The King of Style. The King of Sex. Tom Ford has been handed many tributes in his career as fashion’s leading ladies’ man. But is there something under that supercool exterior he’s trying to hide from the world? Interview: Kawai Wong; portrait: Simon Perry
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 IFC 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.
What do you make of what’s happening with Ai Weiwei?
Tell me about Ai Weiwei. I apologise, I’ve been watching the guy from IMF get busted for raping a hotel maid.
Ai Weiwei vanished into state custody a few months ago [he was released on bail last month after 82 days in detention]. He’s China’s most famous living artist…
Of course, I know who you’re talking about…yeah, yeah. Well I don’t really know if we want to turn this into a political conversation. I don’t know how to answer it because I’m not Chinese so I’m not, uh, versed enough in the political dealings of China to really honestly answer that in a responsible way. So I’ll leave it at that.
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.