Tom Ford

With a shop rumoured to open in Beijing, Tom Ford talks to Time Out.

Tom Ford. For anyone with even a passing interest in fashion, the name needs little introduction. His reputation is so notorious that it has permeated every bubble-wrapped bedroom closet like burning smoke beneath a door. You would have unintentionally come across his face on the newsstands; you would have accidentally heard his name in the gossip columns; and inevitably you would have seen his stunning outfits adorning movie stars. Even the tills of the town seem to ring out with his tight little commercial name: Ding! Tom Ford!

Over the years you may have heard about this trained architect, businessman, fashion designer (Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent), and film director (A Single Man) being referred to as the King of Fashion, the King of Sex, Mr Perfectionist with a capital P, and fashion’s marketing genius. One can also observe his ‘media personality’ like digital clock: charming, funny, charismatic, confident, witty, intelligent, frank about sex, yet always teasingly just out of reach... But before we offer a standing ovation to the winner of the Perfect Human Species Award, can we please just halt the gravy train for a minute and contemplate what is really diffusing under that gorgeous exterior? Is he as grandiose as the media make him out to be, or is there something slightly… unstitched in that gloriously groomed persona?
When Time Out was ushered into the spotless, just-expanded Tom Ford store at the International Finance Centre, Hong Kong, to meet the great man, we felt a drastic drop in temperature. Everything became still, exacting, consummate, controlling. Grey sofas were placed specifically where grey sofas should be placed. Security personnel were stationed like statues with OCD precision. It was as if the environment was being clinically manufactured by his on-message assistants in order to produce an invisible suit of armour for Tom to wear against the slings and arrows of outrageous questions. The power of Tom’s translucent chainmail was, in fact, demonstrated right before Time Out slithered past his velvet-curtained doors. A fellow journalist was sent packing for making the epic mistake of questioning the decor: “Often Americans are very fake. And [Tom Ford has] fake things. So I thought your flowers might be fake,” the journalist allegedly asked the designer. Cue an instant ejection. Time Out was also on the brink of being given a slap with Ford’s velvet glove for reasons un-flower related, but bearing in mind the most alluring rose is also the thorniest, we were willing to bleed a little for a sniff at the real Mr Danger. And thus our interview began...
Something about you, Mr Ford, unnerves people. Maybe it’s your charm. Or your humour. To be honest I’m a little nervous...
[Talking slowly] You don’t have to be nervous, I’m just Tom. There’s Mr Ford the product and Tom the person. They overlap but I’m always surprised when people are nervous. You’re afraid of my charm? No, come on. [Sits up and leans in] Where are you from? Did you grow up here?

Throughout our interview, Ford will deploy this psychological sleight of hand time and again to steer a conversation to his preferred direction. “Do you mind if I refer to my question sheet?” I asked. Ford turned his line of vision to my business card. “Time Out,” he purred, “You’re supposed to hand it to me properly.” And yet before I could utter another word he was running away with his own conversation…

[Talking quickly] I spent a lot of time [in Hong Kong] in the 80s. I used to live almost half the year here… 86, 87, 88. I was working in New York on 7th Avenue in my sample room but we made everything here in Hong Kong. The factory was in the New Territories. I used to live in what was the Regent. Lived? Not lived. But I was two weeks here, two weeks in New York, two weeks here, two weeks in New York. I was at Cathy Hardwick and Perry Ellis which was a jeans company. It was expensive clothes; we used to make sequin evening dresses that would retail for US$300. We would farm them out to different women who’d hand embroider them and sometimes it’d come back smelling like fish; it was a totally different world. They were made in villages and, um, it was very different. And it changes. Not Hong Kong so much. But Beijing and Shanghai has changed a lot since the last time I was there which was like, three years ago?

Right, thanks… So the change in China over the last decade has been unbelievable for you. How do you feel about China culturally?
Right now, China is exporting goods but importing Western culture, importing Lady Gaga, importing Western brands… And it would be very interesting to me because it will happen very quickly in who knows, five, 10, 15, 20 years when China will clearly start exporting culture like [what they are doing with] art now. So in the art world, Chinese art is valued and is influential in an external way, and another example would be films like Wong Kar-wai’s. I was in Beijing the other night and Maggie Cheung was sitting next to me at a dinner and we were talking about Chinese films. And I don’t see Chinese films because they don’t get exported.

Did it upset you that your film debut A Single Man wasn’t allowed to show in China?
Well, right now, it won’t screen because of the sexual content, I’m assuming that’s what you’re saying. Right now it won’t screen. But it’s screened here [in Hong Kong] I believe. And I think the day would come when it will. Uh, so, you know, um, it’s interesting.

