Tom Ford, a Singular Man

He is a creative giant who changed fashion, not only with brilliant clothing, but with a genuine philosophy and an artistic style of communication.  He starred at the House of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, and then created his own masterful brand.  In his ‘spare time,’ he wrote and directed A Single Man, which was nominated for an Oscar and three Golden Globes.

Photo: Simon Perry

Speaking with Tom Ford is his good friend Lisa Eisner, photographer extraordinaire, art book publisher and all-around glamour girl, who also modeled for him recently in his private all-star runway show.


Tom Ford: Are we supposed to talk about fashion?

Lisa Eisner: I think that we have to talk about fashion, a little bit anyway, which I’m thrilled about, because it’s the only time I can ever get you to talk about fashion.  I knew you were going to say, “I don’t want to talk about fashion.”

TF: What if we start gossiping?

LISA: This is a big year for you. Right? Because of a birthday coming up.

TF: You mean because I’m turning fifty? I don’t think of it as a big year at all. I was born fifty. When I was five years old, I wanted to be fifty. I knew exactly what I was going to look like, exactly what I was going to be doing. Although when I was five, I had envisioned that I was going to have very distinguished gray at my temples, which I have decided to avoid. I always wanted to be fifty. I never felt like a little kid. I wanted to be at my parents’ cocktail parties. I wanted to live in a glamorous apartment—I thought in New York, but now I’d rather not live in New York. I think I had my midlife crisis in my forties. Now everything seems quite smoothed out . . .

LISA: But fifty, we could say that’s half your life.

TF: No. I did that already at forty. Forty was extremely upsetting for me. And it remained upsetting until about forty-seven. It was like a seven-year-long mid-life crisis. I’ve been saying I was fifty ever since I was forty-seven, because I like to be dramatic and have people say, “Oh my God, you look so good.” People probably think I’m turning fifty-three or fifty-four.

LISA: So is everything exactly how you thought?

TF: It is and it isn’t. It is exactly how I thought in a lot of ways. But those ways feel different, and the experience of having all the things that I thought I wanted and of doing all the things that I thought I wanted to do turned out differently from how I imagined them.

LISA: You’re not driving around in like a big limousine.

TF: Well, yes, I am. But it’s not in a stretch Cadillac like they had in 1977, when I was imagining this dream.

LISA: And you still go to Bed Bath & Beyond, and you probably never thought that you were going to keep doing that.

TF: I go online to Bed Bath & Beyond, and of course, I had no concept of online when I was a kid.

LISA: Do you look at life as glass half-empty or glass half-full?

TF: No.

LISA: How do you look at it?

TF: I’m perfectly happy. I could die tomorrow. I feel like I’ve experienced so many things, and I’ve been so fortunate. I’ve had a great relationship in my life. I’ve had wonderful dogs. I’ve had a great career. I’ve had lots of things that have fulfilled me. I hope that I don’t die tomorrow. There are other things that I’d like to do. I hope that I get to be a little bit wiser and smarter, and keep learning things, and I’m looking forward to my old age in Santa Fe in my nineties as a sculptor—maybe wearing a lot of dark eye makeup like Louise Nevelson. I don’t know. I might have a Johnny Depp/Santa Fe/Louise Nevelson–sculptor moment in my nineties. I know fifty was a big thing for you . . .

LISA: I don’t know . . .

TF: You told me it was. You said you realized that you just had so many days left and you didn’t go to dinner parties you didn’t want to anymore. I started doing that maybe two or three years ago when I stopped drinking. So if there’s a boring dinner party, and I’ll have to sit next to some really boring socialite that I have nothing to say to, I don’t go.

LISA: I sort of do that, but then sometimes you plow through . . .

TF: Well, you have to do some of it for work. And that’s one of the things that I do find stressful about New York. New York is very much work for me. When I used to live in New York, I had days where I didn’t have anything to do, and I’d wander around and go to art galleries, go to museums and walk around the streets, which I love, because I love New York. But my time there now is so limited, all I do is work, twenty-four hours a day. I have to work this weekend and finish all of my collections so that I can hand them off on Sunday evening, and I’m in Beijing Monday–Tuesday, in Shanghai Wednesday–Thursday, in Hong Kong Friday. Friday night I come back. I have one day off in London, and then I go to Milan, and then straight from Milan to Santa Fe. I mean, I work. And with computer and email, I think we all work twenty-four hours a day. I miss the days when you left your office and your assistant and you couldn’t work any more until Monday.

