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Interview with Tom Ford

Aired August 17, 2011 - 05:30:00   ET



ANJALI RAO, CNN ANCHOR: His designs are the epitome of sophistication and style. For 25 years, Tom Ford has been injecting glamour into the world of international fashion, winning him respect within the industry along with a host of A-list devotees.

Born in Texas, he doubled in acting before setting his sights on design. But it was in the 1990s this self-proclaimed perfectionist made a name for himself by turning the then-struggling fashion house Gucci into a highly profitable business. An accomplishment that would later see him launch his own namesake brand and deliver sought after designs from head to toe and everything in between.

But it's not all about fashion for the 49-year-old. He made his directorial debut with the 2009 film, "A Single Man", which lead to an Oscar nomination for lead actor Collin Firth.

This week on TALK ASIA, we meet Tom Ford in Shanghai at one of his recently opened stores in China to find out about the importance of Asia in the fashion world. Plus, he shares stories from his childhood -

TOM FORD, FASHION DESIGNER AND FILM DIRECTOR: I was not popular. I was the kid in school that was bullied.

RAO: And shows off his acute attention to detail.

FORD: The hem of your lining is sticking out a little bit right down there on your skirt.


RAO: Tom, welcome to TALK ASIA. It's wonderful to have you with us.

FORD: Thank you, it's good to be here.

RAO: I know you've said in the past that all Americans should come here to Shanghai and stand on the banks of the Bund and look over the cityscape.

FORD: You did your homework. I'm glad you did your homework.

RAO: I occasionally do that, yes.

FORD: But it's true.

RAO: Why?

FORD: Why? Because I think that I'm very much an American, but I've spent the last 25 years of my life, a good deal of it, in Europe. And so, I'm kind of a hybrid. I live, I would say, mostly in Europe at this point, but I commute back and forth. And I think that a lot of Americans don't travel enough. I mean, we know this statistically. How many Americans have passports? And Americans are so used to now seeing so many things made in China that come into America, but I don't know that they really understand what is happening in China. And I really think that all Americans should stand on the bank of the river on the Bund and look across at Pudong and they would get it.

RAO: We're going to talk about your live and everything that's lead up to this point.

FORD: Great.

RAO: In due course, which I know you're looking forward to.

FORD: Great.

RAO: But first, let's discuss Tom Ford as a label in its own right. Apparently you were once absolutely terrified about seeing your own name on a label. I'm assuming, though, that with, what, 21 stores around the world now, you're over that.

FORD: I am over that. You know, the reason I said that was that I put so much of myself into both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent when I was designing those brands that I felt totally fulfilled creatively. So, it never occurred to me that the time would come when I would want my own label, need my own label.

And I guess what I feared was that, with many designers, you know, eventually they sell their own labels, they lose control of their labels, perhaps things are then created that, you know, really go very much against their taste level. And the fear - you know, your name is a funny thing. It stands for what you're about. And everything I do is really about pride. I don't work for money any longer. I'm fortunate enough not to need to work for money, but I work for pride. I work because I love to work. And so, the idea that one could lose control of one's own name and that things could be produced with your name on it that you were not proud of scared me. So, I've changed my mind.



RAO: Now, you launched your women's wear line in 2011 for Tom Ford. But, because you'd been away from that side of the business for such a long time - since you'd left Gucci/YSL, it was hugely anticipated. You were a very secret squirrel about its debut.

FORD: Absolutely.

RAO: Take us back to that evening that you launched in front of a very select few.

FORD: it felt great. It was the first time that, when I went to sleep after a show, I wasn't worried, waiting, terrified for what the reviews would be the next morning. A, because I knew there wouldn't be too many reviews because I didn't invite daily journalists or dot com journalists, which was new. But also, because I just felt so good about it and I was so happy. So it was a great evening, really.

You know, coming back to fashion - to women's fashion after being away for a long time - it was very -- you know, I wanted to be quiet about it because there would have been too much anticipation. And also, I wasn't so sure at that moment in time that I would be able to pull off having my collection ready for that. I had just come off of the Oscar merry-go-round with my film "A Single Man".

The other reason was I always think that it's better to do something and then talk about it. You talk things up too much, it's like a film that's talked up and talked up and talked up - it raises your anticipation level so high that it can't possibly live up to it. So, I really wanted to surprise people. And if they thought they were coming to just a simple presentation in my store, then it would be a lot easier to impress them.

RAO: And impress them you did, seemingly.

FORD: Thank God.

RAO: Who was there? Julianne Moore, Beyonce -

FORD: Well, you know, I wanted to do - what I was doing at Gucci was very different than what I'm doing now. And what I'm trying to communicate now, but also do through my collections is help every woman and every man find the best version of themselves. So, I wanted to do a show that had all different body types, ages. And I decided to show on iconic women that have, for me, always been inspirational. Some were great friends, some were models - you know Lauren Hutton who is 70. Lauren, if you're listening, 68, 65, I don't know.

