Native Austinite and international design superstar Tom Ford does it again. And, again. He’s taken his astute fashion sense and created eponymous clothing stores, a fragrance line and all-around badass coolness. Plus, he’s applied his stylistic point of view to filmmaking and scoring a box office triumph with the Golden Globe and Academy Award-nominated Nocturnal Animals. Here Lance Avery Morgan gives you an insider’s look at this Texan’s successful reinvention.
Oh, come on. You haven’t really been living if, by now, you haven’t been affected by Austin native Tom Ford’s strong design point of view toward sexuality in pop culture, going on three decades now. He brought sexy back way before Justin Timberlake’s song of the same title became a hit, by redefining how men and women should dress as a backlash to the austere early 1990s. Since then the world couldn’t help but follow suit, wearing a sexier silhouette that was based on Ford’s earlier club-hopping days in Manhattan. And, yes, the world looks sexier because of it. Ford’s vision has become synonymous with seductive and theatrical. Ford’s talents seem to know no bounds…suits (both business and swim), jeans, casual wear, and accessories like glasses, boots, shoes, 39 fragrances, with timepieces debuting this fall. “We make classic men’s wear. That’s what I like on men,” confided Tom Ford.
For him, life is theater, plain and simple. His pristine point of view toward life, fashion, and now the adding to his repertoire, the art of filmmaking, has garnered him nods from Hollywood, where his minimalistic design approach has now come alive from the runways to the silver screen. At 5’11”, with his trademark stubble and closely cropped hair, and more svelte these days by having lost 12 pounds by having admittedly stopped drinking for no particular reason, he is poised for fresh beginnings in his life with a renewed focus on film. Yet, all this talent had to start somewhere.
Picture this: In 1961, Austin, Texas had a population of 185,000 people, roughly an eighth of the size the area is today. That was the world into which Tom Ford was born; a small, middle class city that spun on the axis of academia, state government and the Air Force base. Living in Austin and nearby San Marcos until his early teen years, his family moved to Santa Fe, where he lived until heading to Manhattan to pursue art history at NYU. Back then, in the last, heady days of Studio 54, Ford also got a street smart education of the era’s glamour that would later inspire his design aesthetic. He was greatly influenced by the club’s icons Jerry Hall, Lauren Hutton and Bianca Jagger. So was spending six months in Paris as an intern in design house Chloe’s press office, before returning to NYU’s The New School and obtaining his degree in architecture.
Upon graduation, Ford secured a job with mid-priced designer Cathy Hardwicke (he named Armani as his favorite designer in the interview with her, astutely seeing that she was wearing the Italian designers’ clothes, and got the job). There, he spent two years before joining Perry Ellis in the early 1990s, and as he told The New York Times, “If I was ever going to become a good designer, I had to leave America.” He then joined Gucci in Milan, a decision that would change the rest of his life as well as modern style during that era. At the time, the stalwart luxury leather goods company had seen better days. The interlocking GG insignia had become passé, its brown leather with red and green trim was ho-hum, yet the brand was somehow still revered.
Once Ford arrived at Gucci, his career’s true ascent began. In 1994, he was promoted to creative director and in 1995 he created a series of new branding ads for the company. Due to his astute design aesthetic, between 1995 and 1996, sales at Gucci increased by 90% and by 1999, the fashion company, which had been nearly bankrupt when Ford joined, was valued at over $4 billion. Near the same time, Gucci purchased Yves Saint-Laurent and Ford signed on as the creative director of that label, too, making him very busy and much in demand. During his time there, Ford won numerous Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards and like he did with Gucci, was able to propel the classic YSL label back into the mainstream minds of its fans and followers, rendering it sexy and sleek once again. But transformation is just that, it’s always transforming, especially in Ford’s life. By 2004, Ford and the labels parted ways. Then came The Sabbatical.
To make the film, A Single Man, based on the book that would eventually play a pivotal role in his future life. But first, after taking his furlough from fashion, Ford started his own eponymous design company, which includes glasses, beauty and now, a menswear line sold at his Manhattan store in 2007, and boutiques following in Zurich and Toronto and now in numerous locations including his Tom Ford boutiques in Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue stores, too.
Then, enter: Hollywood. The entertainment capital has always been captivated by the sultry Tom Ford and he’s made many friends while living in the Hollywood Hills (he just acquired the former Bloomingdale estate in Bel Air and pledges to retain its design integrity), many of them Texans with whom he would travel to the jet-set destination island of Mustique over Christmas holidays. He is much loved by his personal friends and they have all described to me their deep level of friendships with him. His perfectly manicured life on both coasts lends itself to the perfection to which Los Angeles often aspires, and that translates into film and a strong box office appeal as with his debut film, A Single Man, a universal story about relationships, love and loss, uniquely and stylishly told.
Style, meet your good friend, substance. In the world of Ford, they are synonymous. Mid-century masterpiece are the first words to come to mind about Ford’s film placed in 1962 Los Angeles. Set in one day of a man’s life, a man who is contemplating suicide usually doesn’t connote the words light and breezy to forefront when it is described either, yet it is indeed a masterpiece for a first-time film director. By anyone’s definition. “There is a good deal of my soul, if one has a soul, in that film,” Ford has said of the project. “I’ve never shown that side of myself.”
Flawlessly shot locations replicate a vibrant post-war Los Angeles. Ford is on a one-man mission to singlehandedly bring back the era’s style to today. If so, he’s on the right track and rightly so, as the era did aspire to perfection, as Ford does in his film. Outward perfection to mask inward imperfection seems to be the underlying theme of the film as it does with his most recent hit, Nocturnal Animals which was the critical darling of the recent holiday’s slew of box office releases. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams, it’s another dark masterpiece for director Ford.
He’s not resting on his laurels. Not even close. Besides his fashion industry obligations, including his latest women’s wear collection, he wants to do a new film every few years and really get it right. Personal films. No doubt the Austin native’s star is ascending and the brightness might be blinding at times, but look directly into it, because you will see something. Very much of something bright that reaches beyond the mere aesthetic of cool, as only genuine talent can create. And it all started in Texas, of course.