LISA: When was the last time you had a spontaneous moment?

TF: Well, I’m not good with spontaneous. Even if I had the time, I would probably have a little schedule. And I’m not good with surprises. I went through a phase of thinking maybe I should become good with spontaneous, and then I thought, Why? If it makes me uncomfortable, why should I?

LISA: Are you booked up? Do you know what you’re going to do a year from now?

TF: I actually do. It’s really pathetic. I’m looking at my calendar right now. I am not booked up quite a year from now. But I am pretty booked up all the way through February 2012. I can tell you on February 14th, 15th, I’m in London doing work for my women’s show. On the 16th, I’m shooting a campaign. The 17th and 18th, I’m doing fittings on models. The 19th is my women’s presentation. February 2012. And it just keeps going. I’m pretty much booked. But fashion is like that, and people don’t realize it. They think because fashion changes every season that it’s a business that changes all the time. And while the product does change, your schedule does not change. If you look on the fashion calendar, you can already see when Fashion Week is in each of these cities, who is showing on what days. You know if you have a show on that day, the collection has to arrive fourteen days before, the fabrics and sketches have to be finished by this date. It just works backwards. And it’s the exact same cycle, year after year after year, and so you have to try to find ways to reinvent and make it fun. It’s four collections a year now for women’s . . .

LISA: You’re doing all the collections?

TF: I have to. I have my own stores, and I’m selling to wonderful stores like Bergdorf Goodman . . . you need a constant stream of merchandise. Women love to shop, so they need to be able to find new things. So yes, I’m doing four collections for women.

LISA: Do you have in your mind the Tom Ford Woman?

TF: Well, Lisa Eisner is the Tom Ford Woman. She’s one of the Tom Ford Women. But there isn’t a Tom Ford Woman. I mean there is a Tom Ford Woman, and she’s a woman who knows herself well, and who wears her clothes and her clothes don’t wear her. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but at the royal wedding, one of the princesses wore a now-very-famous (or infamous) Philip Treacy hat—that hat wore her. Now, Isabella Blow, a woman those of us in fashion knew well . . . had she worn the same hat, it would have looked great. She would have worn the hat. She knew what she was about, what she wanted to express in fashion.
So the Tom Ford Woman for me is somebody who has her own sense of style. I don’t mean to say you always wear the same thing. You change and swing. You have different moods. It’s not necessarily related to what you’re reading about in fashion magazines. You have a look. I’ve seen you in Santa Fe. You have a Santa Fe look. We’ve been together in Africa. You have an Africa look. And we’ve been out in L.A. You have an L.A. look. It changes, but you have a very defined sense of who you are in certain places, on certain occasions.
I’m like that. I have a kind of uniform for London, a uniform for Santa Fe, a uniform when I’m on somebody’s boat, a uniform for the beach. I know who I am. I know what colors work well on me. I know what colors don’t work well on me. I know when I don’t feel well in something. And so my favorite customers, both men and women, are people who know themselves and what they like, what they don’t like, and what works on them.

Tom Ford and Lisa Eisner on Safari in Africa Photo: Richard Buckley

LISA: Do your stores change for different cities?

TF: They change a little bit. They nod to what city we’re in, but there’s still a vocabulary that says you’re in a Tom Ford store.

LISA: You’d like a woman to take that freedom to make it her own.

TF: Well, I hope she’s not going to look like the store. I don’t enjoy seeing a woman dressed in my clothes from head to toe exactly the way I showed it on the runway. I love when I see somebody who looks amazing and they happen to be wearing one of my jackets and a pair of shoes, they’re mixing things, and they know who they are.

LISA: I remember going to your opening and a woman saying, “Oh my God, I’m going to see Tom, I have to wear a Tom Ford.” I’m like, Are you out of your gourd? He doesn’t want to see somebody in his outfit head to toe. But they see it as some sort of homage.

TF: It actually makes me nervous. I feel responsible for how they look. I feel like if they’re going to do that, I need to come over to their house and supervise their hair, their makeup, and their accessories first! [laughs]

LISA: In fact, I’ve seen you do that. You do that to me. You’ll say, “Wait a minute,” and you’ll sort of tie something or unbutton something, fluff something . . .

TF: I have to watch that, a lot of people are not flattered by that.