Marisa Berenson, who has been on every design board of every collection I've ever done in my life, Julianne Moore, who is always a great inspiration to me. Rachel Feinstein, who is the wife of John Currin and is a great artist in her own right and has a very different body. She's very curvy.

RAO: Did you have to swear them to secrecy?

FORD: Well, I did. I mean, I -- I didn't take much swearing. I just said, you know, this is going to be a secret, please don't mention it to anybody. And no one did. And the most - one of the most amazing things was that -- I had Beyonce in my show - was that not one of these women asked to see a sketch of their dress or what they were wearing and they trusted me. And that was really an incredible compliment. And I tried to design something that suited the personality of each of those women, and I think each one was very happy with what they were wearing.


RAO: Coming up, designer differences. We find out why Yves Saint Laurent turned on Tom Ford.

FORD: It became really quite hostile.



RAO: Your journey through fashion started when you were a little kid growing up in the Southern United States.

FORD: I love that you've done this research.


FORD: I can tell you what story you're going to tell now, but go ahead.

RAO: It's your grandma.

FORD: Well, my grandmother, yes. I thought you were going to tell the story about the pair of shoes and how, when I was seven years old, I didn't like one because the last was a slightly different shape, but we can talk about my grandmother.

RAO: I missed that one, I missed that one.

FORD: Yes, you didn't do that, though. Maybe it wasn't interesting enough for you. Yes, I grew up in Texas. Well, until I was 11 or 12, partially in Texas. My grandmother, who had six husbands -

RAO: You're kidding.

FORD: On husband number three - no, she sort of fancied herself maybe Elizabeth Taylor -like. You know, she lived in an era when you didn't have affairs, you married. And so she had quite a few husbands. But husband number three lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And she moved to New Mexico with him where my family then always spent the summers when I was a little kid. And we moved permanently when I was about 12.

So, before that, I lived in Texas. And my family have been Texans for many, many, many, many, many years. And, you know, makeup, hair, clothes, big cars - people in Texas like those things. So, yes, I was exposed to that. And my grandmother was really particularly stylish. And, as a child, she was almost cartoon-like, because she would come into our lives, you know, with really the latest thing on. And, you know, she was not afraid of accessories and hair and clothes. And so she was very exciting as a child. And was really my first perception of beauty and style and the impact that it could have. And I think that your first perception of beauty, those are the things that stay with you forever.

RAO: So, the story goes, the kids on the school bus would all be in their little Anoraks, carrying their plastic lunch boxes, but -

FORD: You really did do your research.

RAO: -- but you preferred a Navy great coat and a junior briefcase.

FORD: And a briefcase - I carried a briefcase.

RAO: Good Lord.

FORD: I carried a briefcase as a seven-year-old. And I was not popular.

RAO: I was going to say, oh, but you must have been ribbed mercilessly.

FORD: No. I was beat up, I was, you know - the tires on my bicycle were slit. I was not good at team sports, I have to say. I'm quite good at individual sports, but I was not good at team sports, so I wasn't good at baseball and football. I was not popular. I was the kid in school that was bullied and, yes, it was very tough growing up in Texas. You know, at that time, for me.

RAO: So, you moved to New York City.

FORD: I moved to New York.

RAO: When you were in New York, you studied at Parsons the New School for Design.

FORD: Yes, but first I went to NYU and I studied Art History.

RAO: And you dropped out.

FORD: And I dropped out. I worked as an actor in television commercials, which I did not like, but I was successful at it. And I lived back and forth between New York and Los Angeles. I hated it. I was too self- conscious at that moment in time. And so, I went back to school. And I had always been fascinated with architecture because I like building things, which I finally learned. That's what I like, building a movie, building stores, building a company, building a shoe - you know, I love that. So, I went back to school and studied at Parsons and studied undergraduate architecture.

RAO: But, when you graduated, you couldn't get a gig.

FORD: No, not quite true. I drew up - I was a pretty good illustrator. I don't draw very much anymore, but I drew up a fashion portfolio, banged on everyone's door on Seventh Avenue, said I'd just graduated from Parsons, here's my portfolio. I never said that I had only studied architecture. So, I misled people a bit. And I pursued a woman called Cathy Hardwick, who is Korean. And -- since we're in Asia talking about Asia -

RAO: Indeed.

FORD: And she gave my first job. She later told me that she liked the shape of my hands and that that's why she gave me my job, not because I was a good designer or that I had a great portfolio. She said, "You know, you had very beautiful hands" - don't zoom in on my hands, they're not beautiful today. But anyway, so that's how I got my first job.

RAO: After a while, though, you moved to Paris.

