to say, and you’re not supposed to say it, but adults use that word, and it really does represent in a lot of ways where we are culturally. With porn so accessible, what adult can really say she’s freaked out by seeing a penis on television?

But how is that prudish? It seems like the opposite. If sex is everywhere, it’s a bit harder to cause a stir when you publish a provocative ad.
It’s strange, because it goes both ways. In advertising we’ve become so prudish, and I think that comes from a fear that half our population in America is rejecting something, and that affects our business, and I think that’s where we come from. So even as television and language go forward, you can still not show a woman’s nipple in many magazines. You can show a breast, but not a nipple! To me a breast without a nipple is more perverse and is really creepy, but if I do those things, no magazine will run them, so I can’t push images too far or they’ll be rejected.

Is this new for you?
Well, it’s definitely part of why I work in Europe, but this is something new.
Yes. There’s a real tightening in America. When we’d shoot an ad campaign, we used to shoot for the world, and then we’d shoot a Middle East version because there are certain rules, like a man can’t touch a woman and everyone has to be clothed. But now we shoot three versions: We shoot the world version, the conservative version, and the Middle East version. The conservative version is for America.

For America, the woman moves slightly up and part of the man’s torso moves into the shadows. Photo: Mert and Marcus/Courtesy of Tom Ford

And is that frustrating or is it more of a challenge?
The sex thing’s a little bit old at this point. Been there, done that. I don’t want to sound too businesslike here, but it’s all about breaking through the clutter. The one word I hate right now is disruptive. It’s all anyone uses: “Oh, it’s so disruptive.” Disruptive, disruptive! I guess it’s just the new way of breaking through the clutter or creating something new, and I guess it’s just a word, but of course I want to be it. You can’t look like anyone else, and so I suppose I’ve been more romantic lately. More sensual than sexual because that’s all quite easy at this point. I’ve done the G-spot. I’ve put the perfume there.

Does that mean you’re done with sex?
I get the criticism, I see it in my press reports, all complaining about the objectification of women. I’ve objectified men just as much in my career, but you just cannot run those images. I put that perfume bottle between a woman’s breasts, but I also put it between a guy’s butt cheeks, but [few] would accept that because our culture is more comfortable with the objectification of women to sell products than it is with the objectification of men to sell products. I’m for equal-opportunity objectification.

In the Middle East, much is left to the imagination. Photo: Mert and Marcus/Courtesy of Tom Ford

Presumably with your films you have fewer constraints.
Well, if you’re a designer, there’s nothing better than designing an entire world. As much as I love fashion, it doesn’t last. Yes, you can go to a museum and you can see a beautiful dress, but it doesn’t have the same effect as the first time when that dress was new and it came down a runway, and maybe it was a proportion you hadn’t seen, and it was new and jarring and you saw it on someone — maybe it was a beautiful woman, maybe it was a celebrity — and it literally took your breath away. You can see it again, and you can say, “Well, isn’t that great.” You can admire it, you can say, “Oh, I remember that, that was so iconic, look at the detail, look at the stitching, that was incredible,” but it doesn’t have that same emotional punch that it did the very first time you saw it. But there’s no such thing as an old film. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a new film, and when you watch it, you’re caught up in it. I watch movies from the 1930s and everyone is dead! The actors are dead, the directors are dead, the people who wrote it are dead, but there I am, crying, emoting, and terrified.

Do you find it satisfying to have that much time with your audience, to tell a story in a narrative, as opposed to impressionistic, way?
Fashion is about a moment; with fashion, you should tell a story, your clothes should be more than clothes, they need to make you dream, they need to inspire, they need to excite you. When I was at Gucci and at Saint Laurent, it was a cinematic experience. I showed under a single spotlight, and you could really control things because no one was looking at anything except the show. The whole room was looking at the exact same thing at the exact same time, and you could get a rhythm of emotion, and you could literally get people to cry at the end of a good show. Cry for something beautiful. Now you can’t, because they’re distracted, holding up their phones and shooting themselves. I wish there was a way to get people to watch fashion shows again so I could convey that emotion.

I watched Nocturnal Animals on Inauguration Day.
I’m sorry!

It’s really, properly scary.
Well, when you know yourself, you know all the parts of yourself, so for me it didn’t seem like a surprise at all because [the violence] was a commentary on our contemporary culture and the hollowness, sometimes, of our culture. That’s something I struggle with all the time, because the things we produce, the stream of merchandise that people don’t need but that they desire, well, you have to keep it in perspective.

What kind of perspective?
Of course the most important thing in life is the people you connect with. The woman in Nocturnal Animals is a victim of our culture, a victim of her own upbringing and her own insecurity, really. I wanted to set the film in that very glamorous-on-the-surface, perfect world. And by the way, the character was very autobiographical.

Do you have a darker side?
I suppose I do because I created all that and it felt totally normal.

Are you going to make another movie?
It takes about three years. Look, it’s a different animal. I like to have — surprise — complete creative control. I have a very strong fragrance, cosmetics, and eyewear business, so my financial needs are more than met — our business is up 52 percent over last year, so I’m going to do what I want. I don’t need to take other people’s money and then have a million people to answer to. Hopefully I can make something personal that hits a big audience, too, and that has permanence. Because I think that’s what I know how to do.

You’ve made the choice to show in New York at a moment when a lot of American designers are moving to Europe — where you spent 27 years. What are you planning to show?
I have a very defined customer and a very defined look. I’m seeing a lot of collections I did in the ’90s referenced by other designers, and I look at that and I say, “How interesting, maybe I should remember what it was that I was all about and go back.” That’s what this September’s show will be about. I hope that I’m returning to what I’ve always believed in, but in a new way. You will always have moments when you are more in fashion and less in fashion, and if you don’t stay true to yourself, you will lose your way. Hopefully I will look like what I’ve always looked like.

*This article appears in the August 7, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

After Years of Selling Sex, Tom Ford Is Seeking Emotion