LISA: Oh, come on!

TF: Oh, no, no. Some women who have a lot of style or think that they have a lot of style . . . sometimes I’m a little too bold in that way. I will just grab on to their collar, turn it up, push this there and pull that there, and say, “This will be great, but you need to take four inches off your hair.” They look at me like, “Who are you?” I push that a little too far.

LISA: I promise you the next day they’re going to get four inches off their hair. You said, “I love to walk around the streets.” But I have seen that people are always coming up to you. I can’t even imagine you walking around the streets anymore.

TF: I always think, I’m not a celebrity, I’m not a film star, I can walk around on the streets, and then, when I do, I realize I really can’t. If I walk very fast and I don’t stop, maybe. If I linger, somebody comes up to me. They usually ask if they can take their picture with me, like I’m a building. It’s very strange.

LISA: Do you hate that?

TF: I do hate it. I’m a very shy person. The other day I was at the airport with Richard waiting for my luggage, and I heard people talking about me. I tried to avoid eye contact with them. And I had a flashback to when I was a kid, and everybody was making fun of me. I was the kid that everyone bullied at school.

LISA: Why?

TF: Well, I was not like every other kid, especially in Texas. I wore a little suit and carried a briefcase in the third grade. I was completely different. I was terrible at team sports. I was not popular. So when I hear people saying my name and I can feel them staring at me, it’s a throwback to something I want to run from.

LISA: And you haven’t thought about disguises?

TF: Disguises! [laughs] Disguises never work. You see a picture of somebody in a magazine wearing a disguise, and they look like a complete fool. You just have to be yourself. But it does isolate you. I actually find Los Angeles liberating, because I can get in my car and drive anywhere. I can’t just wander around New York or London and look in shop windows.

LISA: Let’s talk about your stores.

TF: I like that you really did write out some questions.

LISA: I did! I tried to be professional.

TF: I think when you’re in the fashion business, and you get together with someone else in the fashion business, it’s the last thing you want to talk about. I spend enough time talking about myself. I would rather hear about what the person I’m with is up to. It’s my life. I live it, so I don’t want to talk about it again. Which is why I actually hate interviews.

LISA: And you just did twenty-two yesterday.

TF: I did twenty-two because I was launching my beauty collection, which is 132 SKUs of cosmetics, and it will increase to 200 SKUs over the next two or three seasons. It launches in New York and in London in September, and then in Paris and the rest of the world in October. I am very excited about it, but after talking about it twenty-two times, I was a little worn down.

LISA: This will be at Bergdorf Goodman.

TF: Absolutely. And everything. Skin care. Primers. Foundations. My thing is about facial architecture and correcting the architecture and the shape of your face through cosmetics, in a very light way. On top of that, there’s color, forty different eye shadow shades, lipsticks, lip glosses, lip lacquers, eye pencils . . .there’s everything that you could possibly want. I don’t want to turn this into an interview on Tom Ford Beauty, but it is a collection I’m very proud of and very serious about. I’ve always been serious about makeup and cosmetics going back to when I was fourteen, and my mother had to take me to the emergency room because I was lying in the bathtub with cucumber slices on my eyes. She had to explain to the guys in the emergency room why her fourteen-year-old son had a giant infection in his eyes. I was allergic to cucumbers, but I didn’t know it until I put them on my eyes and laid in the bathtub. At fourteen, I already thought I had bags under my eyes.

LISA: Do you do your ritual every day?

TF: I don’t do cucumbers. I do take a lot of baths a day. But there’s not a lot of rituals involved. I basically lie in hot water for an hour, and it’s not about cleanliness. It’s meditation. It’s really how I wake up in the mornings, how I relax from the day so that I can go out to dinner. I have to take a bath before I change my shirt and go out to dinner. And then when I come home, I take a bath to sort of unwind from dinner, or wherever I’ve been, so that I can go to sleep, or try to sleep.

LISA: But you do facials. You do masks.

TF: I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just get out of bed and look the same every day.

LISA: Oh, please! How do you look so good all the time?

TF: I don’t look in the mirror and say, “Wow, I look great.” I look in the mirror and see all the things that need to be corrected, all the latest developments of aging.

LISA: You’re a dude! Dudes look good when they’re aging.