Do you believe this socio-political shift will happen?
Of course. Look at the socio-political shift that happened in the past 15 or 20 years in China. Yeah, I think it’s inevitable.

Can we talk about your new comedy film?
No, because I won’t tell you about it. I believe you should do something and then talk about it, which is why I didn’t talk about my women’s collection until it just appeared in New York. And I didn’t talk about my movie until it was finished.

But the script must be…
I don’t want to talk about it because I believe you’re also giving away energy when you talk about things.

But, um, are you good with words?
Well I think so. Have you read my last screenplay? I wrote A Single Man. So? You have to tell me. I think I am.

Do you feel very close to comedy?
I’m surprisingly more humorous than I think people realise. You have to ask my friends. You have to have comedy in life because there’s so much tragedy in life; you feel like you have to laugh at it…

Tell us a joke.
No. I’m not a joke teller.

Recently Vogue used a full Asian cast for a shoot. Givenchy also introduced a full Asian cast for their haute couture show. Do you think it’s interesting to see what designers and editors really think about Asian models?
Asia has become a more important market and the 21st century is the Chinese century I think. Chinese Vogue is the number two Vogue in the world now. So [from] a business standpoint it’s only logical. Maybe people who didn’t get it before [slams the sofa with his hand] are getting it now, and they are thinking we’re selling to a country and we need to appeal to their aesthetic of beauty. I think that I’ve actually always understood a reason for diversity in everything I’ve ever done.

Would you use a full Asian cast in your campaigns or on your catwalk?
I wouldn’t do a show with only Asian models, because there are a lot of African-American customers in the world, a lot of Western European customers and a lot of South American customers. But I have used Asian models in my campaigns. I have used Asians models in my campaigns at Gucci and I have had them on my catwalk. I thought of myself at Gucci, and I [also] think of myself now as an international global brand.

You have a world view.
I believe what ultimately would happen, 100 years from now, is that we’ll all be completely racially blended. You know, culturally, everyone’s into marrying the world and the world is shrinking in terms of communication. Racial boundaries are completely a blur. Chinese would be marrying Americans, would be marrying African-Americans. It may take 250 years but we will be one race. The world. It will all blur together. So I think we’re at the last moments of separate ethnic races.

Would you like to have children?
I always said I wanted to have children. And as I got a little bit older, Richard, who I live with – we’ve been together 24 years – did not want children. And so I decided not to have children. But if I have children, no one will know about it until the child is born. And no one will ever see the child because I certainly wouldn’t use it as a press tool. If I have a child, you won’t notice that I had a child. Maybe you’ll see it when it’s 18, but I will keep it out of the spotlight. I wouldn’t use it as a press tool, as some people I know have recently.

Tom Ford claims he loves women but it just so happens he falls in love with men. He once said: “I love women. But I lust after beautiful women in the way that I lust after a beautiful piece of sculpture.” He has felt up Natalia Vodianova; he has put the artist Rachel Feinstein’s breast in his mouth. Plus, as a fashion designer, he’s extremely knowledgeable about the female body. Bearing in mind that the physical structure of an Asian body can be very different from the form that Ford is accustomed to, and with the best intention of trying to understand whether he can design for a demographic that will inevitably generate significant profits for his burgeoning business empire, we wanted to know if he understood the Asian body. Ford didn’t like these questions. He thinks of himself as ‘international’. So for us to have broached such topics was, in his judgement, considered ‘regionalistic’ and even ‘borderline racist’.

Do you understand the Asian body?
[Cautiously] I think so…

What do you see as the characteristics of an Asian body?
[Narrows eyes] I don’t think they are that different. I mean often Asian bodies have a slightly longer torso and less long legs, but they are generally very thin.

For this spring summer you cast Liu Wen, Du Juan and Rinko on your catwalk. What made you gravitate towards them?
Well, first of all, two of them are models and they are beautiful, and Rinko is an actress who I adore and I loved her in Babel. I’ve always been quite multicultural and it’s funny that someone asked me in an interview yesterday if I had any Asian friends. I felt that was such a strange question. When you grow up in America, contrary to popular belief, we are racially blind because we’ve had Japanese and Chinese families, five generations, living in America. So we grow up with Asian-Americans, African-Americans, European-Americans. And I don’t think she’s my Asian friend. She’s my beautiful friend, she’s my dumb friend that asks me crazy shiii… she’s my fabulous friend, she’s my chic friend, she’s my… I’m colourblind. When you do a fashion show it’s very important and it’s a responsibility to represent a multicultural cast.

