Even if you think you know the history–or myth, in some cases–of Tom Ford’s design career, it’s a unique experience to be able to hear it told in the first person, by the man himself. We got to experience it Tuesday night at the 92nd Street Y for the latest “Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis” along with a stylish group of vente-privee members (that’s right, the fabulous member-only shopping site with brands like Wolford, Cavalli and Miraval Spa also offered VIP access to this amazing evening – have you signed up for your trip to Paris yet?) The room was packed and the 92nd Street Y even opened up a room for people to listen to a live simulcast; the only other person the Y has done that for was Woody Allen. We were rapt listening to him chat with Fern for an hour and a half about his childhood, his long and influential stint with the Gucci Group, and his future projects (like doing three movies someday).
Tom Ford famously–and it seems incongruously–grew up in Austin, TX and Santa Fe, NM and it resonates with and influences him still. His childhood seemed idyllic, and he counts a grandmother–who was married six times and insisted on going by the name “Duckie” because she didn’t want to be called “Grandmother”–as a huge influence. Ford said, “She jingled and smelled good.” Despite a self-described happy childhood, he acknowledges that being different in the Texas school he attended was not celebrated. He experienced bullying for things like carrying a briefcase, but his parents continued to encourage him to do it, for which he was obviously grateful.
He went to NYU as an undergrad, but dropped out after a year. “Um, I was going to Studio 54 lot,” he said by way of explanation. In the meantime, he embarked on a short-lived acting career about which he said (totally tongue-in-cheek), “I didn’t want to be an actor. I wanted to be a movie star!” He ultimately attended Parsons , where he ended up with a degree in environmental design–not fashion design, and spent some time interning in Paris. But his ballsiness landed him a job in fashion after he hounded designer Cathy Hardwick until she agreed to see his sketches. Ford said, “She said [she hired me] because I had pretty hands.” He basically learned on-the-job, and told a story about being asked to draw some circle skirts. He ran down to Bloomingdale’s, looked at the seams of some skirts, then ran back to the office to sketch.
Fast forward a few years, where he landed a job at Perry Ellis in the jeans division. Working there in an environment where a few cents per yard of denim was a hotly debated topic seems to have convinced him that he doesn’t want to work in fast, or “accessible” fashion. “I’m really happy doing this,” he said. “This” meaning making really high-end clothes.
After an almost decade-long stint at Gucci and then YSL, Tom Ford started to feel burned out. “I bought a house and art and a lot of material things. But it did not make me happy,” he said. “In a way I think I willed my own departure from Gucci.” While he’s proud of the growth the company achieved (from near bankruptcy to a company worth billions) he regrets not leaving on good terms with Yves Saint Laurent (whose company was acquired by Gucci) himself. Ford claims to have “beautifully handwritten notes from Yves detailing how in 13 months I destroyed what he built in 40 years.” He started drinking to “escape” and knew he needed a change.