TF: If they take care of themselves, they do.  If they don’t, they don’t. Whether you’re a man or a woman, you have to take care of yourself. You don’t have to care about your looks. People reading this may think, Yeah, they don’t believe that. But looks are not the most important thing, by any means. But if one does care about one’s looks, key number one is stay thin. I’m the same weight now that I was when I was thirty-three years old. I weigh myself every day. If I gain more than three pounds, I eat vegetables for two or three days until I get back down to my weight.

LISA: That is a health diet too . . . less calories and you live longer.

TF: Absolutely. I eat healthy foods. I don’t eat any fried foods ever. I never ever have ice cream; I probably haven’t had it in fifteen years. I eat sorbet instead. I definitely watch what I eat. Then, on top of it, I eat candy. [laughs] It’s true! I eat really healthy foods, but then at least once a day I eat some total piece of junk sugar.

LISA: And drink Diet Coke.

TF: Not any more. I quit because of the artificial sweeteners. I’d been trying to do that for years. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke cigarettes, I don’t do any drugs. It’s very exciting. A life on water . . . You actually discover that water has a flavor.

LISA: Yes?

TF: I’m kidding. Water is so boring! But that’s all I drink.

LISA: Do you know what’s worse than women having plastic surgery? Men.

TF: I think that they haven’t been able to perfect a good facelift for a man. You always notice a facelift on a woman. It’s a tightness around the ears, and the scar is usually inside the ears. If I suspect it’s been done, I usually move around until I can see it. But with a man, it actually pulls your beard and your sideburns back, and that’s what’s so strange. And an eyelift on a man usually makes the eyes look extremely feminine. It’s something to avoid if you’re a man. The solution is a really beautifully tailored Tom Ford jacket. No one will be looking at your bad eyelift.

LISA: Yes I was thinking, instead of a droopy neck, you get a Tom Ford turtleneck . . .

TF: I’m actually in favor of minimal cosmetic surgery—if someone wants it. Everyone in my family always wore makeup. I never saw my mother without her makeup. If the doorbell would ring, she’d put lipstick on before she’d go to the door. I met Georgia O’Keeffe when I was a kid, in Santa Fe, because my grandfather knew her. We were walking down the street and my grandfather said “Hi” and introduced me, and my eyes must have been gigantic. As I walked away I said, “Who was that?”—and he explained that she was a really famous artist. I had never in my life seen a woman with no makeup. It really flipped me out. Now I look back and I think, Wow, here was a woman who knew herself, who had great style, whose look was as contrived as anybody’s.
So you can have cosmetic surgery or you can choose to age naturally. It’s really a choice. I was at the Vanity Fair Oscar party, and at our table was a man about sixty-three or sixty-four who had had a facelift; and next to him was a man who was also sixty-three or sixty-four who had not had a facelift. They both looked their age. One looked stretched, pulled and pumped up, and the other looked wrinkled and not pumped-up. So having cosmetic surgery doesn’t necessarily make you look younger or better. It does trim off that little piece of extra skin hanging around, so if that bothers you, fine. But I don’t think it tricks anyone into thinking you’re younger or in better shape or health. You have to have a very controlled eye to remain looking human and looking like the sex you were born with. But I think everyone needs to do what they feel makes them look their best.

LISA: I think that we’re living in a good time for people to be themselves.

TF: I think it’s a reaction against what we went through in the ’90s, which was a mass globalization, thanks to the Internet. All of a sudden, all over the world, everyone was watching, looking, wearing, drinking the same thing at the same time. We’re experiencing a backlash to that, and everyone all over the world wants to be an individual. There are some cultures that are just awakening to materialism, that have been deprived for so long, and feel the need to look like everybody else, to say, “Hey, I’ve made it too, and I can afford this product as well.” But in mature cultures, there’s a new sort of individuality now. You can go online and get any obscure work that you might not have been able to find before in a bookshop, or a rare film . . . everything can be online, you have things that were less well-known that have become very well-known because they are accessible. Does that make any sense?

LISA: It totally does. When I started in the ’80s in fashion, there were real trends: You don’t wear long skirts; you wear short skirts; or you wear this. But I feel like those days are over.

TF: They are over.

LISA: And I don’t think they’re going to come back. Now it’s whatever you feel like wearing.

