Tom Ford may be an NYU drop-out, but the Texas-born designer went on to become one of the most revered people in fashion after turning Gucci around in the '90s and starting his own namesake label in 2006. On Tuesday night, Ford sat down with industry stalwart Fern Mallis at 92nd Street Y to discuss his rise and career highlights.
Ford has long been known for his candor, and he didn't shy away from discussing his tenure as a "corporate soldier" at Gucci or some of his biggest pet peeve -- namely, men and plastic surgery. "Men can't do face lifts well," he said. "It messes up the face and then your sideburn is in your ear."
Ford was born in Texas in 1961, but the designer and his family moved to Santa Fe when he was 11. He said of the transition, “It was very exotic, Charles Manson was living there.”
He enrolled at NYU in 1979, but dropped out after only one year. “I went to Studio 54 too much,” the designer revealed. He then moved to California for a bit before returning to New York City, where he enrolled at Parsons, setting his fashion career in motion.
"I got my first job because I had pretty hands,” Ford said. That job was with Catherine Hardwick in 1986 as a design assistant. After that came a brief stint at Perry Ellis (he was hired by Marc Jacobs) before Ford was tapped by then Creative Director of Gucci, Dawn Mello, to design ready-to-wear at the label.
"At Gucci, Dawn Mello and I had dinner every night for two years at Harry's Bar," Ford said. By the mid-'90s, Ford had turned the stale luxury house around, and was a bona fide fashion star in his own right. He also became Creative Director of Yves Saint Laurent in 1999, after Gucci Group acquired the label.
"I was a good corporate soldier," Ford said of his time at Gucci. He also revealed, “I knew in 2002 I couldn't keep designing Gucci and YSL. I had every material possession, but I wasn't happy. I was drinking to escape.”
Ford stepped down from Gucci and YSL in 2004. "After I left Gucci and YSL," said Ford, "I wanted to just play golf. I had custom golf shoes made and gorgeous wooden clubs."
By 2006, he was ready to return to fashion and he started his namesake label -- first with menswear, then adding womenswear in 2010. "We were fortunate that we started in a recession,” Ford said. “We were making a product that was about quality."
Of course, one of Ford's biggest successes in the womenswear arena of late was dressing Gwyneth Paltrow for the Academy Awards, which won the designer rave reviews. "It's nice to know I can still have a fashion moment,” Ford said.
As for what's next for the designer, he revealed that he has three movies in the works (Ford also co-wrote and directed 2009’s A Single Man starring Colin Firth), though he said, “none will be out for a while because womenswear is taking up all my time.”
Ford also delved into the relationship with his longtime partner Richard Buckley. On his status as a prominent gay figure, Ford said, "I hate that word. Of course I'm gay, but I don't like these labels. It's not how I define myself.” He met Buckley in an elevator when he was just 25 years old, and the two went on their first date to Albuquerque, New Mexico. They moved in after four weeks and have been together for 25 years.
The designer also offered up his opinions on various designers. On Miuccia Prada: "I'm a huge fan of Miuccia's ... Miuccia thinks. She's very thoughtful." On Balenciaga's Nicolas Ghesquière: "Nicolas Ghesquière is one of my favorite designers, but don't tell me he's one of your favorite designers if I'm interviewing you." On Lanvin's Alber Elbaz, who was at YSL before Ford took over: “Alber Elbaz and I are now friends. I think he realizes I did not fire him." On Yves Saint Laurent: “I have some very beautifully handwritten notes from Yves Saint Laurent telling me how I, in 10 years, ruined what he did in 40 years."
No matter how much you know about Ford, he always manages to offer a few surprising tidbits. The designer has just turned 50, but said he has considered that his spiritual age since he was five. “As a kid, all I wanted to do was mix cocktails and attend cocktail parties,” he said. He also admitted to coloring his hair with Just For Men and to doing a Purell commercial while in college at NYU, during which a hairdresser told him he’d go bald.
While Ford has had a spectacular career in fashion, it's clear he wasn't necessarily eager to encourage others to follow his path: "If there's anything else you can do and be happy, do that .... It's a tough, tough industry."