Tom Ford’s Definitive Guide on How to Make It in Fashion

Ford has plenty to say about his love/hate relationship with fashion and how to survive in the industry.
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Ford has plenty to say about his love/hate relationship with fashion and how to survive in the industry.
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

At the annual CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund awards dinner it’s become a tradition of sorts to trot out an industry veteran to deliver a keynote speech that’s equal parts inspirational testimony and cautionary tale to the up-and-coming nominees. This year’s honors went to designer, director and facial-hair icon of many men Tom Ford, who alternated between playing the part of cheerleader and a sort of foreboding ghost of fashion present.

Longtime friend, muse and leading lady Julianne Moore, who looked stunning in a mirrored dress by Ford, introduced him with a sweet anecdote about when they first met in 1998, shortly after her first Oscar nomination. He had made her a custom gown and invited her over to the Beverly Hills Hotel to try it on. She wasn’t feeling very glamorous, seeing as how she had just given birth four months prior – “I had gigantic boobs!" she said – but once she met him, her anxieties vanished. “He was handsome, charming, gracious and absolutely took my breath away. And he assured me that, if I didn’t feel comfortable in his dress, that it was fine. He said, ‘Wear it, don’t wear it -- it’s just a dress. Don’t worry about it.’” (She didn’t wear the dress.)

It’s exactly this side of Ford -- relaxed, pragmatic and down-to-earth -- that attendees were treated to during the ceremony. Taking the stage in an immaculately cut suit with his trademark air of eau de suave, he immediately launched into a humorous story about how he first met Anna Wintour back in the early ’90s on a nude beach in St. Barts. Punch line: He leaned in to give to give her a cheek-kiss goodbye, only to stop himself at the last minute when he realized, “Oh my god, I am absolutely naked.” (She was clothed, of course.)

Turning the conversation back to fashion, which he stated is tougher than any other arts industry out there, Ford -- who’s racked up 28 years of experience at Gucci, YSL and his namesake label -- first spoke of the perils. The bad: rigorous demands (“We have to have genius, creative thoughts precisely four times a year and on exact dates. I actually write them on my calendar: Friday, November 8th, 3:00, have a genius, creative idea”), relentless pressure to stay on top (“So many fashion designers battle alcohol and drugs -- unfortunately, I can include myself among those -- because we attempt a world of unachievable perfection”) and tricky business dealings (“If you’ve sold a controlling interest in your name at any point along the way, then you get to watch from the sidelines after you’ve been kicked out of your own company while someone else generates frightening products that bear your signature while you pour yourself another drink”).

And then there’s the good: “You have a voice that can influence contemporary culture as much or more than anything else. If you love what you do, there’s nothing like the rush of having a great idea and then seeing it created.”

After imparting these bits of wisdom, Ford segued into a bulleted list of advice for those just starting out in the industry. Consider it a fashion survival field guide, straight from his mind to yours:

1. “Never sell a controlling interest in your name. Ever. A few million dollars now will seem like a lot to you. But one day, when you’re the success that you know you can be, you’ll regret this. Unfortunately, there are far too many examples of this very sad tale.”

2. “If you’re designing your own label, then know yourself. When you become well-known as a designer, you give the world your taste. You sell your taste -- it’s no longer yours. You can only do this once. The DNA of your brand will become all your likes and dislikes. Once you hit the right chord, you’ll then be typecast and often pegged into a certain slot. No matter what I do, I’m always pegged as the sexy designer who loves black. Miuccia [Prada] is the intelligent designer. Yves [Saint Laurent] was the delicate, suffering designer. And so on. So my point is, know what you want to say.”

3. “Know your ideal client -- the dream person you design for, your fantasy muse, so to speak. This will give your collection a point of view and a focus. Then know your real client, because he or she may be completely different than what you aspire to. Or your may not want to know them because in some cases when you meet your real clients they may actually scare the hell out of you. But on occasion, you will meet one that even exceeds your highest expectations and you’ll be so proud.”

4. “Decide for you if fashion is an art or an artistic business. This will affect how you set up your company. Some designers are true artists. Alexander McQueen, for me, was an absolute artist. Some are commercial designers who consider what they do artistic but not necessarily art. I would put myself into that category. Filmmaking for me was something that I attempted to do for art’s sake.”

5. “Choose your team carefully. So much of your success is due to the people who you surround yourself with. Your friends, your family, and the people that you work with -- they all play an important role in inspiring you and supporting you and giving you stability. These are the people in your life who will be honest with you.”

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

6. “If your brand is to have a strong identity, it must come from you and not from a committee. If you’re ever in talks with a potential investor of financial backer and they bring in their wife’s blouse to show you for inspiration, run. If a potential investor has a wife or daughter who just loves fashion and can’t wait to come in and talk to you about the collection, run. If your president or CEO thinks they know the difference between a dark burgundy and an aubergine, fire them. Don’t ever let yourself be swayed in terms of what you design by the outside. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t listen to the advice and thoughts of others because you should, but in the end it’s you, and you alone, who must decide what path to forge.”

7. “Have a five-year plan, a 10-year plan, even a 20-year plan. And possibly an exit strategy. You can always change that, but start with a vision. Where do you want to be, how big do you want to be, what context are you planning on designing in? I’ve personally always liked the idea of global domination. I never understood anyone who thought, “You know, I’m going to work really, really hard and I’m gonna be second best!”

8. “Think globally. And spend as much time outside the United States as possible. I’m an American and I’m very proud of being an American, but everything in the world today is global, and America can tend to be very inward-looking. I’m not sure I would have been as successful as a designer had I not left America. I had to leave my own culture in order to find my own design aesthetic.”

9. “Remember that our customers do not need our clothes. They don’t need another pair of shoes or a new jacket. We have to create that need by creating desire. I have at times in my life had a real problem with this, with the materialism and consumerism that is fashion. Part of me wants to rebel against this and move to the desert and live in a simple adobe hut and become a monk. The other part of me wants to enjoy the beauty of the way that a piece of silk velvet catches the light and takes color. Finally, I realized we live in a material world. We’re material creatures. We are sensorial, we feel, and we touch. We’re fortunate to live in the Western world where we do have luxury. And fashion is part of experiencing that material time that we have on earth. It really does add beauty and quality to our lives.”

10. "Try to remain positive. I struggle with this one too. When our job is to constantly scrutinize things for what’s wrong with them and to correct them and to remake them into our vision, it’s easy to see the glass as half-empty. Think about it: All day long we say, “No, no, no—it’s wrong!” It kind of a negative process. Our brain becomes critical. We have to always try to see the glass as half-full.”

11. “Believe in what you do. If you don’t believe in it, no one will. If you love something while you’re designing it and you’re excited, you can actually endow that psychical piece -- whether it’s a handbag or a shoe or a dress -- with that feeling. So when a consumer is flicking through a rack of clothes, they’ll stop. It will actually transmit your excitement to them.”

12. “Find a great business partner and don’t let them go. This is absolutely key. You’ll need someone who believes in you completely and respects your judgment and vision. I’m lucky to have this in Domenico De Sole. These relationships do not come easy, they’re marriages, really. I trust Domenico with my life, and I believe he feels the same. We love each other as if we were family."

13. “Be thankful to all those who help you on the way up. You won’t get there without them. Cherish them, and don’t forget them.”

14. “Remember that we all have it in our power to simply say, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to bed.’ And somehow, the next morning, everything seems a lot better. This was my father’s secret to staying calm and making it through anything that life threw at him, and it’s given me a lot of strength over the years.”