What do you see in Liu Wen and Du Juan?
Well, both of them I don’t know very well personally, so I chose them for pure physical beauty. Women with strong character. With strong look. So I took the top five models that I like now in the world, visually, who I knew because I worked with them. And I took some models like Leah who I find very inspirational and who I gave her very first job to. She’s a beautiful black model at Yves Saint Laurent. But what I really wanted to do at that show was to show all different types of women. Women with curvy body types, Rachel Feinstein and Lauren Hutton who’s 70 years old. Then of course I also wanted to mix in some models because I wanted a range of different body types. Du Juan and Liu Wen I don’t know as well as I know Rinko, who I got to know at the Tokyo Film Festival. I sat next to her at dinner and I loved her. I found her captivating and charming and so I wanted a multi-racial, ethnic and different body types. Because that’s what today’s fashion is all about. Helping every woman to find her own best version of herself, rather than creating a step where every woman has to look like this.

A friend who works at LVMH said of Liu Wen: ‘She looks Caucasian because of her face, her straight nose, her cheekbones…’ Do you think people regard these Chinese women as beautiful because of their perceived Western features?
[Mildly irritated] No. I think, and don’t take this the wrong way, all of your questions have a very odd racist slant, because you have grown up here. And don’t take that the wrong way; it’s not a negative thing at all. Honestly, growing up in America and Europe, I don’t think as racially as the questions you are asking.

Well, for one…
[Interjecting] I had a journalist earlier ask me a question which, I had to say, found really shocking. He asked me if those flowers are fake. And I said ‘No, they’re not fake, they are real.’ He said ‘I don’t believe you’. And he went over and looked. And I said, ‘They are cymbidium orchids wired to long stems because you can’t get cymbidiums in long stems. But they are real.’ So he looked at them, came back and sat down. I said, ‘Why did you ask me if they were fake?” He said, ‘Well, you are American’. [Laughs] I was like: ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘Well, you know often Americans are very fake and you have fake things and so I thought they might be fake.’ And I said: ‘That’s such a racist comment!’ [Lowers voice] He was German.

But I was talking about the Western perceptions of beauty in the Asian face. The yardstick that people measure or judge beauty...
[Interjecting again] I find a lot of different women beautiful. Some women, you know… I hate Jewish girls having their noses done. There’s usually a balance to a face that your cheekbones balances with your nose. So the width of your face balances with the width of your nose. And the width of your nose is very different than a Caucasian nose, you know, from England. But you know their face is going to be more narrow. I see beauty, or maybe less beauty. But within every race there are very beautiful examples.

You see beauty in terms of ratio and balance.
Of course, more than… I don’t really see race. I always feel really sad when I see, and I don’t mean this in a racial way, other than maybe more Korean… I feel really sad when I see girls who have had their eyes, you know, Westernised, so to speak.

What do you mean, Westernised?
Often you see women who’ve had surgery to eliminate the hood over the eye to make their eyes… It’s a very common surgery; they have their hoods removed to look more Caucasian or European than Asian. I find it very sad because I think they are very beautiful like they are. Their faces have a balance to them and beauty.

Why is everybody so serious?” asked Tom Ford at a cocktail party held in his honour later that evening. Possibly because the party had been engineered to create a tone of speechless reverence prior to your arrival, Mr Ford. Champagne was served with the label always facing. Canapés were mathematically positioned on their serving trays. Lights were dimmed to oh-so-hushed levels. Tables blocked up the space in the centre of the room, thereby forcing people back against the walls as if awaiting a royal encounter. Everyone looked serious, Mr Ford, because even the level of joy had been thermostated. Instead of beauty, the guests endured an artificial paradise of politesse, lip service, and the clement coldness of unsmiling assistants. One could certainly feel this warm alienation during the interview. He nonchalantly uses his charm to disarm (“I like your green shoes”, “I love your dress”), and his use of diversion tactics to stave off alarming questions is obviously a skill he honed over a great length of time. We know Ford as a confident, powerful, softly masculine yet very strong man. But we are almost certain there are various sub-personalities jostling beneath that unruffled exterior. Why this need to control the environment whenever journalists are in close proximity? Why this translucent shield of armour for a man who’s over 50? When I told Ford I had tried on some of his clothes, his immediate reaction was to act like Shelley’s Sensitive Plant – seizing up his beautiful petals for fear of being closely examined. It was, perhaps, the first time I had seen the shimmering surface of a deep well of insecurity within the soul of the great designer.

I came to try on some clothes yesterday…
[Uncomfortably] And did they not fit?

