Tom Ford: the perfectionist who rescued Gucci

Tom Ford made his name by pushing the “sex sells” mantra to extremes in the 1990s. But his latest collections and products have been tailored for a different age.

Tom Ford © Getty Images

(Image credit: Tom Ford © Getty Images)

Tom Ford made his name by pushing the "sex sells" mantra to extremes in the 1990s. But his latest collections and products have been tailored for a different age. Jane Lewis reports

Tom Ford's biography reads like that of a Boy's Own comic hero 21st century-style. In The Times' somewhat breathless account: "He reinvented Gucci and built his own billion-dollar brand. He made critically acclaimed films. Then he took on the beauty industry. First, he created make-up for men, now he's launching dual gender' skincare. Is there anything Tom Ford can't do?"

"The King of Glamour" has certainly mastered the art of seducing his interviewers. When Ford met up with The Sunday Times' late inquisitor, AA Gill, he suggested they conduct the conversation naked. Indeed, "his tenure at Gucci reached its apex with an advert in which the brand's logo was shaved into the model's pubic hair", says The Guardian. Ford made his name in the 1990s pushing the mantra "sex sells" to the limit. But business always comes first. His latest, rather more modest collections model the #MeToo era. "Now is not the time for super-sexy clothes."

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Creating the first global fashion brand

Immaculately groomed Ford, now 58, remains wedded to his trademark unbuttoned white shirt: "a sartorial nod to his beloved disco-era Seventies", says The Times. A self-confessed perfectionist, he only ever wears his own clothes. "If I want something that I don't make" a motorcycle boot, say "I design it", he says.

Born in Texas, the son of real-estate agents, Thomas Carlyle Ford took an interest in fashion and beauty from an early age, says The Observer. His first muse was his grandmother: "She was incredibly stylish, she had big hair, big cars," he recalls. As a student in New York, Ford dabbled in architecture, acting and fashion, spending time in the celebrated Studio 54. He got his big break at 29, when he was hired as Gucci's chief women's designer. The Italian leather-goods specialist was "in a deep rut and close to bankruptcy". Ford's cool style and teasing way with celebrities put it on a different path. By the time he left in 2004, Gucci was a £2bn powerhouse encompassing Yves Saint Laurent, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen. The New York Times credits him with creating "the first real high-end global fashion brand".

Not everyone fell at his feet, as The Economist noted back in 2002. The late Saint Laurent "made no secret of his disdain" for Ford's "market-oriented" ways once acidly lamenting, "the poor guy does what he can". And when the French luxury group, Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, took a controlling stake in Gucci, a power struggle ensued which saw Ford and his CEO ousted. "My life at Gucci was like being married," Ford later observed. "Then you come home one day, the door's locked, and your wife is in there f***ing someone else."

Happily married in real life to style journalist Richard Buckley, Ford bounced back. He risked "humiliation" (and a lot of money) self-financing, co-writing and directing a $7m feature film, A Single Man, says The Times. Fortunately, the movie was a critical and box-office hit; taking almost $25m. His follow-up, Nocturnal Animals a study of death was also garlanded. In 2013, Ford made "another leap", launching a make-up line for men that "looks prescient" now "we live in an era when a French president spends €26,000 on make-up in three months". Tom Ford Beauty is also spending big on a project exploring "the secrets of enduring dermatological youth".

"This job is a total ego thing in a way," Ford observed in 1996. "But then, that's the goal: world domination through style." These days he takes a softer line and professes to be "happier". But Ford (whose personal wealth is put at anything from $70m to $500m) still celebrates the power of cash. "Money", he concludes, "gives you freedom I'm incredibly lucky."

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.