Tom Ford: from fashion to filmmaking

Tom Ford is the fashion-industry control freak who quit a $200m job with Gucci to make his own film.

"A career train-wreck waiting to happen" is how The Australian says many described Tom Ford's decision to leave the fashion industry in 2004 to become a film director. Yet Ford's film, A Single Man, has won critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for its lead actor, Colin Firth. Not bad for a novice movie-maker who learned his craft from a "how-to" book on film directing.

If the naysayers understood Ford's reputation among the catwalk crowd, they might not have judged him so quickly, says The Guardian. His drive and determination are as legendary as the perfectionism he says is "almost a mental illness". He took control of Gucci, "then a fusty, moribund handbag label that no one much cared for", in the early 1990s and transformed it into a global megabrand and an "international byword for sex appeal". In his last four years, he is reckoned to have earned close to $200m.

Part Beau Brummell, part control freak, Ford left Gucci after a reported dispute with the firm's French owner, Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, notes The Sunday Times. "All this stuff we do is a bunch of crap," he declared. He couldn't stay out of the fray for long, though, and in 2007 launched his own menswear line. Yet the interlude sealed a conviction that there was more to life than business. Ford had always been a movie buff, and felt a particular affinity with Christopher Isherwood (see below). So in 2006 he bought the rights to A Single Man, rewrote an "unsatisfying" screenplay and coughed up $7m of his own money. It seemed like the ultimate vanity project.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

"Ford is a man of great charm," says the Daily Telegraph. Yet as a child, he recalls, his mother considered him "horrible". By far and away Ford's favourite person was his grandmother a big-haired, bejewelled Texan who saw off six husbands and whose life, he says, was based on "shopping, dressing and making herself beautiful". But his own obsession with appearance from an early age made him an object of scorn among school fellows.

Having moved to New York to study art history, his "coming of age" was an introduction to Andy Warhol. He was soon in the thick of the Studio 54 scene and briefly toyed with the idea of becoming an actor. But an internship as a press officer for Chlo in Paris brought him into the fashion fold. Back in America, Ford learned his trade with Cathy Hardwick and Perry Ellis, before being taken on by Gucci to overhaul its women's ready-to-wear line. The creative director who hired him would later recall that nobody else wanted the job.

Ford's "electrifying" stint at Gucci became synonymous with the designer-label culture of the 1990s, says The Guardian. "While fashion was climbing into bed with celebrity, Ford was right there, smoothing down the satin sheets." And despite his latest career switch, some things haven't changed, says the Washington Post notably, a compulsion to be the designer mastermind of his own universe. Film-making, says Ford with a smile, is "the closest thing to God we get to be."

Ford's film: accomplished debut or overpolished folly?

The seeds of A Single Man, in which Colin Firth plays a gay college professor contemplating suicide after the death of his partner, were sewn long before Ford picked up a pair of cutting scissors, says The Daily Telegraph. He first read the novel in his 20s and had always viewed Isherwood, who had abandoned London for Los Angeles during World War II, as a kindred spirit. Ford was thus pretty thrilled to be introduced to his hero at a party thrown by David Hockney in the early 1980s and miffed when Isherwood failed to notice him. "I didn't get it. He was 80 and I was 20... and I was attractive."

Typical Ford, says The Guardian. It would be easy to dismiss A Single Man as "a hubristic folly from a man with more dollars than sense". But this is an accomplished debut. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, says Daily Variety. As Ford points out, fashion is much closer to film-making than most people think. "I'm used to working with a budget and a timeframe," he says. "If someone throws a tantrum, I know how to handle it."

Not everyone is a Ford film fan though. The New York Times found it "too impeccable... art-directed for a maximum sale"; a sentiment echoed by the New Yorker: "the film is slowed by its own beauty". In the book, the hero is a scruffy academic who lives in a cramped, bohemian cottage. Here, he is dressed in Tom Ford signature suits and enjoys "a spacious and airy glass-sided modernist home" not unlike Ford's own LA pad, notes The Daily Telegraph. Indeed, this film seems at times to be more about Tom Ford than Christopher Isherwood's professor.