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NEW YORK — Whether describing his briefcase-carrying 7-year-old self, his overextended days at Gucci Group or why he likes to bathe four or five times a day, Tom Ford was unapologetic and entertaining Tuesday night at the 92Y here.
When his interviewer Fern Mallis ran through a checklist of Virgo traits — precise, affectionate, everything is in order, sharp memory, attention to detail — Ford offered, “Anal retentive. But I don’t like that term.
“You know, the world might be a very scary place if it were only run by Virgos. Perfectionists — I don’t know if there are any psychologists in the room — are more prone to depression because perfection is not achievable. Imperfection is perfection but that goes so against the grain. Fashion has a lot of Virgos — Stella McCartney, Karl Lagerfeld, Carine Roitfeld — there are a lot of us. To really obsess about a millimeter on a shoe, it helps to be a Virgo.”
He was also quick to turn the tables when Mallis asked him about being 50. “Fern was born on March 26, 1948. She is on the cusp of an Aries and she just turned 64. I Google my interviewer right before I come on. Then you have to disarm them.”
When she started in about aging, he said, “Am I aging? You are freaking me out — I’m gay, I’m aging, what is this a roast? Am I gaining weight?”
While the Tom Ford-isized Gwyneth Paltrow at this year’s Oscars was one of his proudest fashion moments, he sounded even more excited describing how he bumped into two of the “Downton Abbey” actresses at Monday’s Met ball. And the fact that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos wore a Tom Ford tuxedo was an added bonus — and “he paid retail.”
Quick-witted as Ford was, he broached more serious subjects, like the fallout at Gucci Group and Yves Saint Laurent, how drinking was once an escape and why he does not carry a cell phone. Judging from his rapid answers and insistence that you tell people repeatedly you love them, the Texas-born, London-based Ford appeared to be in a very good place. Three films are in the works, but shooting won’t start anytime soon now that he is doing women’s ready-to-wear, has 20-plus fragrances and a thriving men’s business.
“In general, I am the most comfortable and happy that I have ever been in my entire life. I feel very satisfied. It doesn’t mean I want to die tomorrow or anything, but I feel very much myself,” he said.
Here, a recap of some of the many opinions he shared with Mallis during a 100-minute conversation in front of a sell-out crowd.
Bullied for Carrying a Briefcase as a Kid
The big thing was to put rocks in a sock and swing it around — “Whack!” And of course they slit my bike tires. I didn’t want to carry a bookbag. I thought it looked messy. And it was a real man’s briefcase. When you’re 7 years old, a real briefcase is like luggage.…I am working with Brett Ratner, judging some antibullying films. Individuality is key. We should all be able to be who we are.
Whether he Recognized he Was Gay as a Child
No, am I gay? First of all, I hate that word. Of course I’m gay, but I don’t like these labels. It’s not how I define myself. Yes, I’m gay, but I’m also known to be anal retentive, a pain in the ass.
On Making it
You never make it, especially in this industry where you constantly churn out stuff, things. You never finish. In the last year, I’ve had a comeback, I’ve been finished, I’ve come back again. You can’t rest.…I bought a house and then another house and another house. I bought great art and a lot of material things which did not make me happy. Sometimes you have to be lucky enough to be given all those things to realize that.
Dawn Mello’s Words of Wisdom
Dawn taught me one of the great, great lessons in life: “Only hire people you want to have dinner with.”
This Is Your Final Answer
As a designer, design director or any creative person, you have to hire great people, support them and make them feel comfortable so they can contribute and give you their best. You have to have a vision, inspire them and lead them slowly towards your vision. But in the end, this is not a democracy and you may say, “That is a great thing but I don’t want to do that.”
Adding Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Nicolas Ghesquière to the Gucci Group
I took my job very seriously. I was a good corporate soldier. When François Pinault invested $3.3 billion in our company, I was the only creative designer and I thought it was very important that I was not the only creative designer sitting in this company. So I thought, “All right, who do I admire, who has potential and who doesn’t conflict?”
How Domenico De Sole and the Inner Circle Dealt With the Prospective Takeover
We were like the cast of “Friends.” You couldn’t separate us. We stuck together. We spent a good part of every morning talking about what happened the night before, what should we do…and then we would try to design. It was very, very stressful and it was tough. But we stuck together and the company stuck together.
Falling Out of Favor With Yves Saint Laurent
He was very friendly at first. We knew each other and he very much wanted me to design the collection.…As things started to go well and we started to get good reviews, he was no longer my friend. I actually have some wonderful handwritten letters, very beautiful handwriting. “In 13 minutes, you have destroyed what I have worked for for 40 years.” I didn’t take it very well while he was alive. He was very pointed about me in the press. I haven’t seen or talked to Pierre [Bergé] since then but I have to say one of the reasons I wanted to work at Yves Saint Laurent is that, like most people, I was an incredible fan. I was a little devastated that he felt that way, but then our sales were great, our reviews were great and more and more people were wearing our clothes.
The Final Bow at Gucci in 2004
We were no longer a public company. We were not going to be able to run the company with the autonomy we had. I flew to the Oscars but I was not there very long. I got right back on a plane and flew to Paris for my last Yves Saint Laurent show. In a lot of ways, I feel I willed my departure from Gucci. I knew in 2002 I couldn’t keep going. I had everything I wanted in my life. I had a wonderful person in my life. I had so much and yet I was not happy.
Gone Too Far
I had been drinking always but I started drinking more. I was no longer drinking to relax and to be social. I was drinking to escape and that is a very different kind of drinking. I knew had to quit.…That rapid swing — trend after trend, season after season and the globalization, which we helped create in the world where all of a sudden everyone was buying the same thing — was draining. We were producing 16 collections a year as well as going to business meetings because I was on the board. It was too much. I really couldn’t take it anymore.
The Easy Life
I really thought I was going to retire and I was never ever going back to fashion. I hadn’t played golf in years. I bought some new golf clubs. Can you imagine me golfing? I was pretty good as a kid. Now golf shoes have changed. They don’t wear steel cleats any more so I had them custom made. I also insisted on still playing with wooden clubs. I was bored out of my mind.
How Film Differs from Fashion
It’s very, very different. The film industry is slow and I would lose my mind. You can really only make a movie every couple of years. I love to design. I am a commercial fashion designer. I always design jackets with two sleeves. I don’t design jackets with three sleeves or the layers and layers come off like little dolls from Russia. Fashion for me is a creative endeavor but it is not art for me.
Making Design Your Own
If you’re going to be a fashion designer and you’re going to be relevant, you have to be part of the time. You also have to have a sense of history and pick up the spirit of those who came before you and then make it your own. Coco Chanel once said, “Creativity is the art of concealing your sources.” Now we all suck up inspiration from everywhere. You can take a direct line from me to Halston but you can take Halston back to Madeleine Vionnet right back. Open a Vionnet book and you will see a lot of things that Halston took.
The Road Not Taken
In another life I would love to be a cosmetic surgeon because it’s architectural. You know, you are trying to figure out where the seams go. Can I do it in one piece like Halston? Can you formaldehyde DNA?