No, I mean…
I think that, well, first of all, we did have some fitting problems with this collection and you know this is my first collection and I did it in three months because I was working on the Oscars until March and then I had to hire my team, find manufacturers, find my studio, set it all up, and finish [the collection] from April to July because that has to be ready for New York. So it’s a tiny collection. And to be quite honest, there were some fit discrepancies between things. [Thinking aloud] Umm, but no, it would be fine.

I feel you’re designing for someone very slender, very tall…

I don’t agree with you, Kawai. I think I can put any dress on you and hem it to the right length and I think I can alter it and it’ll fit you.

But would it fit everybody?
Well, I have to say if we have to talk about things like this, Americans are too fat. And in London they are starting to get fat too. So I have to say that if we have to talk about race system and nationalism, I find it refreshing that everyone [who is] Chinese is slim. The only thing we changed [at Gucci] was the width of the nose bridge on eyeglasses because it won’t fit an Asian nose if it’s made for someone’s nose like mine. We changed the shoe width because, traditionally, in Asia, certain men and women have a wider foot in the front. Our buyers should be buying our shorter jackets. We made a kind of petite version, which my mother for example, 5ft 3in, or 5ft 2in, you could say she has an Asian body. Long torso, short legs and she’s 5ft 3in. She needs a kind of petite jacket. And she’s German and Irish. So I don’t know, you know?

Let’s move on. Enzo Ferrari would never sell his cars to somebody with bad taste. What does Tom Ford feel about this?
I don’t feel that way. But I do design for a specific person who appreciates… who’s probably thin, quite honestly. She takes care of herself. She understands the quality of a stitch, understands the quality of the fabric. She’s most likely urban. You know, my clothes are expensive. As I told you earlier on, I used to make jeans that cost US$50 here, and at this stage in my life, after 25 years in the fashion business, what interests me the most is the best. The best fabric, the best stitching, the best quality, and that is, by nature, expensive. It doesn’t mean I’m trying to exclude or make a social judgement about not wanting people who can’t afford my clothes to be stylish. By the way, style has nothing to do with money. And the fact that you [points at my dress] know who you are and are wearing something that’s different than anyone else in here who’s come in, even though [they are] traditionally Chinese, you’re the first person in China that I’ve seen in traditional Chinese clothes since I’ve been here. So that to me is exciting. Because you know who you are and you have your own character.

Thanks, but…
[Continuing] So what I’m doing now is more about style than fashion. So I wouldn’t say, no, I wouldn’t sell it to somebody I don’t like but because of the things that I’m designing they are targeted towards the kind of person that I would normally want to [dress].

So you’ve auto-selected your clients during the design process already...
I think one does do that when they design. You do design for a kind of ideal. The ideal comes from me, from menswear. I’m my muse. So no, you’re not gonna go in there and find elasticated waist bands and flip flops. Because I’m not that kind of person. So clearly I’m not going to sell that kind of person because we don’t have it.

How much pressure exists in the fashion industry? And how do you feel about what happened to John Galliano [sacked for anti-semitism] and Alexander McQueen [suicide]?
Well I certainly relate. First of all, I brought Alexander McQueen to Gucci group and I loved him and he’s a true, true artist. I do understand that pressure, because I used to have it at Gucci. You work for a large company like that and it’s three billion dollars a year in business. And if you do a bad collection, the company’s sale drops dramatically. And the other thing is that everyone who works for that company gets their pride from feeling proud of the products that are created. If you have a bad collection and it’s reviewed badly and it’s not selling the [softens voice] pride and the whole company drops and you feel responsible for it. With the work at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent I couldn’t have gone on much longer because I was designing 16 collections a year and I was the vice chairman of the company and was working in the acquisitions committee, bringing in Stella McCartney and buying all these different brands and designing collections. There was enormous pressure and you have to be very strong. And you become isolated. Even though I really helped build Gucci from nothing to where it was, well, as that happened you become isolated because you’re like a racehorse. People just say: ‘Keep ‘em happy! Keep ‘em happy!’ because they want you to keep working. They want to get more out of you. You need to perform, perform, perform.

How do you feel about Galliano?
I don’t want to comment. I know John, I like John a lot. Obviously he’s very troubled. I feel very sorry for him. Historically, Yves Saint Laurent had drug problems. A lot of different fashion designers had drugs and alcohol problems. It’s a very tough, tough, tough business. You have to be very strong.

Do people say ‘yes’ to you all the time?
Of course they do.

And is that part of the pressure?
Yes. You lose perspective. I hadn’t flown on a commercial plane for 10 years when I left Gucci. I now fly on some commercial planes. It’s a good awakening for me.