FORD: I was living in Paris before. I went to New York, and then, when I left New York, I moved to Milan. Because I lived in New York, I worked for Cathy Hardwick, I worked for Perry Ellis. I left Perry Ellis to go to Gucci in 1990 and I was 28 years old.

RAO: But when you got the job at Gucci -

FORD: Yes?

RAO: It -

FORD: I had an apartment in Paris, yes.

RAO: It sounds like it was hideous, though. I mean, you know, these awful internal power struggles and, you know, the place was nearly bankrupt.

FORD: It was.

RAO: Why on earth did you take it on?

FORD: Oh, God. Because at that time, I did think I wanted to have my own collection. And I realized that you could become a very famous designer in America, but at that time, for example, Calvin Klein was the most famous designer in America, but he was not very well known in the rest of the world. The brand is better known today in the rest of the world than it was then.

And I though, you know, it doesn't take any more effort to become famous as a European designer, well known for what you do, as it does in America. I need to go to Europe because then I'll be instantly globally marketable.

So, I moved to Europe. I thought I'll work for Gucci for two years, I'll learn all the best factories for everything, and then I'll start my own company. Working for Gucci turned out to be very interesting, because I kept moving to a different level and things started happening in the company and all of a sudden, I had an opportunity at Gucci to do things that I never thought I would. And I ended up staying for 14 years.

RAO: Eventually, Gucci became Gucci-YSL. And -

FORD: Gucci Group. And YSL was our first acquisition. So, my role at Gucci became very much a designer, because I was doing both Gucci and YSL. I was shuttling back and forth between London, Paris, Milan, and designing 16 collections a year. And I was also - I had a very big role in the company with regards to the business. And so, I was stretched pretty thin, by then end.

RAO: But you were raking it in for the company. Nevertheless, Yves Saint Laurent himself was not exactly supportive.

FORD: No, he wasn't. You know, he was supportive at the beginning. In fact, I was - he loved the fact that we were buying the company and he loved the fact that I was designing the company. And he had been very complimentary of my work at Gucci. And we were quite friendly and had dinner a few times. And my first collection, I had him up to show it to him.

I think, and I don't say this in an egotistical way at all, but we started to be very successful. And our business was doubling, and doubling, and doubling. And when I started to get great press and the business started to become successful, Yves became really quite hostile. And we had a little bit different taste. And I have letters that he wrote to me, you know, about it. You know, "In 13 minutes on the runway, you've destroyed 40 years of my career".

RAO: What?

FORD: Oh, yes. Yes. I'm really happy I have them. They're written in his own hand - pages. So, yes, it wasn't -

RAO: You must always keep those letters hermetically sealed.

FORD: Oh, I have them. And when I'm 85, maybe I'll put them in a book if anyone cares. But they were interesting.


FORD: I've scanned you from head-to-toe. I know exactly -

RAO: Oh, God.

FORD: I could draw your eyebrows. I know exactly your eyeliner, how sharp it is - you used a liquid liner.




NICHOLAS HOULT, ACTOR: We always seem to get stuck talking about the past. The past just doesn't matter to me.

COLIN FIRTH, ACTOR: The present?

HOULT: I can't wait for the present to be over. It's a total drag. Well, tonight's the exception. What?

FIRTH: Tonight, yes, present, no. Let's drink to tonight.

HOULT: Tonight.


RAO: It's not just about fashion for you, though.


RAO: You're also into directing films now.

FORD: Yes.

RAO: "A Single Man" was your first feature film.

FORD: It was.

RAO: And there was a tremendous amount of Oscar buzz at the time. Colin Firth was even nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. Talk to me about what it was like going into that very strange, I think, business when you're not used to it.

FORD: It felt totally natural to me. And, you know, I have to say, I've had a house in Los Angeles for a long time. I have an office there. I know a lot of people in the film industry. Everyone was incredibly supportive. There's a line, I think, that, you know, people in Hollywood can "nice" you to death. So, when they're supportive, you have to kind of take it with a grain of salt, but they're incredibly polite, incredibly supportive.

So, I thought, "Well, everyone thought I can really do this". It wasn't until after I had made my film that almost every interviewer said, "What was it like making a film and having it turn out as a success when everyone thought you were crazy?" And I thought -

RAO: How sweet.

FORD: People thought I was crazy? You mean, people didn't actually think I could do this? Because I had a very clear picture of what I wanted the film to be. And I'm not going to say that there weren't things that I learned and that I didn't know, but directing a film is not that dissimilar to being a creative director of a large fashion house.

First of all, you have to have a vision. That's the most important thing. You have to have something to say. Why does anybody need to see a Tom Ford film? Why does anybody need a Tom Ford jacket or a Tom Ford brand? So you have to have something to say.

