MILAN — On a summer Saturday, inside a dark, sleek office at his Via Borgonuovo showroom, Tom Ford is enjoying a rare moment of quiet before he is whisked off to the Versace show later that night. It’s men’s collections week, and it has been a particularly frenetic one for the designer, who will unveil his Milan flagship during a glamorous opening celebration the next day.
Despite being bothered by the afternoon humidity, Ford is relaxed and ready to talk about his new life as head of his own company.
To many observers, Ford comes off as unapproachable, even superhuman at times. But face-to-face, without any of his entourage, he’s candid and humorous during an hour-long interview with Footwear News.
In his charming velvety voice, Ford convincingly lays out his vision for redefining luxury and speaks out about what it’s been like to go it alone post-Gucci. He also opens up about his personal footwear tastes: “I like a bit of a heel. I think it’s the Texas cowboy still left in me somewhere that makes me feel better in a heel,” he says.
Footwear has been a key element of Ford’s early success at his eponymous firm.
But his much-hyped launch in April 2007 wasn’t always in Ford’s master plan. He admits that after leaving Gucci, he intentionally withdrew from the industry that turned him into one of the world’s most famous designers. “I honestly thought, ‘OK, maybe that was my career in fashion.’ And now — as with all things, I guess, when you get older and wait long enough — I realized that while [Gucci] was amazing in many ways for me, it also taught me everything I needed to know to have my own company.”
Gucci gave Ford a lot, including 20 ex-employees and former Gucci CEO Domenico De Sole, who joined the designer as his right-hand man at the new firm. However, the customer he’s after isn’t necessarily the same as the one he left behind. Instead, it’s a “fantasy version” of him, he says.
Clearly consumed by this idea of fantasy, Ford’s mission today — to produce ultra-luxurious shoes, fragrances, sunglasses and dressing gowns — is a dramatic departure from his Gucci-era mantra: taking luxury to the masses.
Of his new vision, he says, “It’s really about making beautiful, beautiful things of the best quality and offering the best service, which is very important and very much a part of true luxury.”
Ford believes the ultimate luxury experience is best conveyed through his retail stores. The Milan location, his second and largest store, spans five floors and boasts an impressive shoe department that is three times the size of the one in his first store, which opened in New York last year. Next on the retail wish list are Los Angeles, one of Ford’s favorite cities, and London, where he has a home and keeps his design studio.
By the end of this year, the designer will have six franchised locations in top international cities such as Zurich, Switzerland, and Qatar, Saudi Arabia, while shop-in-shops have already opened in some of the world’s top stores, including Bergdorf Goodman in New York, and Daslu in São Paulo, Brazil. Ford’s master plan is to preside over 100 freestanding Tom Ford stores across the globe within 10 years.
Is he surprised it’s all coming together so quickly? “When we opened the store in New York, people were stunned because we did it very fast,” Ford said. “But I had the experience and the connections.”
FN: What has been the biggest surprise about starting your own business?
TF: How hard it is. Even with every advantage in the world — which I have — I didn’t realize how hard it is to start your own company. Designers who don’t have the advantages I have, starting it, funding it, it’s just crazy.
FN: After Gucci, did you know you would return to the fashion business?
TF: When I left Gucci, I honestly thought, “OK, maybe that was my career in fashion.’ And now — as with all things, I guess, when you get older and wait long enough — I realized that while [Gucci] was amazing in many ways for me, it also taught me everything I needed to know to have my own company.
FN: A lot of the Gucci team followed you to the new company.
TF: Yes, 40 people left with us, and I probably have at least 20 Gucci employees working with me now — everyone from Domenico De Sole to my design team, head of press, some of our product development and merchandising teams. So I have a lot of people with me now with a lot of experience. And you have to throw in some new blood, too. One of the most important things when you are building a company is to only hire people you’d be happy to have dinner with — Dawn Mello said this to me when she hired me [at Gucci]. It creates an atmosphere that’s creative, nonpolitical, where people are happy. And when people are happy they work so hard and they give you so much.
FN: Footwear was an important part of your strategy from the inception of the label. How has the collection evolved?
TF: “Evolved” is the right word because everything we do is not going to swing radically from season to season in the way that it did at Gucci. What I’m doing is a reaction to that mid-1990s democratization of luxury, which — I have to say — we were a very big part of [at Gucci]. It’s really about making beautiful, beautiful things of the best quality and offering the best service, which is very important and very much a part of true luxury. I went right out of the gate with the shoe collection because I have a lot of experience with shoes. I love shoes. Shoes are like a sculptural object, while clothes without a body in them don’t have any shape. Our shoes take three weeks to make. The leather is heated and pounded and stretched onto the last and they sit on the last for 10 days, so the leather actually takes the shape of the last. When we polish them, they take three days to polish. Most of our cobblers are second- or even third-generation cobblers. Eighty percent of the shoe is made completely by hand.
FN: Who do you view as your major competitors in the footwear industry?
TF: Probably Berluti and John Lobb. Berluti makes a beautiful shoe. It’s a different shape, and not a shape I particularly want on my foot. John Lobb [has] a sort of flatter last. We have a very distinctive last, a slightly higher heel, and I’ve heard from many of our customers that they keep coming back for this. Once you get addicted to that slightly higher heel, you’re hooked.