TF: Yes. But there’s always a framework. While you’re in a period, I don’t think you can feel it. When you look back at pictures twenty years from now, you’ll be able to say—“Oh, that was 2011, ’12 . . . that era.” We don’t realize it, but even when we think we’re being individuals, there are certain consistencies in shoulders, feeling, hair, eyeshadow . . . there is a look to a period, and when you’re in the middle of it, it’s very hard to actually know what it is. It’s like when you look in the mirror, you might think, God, I look old . . . Then you look back at a picture twenty years later, and you think, Oh my God, I was so young. Or, My haircut was so scary. But at the time that you had it, it just looked great. Periods are not only marked by clothes. The same mood permeates all the arts . . . architecture, car design, industrial design, graphic design. There’s a look and a mood to each period and as you keep moving your eye keeps changing. Eventually, you hit a moment where you can look back at that period and really see it clearly. And it usually reflects the values of that period.

LISA: What period are we in now, then?

TF: We can’t call it anything right now. We may one day look back at it and call it the greatest heyday of all time, or some gigantic nuclear disaster could strike in five years and the Earth be wiped out. I’m being dramatic. But we didn’t know what was going to happen in 2001. We didn’t know September 11th was going to happen and it altered everything. A week before that happened, you couldn’t have said what period we were in, but a week after that, you could say, “Gosh, that period is over; we’re now in a new period.” I don’t think you can really say right now what period we’re in.

LISA: I guess it is some historical moment that marks the era.

TF: And things don’t necessarily fall in decades. The ’50s ended, I think, when John Kennedy was shot in 1963. That was really the end of a certain kind of innocence, a certain kind of formality. Today with the Internet, there’s not a lot of mystery. There’s not a lot of mystery with sex or with anything, and there’s not a lot of nuance. Because no one has time for nuance. I am trying to bring that back a little bit. That comes back to a certain formality and a certain reserve. I don’t know if I’ll succeed at it, but nuance is something that I think about. No one takes time to contemplate words and the meaning of words. When you send a text, sometimes they’re not even words, just letters and abbreviations. But there was a time when you really chose your words carefully, and almost everything had some sort of double meaning, and when you sent flowers to someone, certain flowers meant something . . . Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but . . .

LISA: It’s so true, everything is so disposable now.

TF: And we move at such a speed that everything has to be reduced to an icon. On your computer, they’re not even words. They’re icons that you click on, and they’re global. People have become like that. An icon for this kind of person, and an icon for that kind of person. And people want to be an icon. So the moment you meet someone, you judge them instantly: Okay, she believes in this, she does that. This is a Republican; this is a Democrat. They go to this school; they go to that school. They live Uptown; they live Downtown. It’s just icon, icon, icon. Which is one of the reasons that logos were so popular in the ’90s and are still popular, because they instantly make a statement. The people who consume feel that way—they’re saying something about themselves by carrying a certain product.

LISA: We are becoming sort of nonthinking computers . . .

TF: Well, I think that we are all compartmentalized. In the Renaissance, a well-educated man knew literally every piece of information that mankind knew. There was a general knowledge. He knew how to start a fire. He knew a bit about the Earth, the stars; he knew a bit about geography, geology, language; he knew everything, if he was a really well-educated man, that mankind knew. Today, everyone only knows what they do. If all of our communication with each other was cut off . . . I mean, I don’t know how to grow things. I don’t even know how to start a fire. I certainly don’t know how to create a cell phone or a computer. We’ve become compartmentalized. So all of us together, being linked by computers and telephones, are creating one giant computer, and our civilization is becoming like a giant brain. Now it’s all connected in a way that it was never connected before, and it will be very interesting to see the jumps in technology that start to happen because we’re now acting as a whole as opposed to acting as individuals. The whole is going to start jumping, I think, at a kind of speed that we’ve never seen before.

LISA: You’re like a philosopher.

TF: Well, a good filmmaker, a good fashion designer, a good architect, a good anyone needs to have a sense of history. You need to understand where you came from. If you’re an actress, you need to know every movie ever made, every actress who’s gone before you and what she did. If you’re an architect, the same thing. If you’re dealing in contemporary culture, you need to watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I don’t spend a lot of time watching these things, and Richard sometimes says, “How can you watch that?” I watch it for five or ten minutes, because hopefully I’m creating something that has to do with contemporary culture. So I have to see where contemporary culture is so I can either react against it, which is usually what happens, or take it in. But you’ve got to know where you are so you can know where you’re going.


The Bergdorf Goodman Conversations are edited by Glenn O’Brien. BG

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