Then, you have to hire a great team of people to help you realize that vision. And you have to create an environment where those people can be creative and give you the very best. And then you have to also slowly guide, carefully, that team of people to help you realize your vision.

RAO: Essential character for "A Single Man", George, is going through a mid-life crisis.

FORD: He certainly is.

RAO: And that's something that you say that you can relate to.

FORD: Yes.

RAO: How is that possible? You seem to have everything together.

FORD: Well, I think that's when you have your mid-life crisis. And, you know, it was one reason that this work by Christopher Isherwood spoke to me. I read this book when I was first in my early 20s. I met Christopher. I can't say that we were friends, but I knew him in Los Angeles in my early 20s. I became obsessed with this work. And the book spoke to me then, but it spoke to me in a very different way.

I suppose, at that point, I related more to the character of Kenny, who is the young college student, than I did to the character of George.

RAO: Sure.

FORD: And one day, I was driving to my office in Los Angeles and I realized I'd been thinking about this character, George, for years. I picked the book up again and read it. And I saw it in an entirely different light. You know, it's a very spiritual book. Christopher Isherwood was a student of Vedanta and spent the last, you know, 30 years of his life really trying to come to terms with the meaning of life and being present. And this was exactly what I was going through.

I went home the day that I resigned from Gucci - my last day. And my calendar was just blank. And I don't think I anticipated how empty I would feel. And, when you're used to having a voice in popular culture, how much I would miss that. And I had been fortunate enough to have everything happen to me very early in life. You know, by my mid-30s, I had enough money to live for the rest of my life. I had houses everywhere I wanted them. I had someone that I loved and that I'd lived with for a long time. My family is all still alive. My mother, my father, my sister has three kids that I adore. I had, you know, two dogs, a successful career - I had everything. Yet, I wasn't actually really happy.

And maybe you have to be fortunate enough to have a very rich material life to understand, really, that materialism doesn't make you happy. And so, I was having a mid-life crisis. And I put my mid-life crisis on screen. And it - you know, it was a rough seven years. It started when I was about 40, 41. And I don't think I really pulled myself together until I was about 46. It was a long process. And it was a process that lead me to a much more spiritual life, which I realize I had always really possessed. And a spiritual life in an Eastern way as opposed to a Western way.

We're in China, and so I'm not just saying this because I'm in China. But if I had to pick a religious philosophy that most suited my own or spoke to me, it would Taoism. And the Tao Te Ching is something I travel with, you know. And I try to live my life in a way of being present. And that's what our character, George, in "A Single Man" was going through.

RAO: Your perfectionism is often talked about in these sort of hushed tones. And that you even go so far as to - you look at other people and think, "oh, I think they should be in stripes or red" -

FORD: Oh, I always do that. No, that's absolutely true. I've scanned you from head-to-toe. I know exactly - I could draw your eyebrows. I know exactly your eyeliner, how sharp it is. You used a liquid liner. I know every single thing on your face. But that's just what I do, you know. That's what I do. It doesn't mean -

RAO: I've never felt quite so self-conscious in my life.

FORD: Why? The hem of your lining is sticking out a little bit right down there on your skirt. Just a bit on that side.


FORD: I mean, your shoes are white open-toe - peep-toe - shoes. They have a slight platform and a stacked leather heel.

RAO: That's really weird.

FORD: There they are. You know, that's my job. That's what I do.

RAO: You couldn't have told me about that at the beginning?

FORD: However, I detach that from who someone is as a person. You know, people ask me, sometimes, "Are you vain?" You know, when I look in the mirror, I turn the same critical eye on myself. It's not like I'm looking in the mirror saying, "Wow, I'm so handsome". I'm looking saying, "This eyelid is drooping and I can't do that anymore and I'm getting a little bit of grey right here." And that is what I do. My attention to detail has helped make me a success. It's also something that drives me crazy and keeps me from sleeping.

RAO: How different is the public persona Tom Ford from the Tom Ford that only you and those closest to you know?

FORD: Very, very, very different. Of course, they cross. I mean, I've put an enormous amount of my personality into my brand. That's what you do when you have a brand. You have to have a point of view. You sell your personality to the world. You sell your likes and your dislikes to the world.

But, I am actually - and you won't believe it because I'm very confident sitting here talking to you - very, very shy. I love to be alone. And, you know, I'm very, very different, I think. And I think my movie - it was so funny. After my film, people actually said things to me like, "I didn't know you had a soul". I didn't realize that you were romantic. I didn't know that".

Because, you know, when your image is around and what you design is somewhat slick and very urban, people can think that you are just surface. Because that is what we produce in fashion. We produce surface, and film produces surface, too, by the way. There's an enormous amount of, you know, smoke behind those mirrors. And so, I'm very different.

RAO: Tom, fantastic to meet you today. Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us. I appreciate it.

FORD: Thank you so much.