FN: How did that higher heel come about?
TF: I was in a shoe factory in Naples and I came across a vintage pair of shoes that had been made for Gianni Agnelli [the founder of Fiat]. I never noticed that he wore high heels because the way the shoe was made you didn’t really notice. That became the last we based a lot of the collection on. I personally like a bit of a heel — I think it’s the Texas cowboy still left in me somewhere that makes me feel better in a heel.
FN: Are there cowboy boots in the line?
TF: Oh, yes. It’s a personal collection, so I do cowboy boots because I wear cowboy boots, riding boots because I ride. You have to give a lot of yourself to put your name on something and give the brand character and make it different from everyone else’s. Miuccia gives a lot of herself to Prada, Ralph gives a lot of himself to Ralph Lauren.
FN: So does the collection reflect your needs as an individual?
TF: It does, as well as my understanding of what other people need, having worked in the business for so long. If I only made things for myself, everything I made would be pretty much dark gray or black. So I make things for the fantasy version of myself. I have to think, “If I were 6 foot 3 inches and blond, I would wear that,” or “If I were 27, I would wear that.” I have to filter it through. The customer ranges from 25-year-olds, obviously subsidized by their parents — there are a lot of those customers who’ve grown up with a very high level of material comfort in their lives and who understand quality — all the way up to 75-year-olds, who maybe remember shops like ours from an earlier time.
FN: What’s next for the shoe collection?
TF: We have just introduced our made-to-measure [line], a higher-level collection that takes three months to be made. We have a set of master shoes in the store, where we can fit every size and every width. We take a sketch of the client’s foot and we can combine different elements like a different heel, different last, different shape.
FN: How is the rocky global economy affecting your business?
TF: I read the newspapers, so I understand there is a softening in the world economy, but it has not affected us at all. Our customer is a little bit insulated from that. They may not buy a new house, but they’re going to keep on buying clothes. It’s been very exciting because every place we have opened a store, the performance has been terrific. The New York [store] was more than double our plan last year and is growing every day. Our brand recognition is finally starting to penetrate. So our traffic is increasing at the same time the economy is softening. It’s great to see that the brand performs globally — and I hate the word “brand” and wish I could think of something new for that — and also performing well across all product categories.
FN: What cities are defining fashion?
TF: New York, London absolutely, but I happen to think Los Angeles. It’s a lot more important than anyone gives it credit for. It’s spectacular. Everyone’s always complaining about the people. I have some of the best friends in the world there and they are smart. People go to a charity event in Los Angeles and they really believe in it. It’s not that they’re in an evening gown to pose. I find people in Los Angeles very well informed, especially in the entertainment business. If you think about it, everything visual in our world is filtered through Los Angeles — music, TV commercials, film, everything.
FN: You’ve also always had an affinity for London, where you have a home.
TF: My design studio’s been in London since 1996. I moved the Gucci design studio there because it’s such a great city. If you’re going to design for an international company, you need to be in a major capital rather than somewhere provincial to feel what’s going on with culture. London, for me, is the most exciting city in the world right now and has been for the last 10 years.
FN: Why don’t you have a store there?
TF: It takes a lot longer to find a great location. London was supposed to be the first store, [but] I was in New York and was walking up Madison Avenue and saw [our current store] was for rent. It was the perfect location — across the street from Prada, across the street from Gucci. I thought, this is too good to be true. I wrote down the phone number, went back to my hotel room and had someone in my office phone the landlord, and that’s how New York happened. London’s coming very quickly. I just don’t want to talk about it yet. We focused on key cities that were important: New York, London, Los Angeles, Milan. Paris [will come] eventually, although [it’s] less important than those other four. So much of it is about the right space opening up at the right time.
FN: Why did you select Bergdorf Goodman as your exclusive New York partner?
TF: Where else are you going to go? Bergdorf is one of the most spectacular specialty stores in the world. And it’s very good to be in a retail environment with your competition right next to you. It keeps you on your toes, it’s a way to constantly compare yourself with other people. Also, in the beginning stages of building a brand, not everyone knows we exist. Every man who is shopping, who is our customer, goes to Bergdorf Goodman. And boom! There’s Tom Ford, and they think, “I didn’t know Tom Ford made clothes.” Then they discover the Tom Ford stores, as well. So it helps and is an advertisement for the brand in the right way. Also, we’re in a few Neiman Marcus stores in the U.S. They’re a terrific partner.
FN: Which designers do you admire?
TF: Karl Lagerfeld. When I went to Gucci and turned Gucci around, I got a lot of credit: A designer comes in, revives an old house, blah, blah, blah. It became a trend. Everyone began hiring new designers. Karl was the first one in the early 1980s at Chanel, and he is still doing a spectacular job. I have tremendous admiration for Miuccia [Prada] and Giorgio Armani. Giorgio’s one of the reasons I got into fashion. Ralph [Lauren] was one of the first people to do an entire lifestyle brand. And he’s still producing and making great things. Nicolas Ghesquière is brilliant, and Marc Jacobs is great. I like most of my peers. I’m just too nice today.