In this Gentleman of Style feature, we’re going to discuss Tom Ford, the fashion designer, filmmaker, and visionary. Of course, we’ll take a closer look at his style.
When you think of the world’s foremost fashion designers and visionaries, you might picture silver-haired men with Italian or French accents. You think eccentric and dashing, vivid and poetic. You probably don’t think American from Texas.
But, the fact is, one of the world’s most recognized fashion designers – the man who took Gucci from bankruptcy to a billion-dollar valuation – is none other than a man who grew up in Texas and the monochromatic pastels of New Mexico: Tom Ford.
Ford’s Early Years
Shirley Burton, a real estate agent, and her husband, fellow realtor, Thomas David Ford named their newborn son Thomas Carlyle Ford on August 27, 1961.
Growing up deep in the heart of Texas, no one could have assumed this charismatic and artistic perfectionist would become the man he is today, but for those closest to the young boy, it was evident he was truly something special. From a young age, he was deeply invested in design. It’s not uncommon for Ford to regale interviewers with stories of moving his parent’s furniture when they went out for the evening or telling his mother he didn’t like her shoes or her hairstyle. He wasn’t surprisingly particular about his own shoes and clothing. Ford has described his pursuit of perfection as an illness, one that he has worked feverishly to control. Now under the belief that he has little control of anything around him, Ford focuses on his attempt to make everything in his world more beautiful.
But back in the 1960s, no one would realize just how far this interest in design and art would take him. Ford spent much of his free time as a young boy grazing by the pool at his grandparent’s ranch in Brownwood, Texas.
Fortunately for Tom Ford, his parents supported all of his interests and endeavors, making a point to ensure that if Ford wanted to pursue a passion, he was given the tools to do it.
At the age of eleven, Ford’s parents moved the family from the suburbs of Texas to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He spent much of his time focused on the beauty of the world around him and the details. After graduating from Santa Fe Preparatory School in 1979, Ford moved to New York City where he studied art history at NYU for a short time, before dropping out to pursue a career as an actor.
Ford’s need to be in control quickly encouraged him to drop acting. Although he enjoyed it and was quite successful in television commercials, he decided to pursue a career in architecture after realizing how important design was to him. He enrolled at Parsons in New York and started to take classes. He quickly realized he wasn’t fond of architecture. As he once put it, “it was too serious.” He spent much of his time partying at Studio 54, and in the days before the worldwide web, paid classmates to write his essays so he could spend his nights out on the town with friends. As he continued in school, he slowly began to realize that rather than focusing on architecture, he was more focused on implementing fashion into his architecture. Rather than spending his time constructing models of buildings, he would spend it adding details to the small figurines he would place in the buildings.
Just before his final year, Ford left the States and moved to Paris for a year where he worked at Chloe as an intern in the press office. When he returned to New York, it had become apparent that his focus needed to be in fashion, and he took some electives in his last year at Parsons.
From Architecture Student to Fashion Designer
When Ford graduated, it was with a degree in architecture. Aside from an interest in fashion design and a portfolio of sketches, he really had no experience or understanding of fashion design and construction. When he went out to find his first job, he told them he had just graduated from Parsons which was known as one of the top art schools. He neglected to mention his field of study was architecture, which led prospective employers to believe he was, in fact, a fashion design graduate.
Desperately wanting a career in high fashion, Ford called New York designer Cathy Hardwick every day for a full month asking for the chance to work with her. Finally, she agreed to interview him.
“I had every intention of giving him no hope,” Hardwick later recalled. “I asked him who his favorite European designers were and he said, ‘Armani and Chanel.’ Months later I asked him why he said that, and he said, ‘Because you were wearing something Armani.’ Is it any wonder he got the job?”
Early in his career with Hardwick, he was tasked with sketching a design for a skirt. Since he had no fashion design experience and did not graduate from Parsons with a background in fashion, he had absolutely no clue how to proceed and immediately went to a local department store and began turning all the skirts inside out to see how they were constructed. Once he grasped how the seams were put in place and the stitching, he spent time with the seamstresses and learned on the job how to design.
In one interview with CNBC, he claimed it was a fairly easy process for him once he realized that fashion design was similar to architecture. His experience grew from there.
One thing that many people comment on when it comes to Tom Ford, his is unique ability to see things others miss. Actors who have worked with him have spoken in depth about his eye for detail that they’ve never previously seen in a director or filmmaker. They talk about how he seems just to have a knack, or ability to realize how something should look. And combined with being a self-described perfectionist, it has made him the visionary he is today.
After spending two years with Hardwick’s sports apparel brand, Ford was given a job by Marc Jacobs and Robert McDonald, who managed the fashion brand Perry Ellis. After two years of it, he had enough and decided it was time to move to Europe.
Taking Gucci from Bankruptcy to Billions
In an interview with The New York Times, he said, “If I was ever going to become a good designer, I had to leave America. My own culture was inhibiting me. Too much style in America is tacky. It’s looked down upon to be too stylish. Europeans, however, appreciate style.”
In 1990, Ford was set to meet with Dawn Mello, then the creative director at Gucci. At the time, Gucci was in financial hardship. Despite being a well-known Italian fashion brand, no one was interested in their designs and the brand was close to bankruptcy. Mello hired Ford as the fashion house’s chief women’s ready-to-wear designer. He moved to Milan and took the job, knowing that it likely wouldn’t work out. Ford had spoken with many colleagues, and it was a job everyone was refusing. Despite this, Ford and his partner, fashion journalist Richard Buckley, moved to Milan.
Within six months, Ford’s position expanded into menswear, followed by shoes. In 1992, Ford took over as the design director and managed the ready-to-wear, fragrance, image, advertising, and store design divisions. A disciplined work-a-holic, Ford averaged eighteen-hour days at the office where he designed eleven product lines in 1993.
Despite the progress, Ford was continually butting heads with the chairman, Maurizio Gucci. At the time, Gucci wanted round and brown designs, but Ford refused and instead created square and black designs. Gucci wanted to fire Ford for his unwillingness to follow directions, but Domenico De Sole, the brand’s CEO and a lawyer who helped Gucci during its restructuring, pushed Gucci to keep Ford on the team.
For much of the early into the mid-nineties, Ford was completely behind the scenes, while his mentor Mello was the face of the fashion house. However, in 1994, Ford was named Creative Director of the brand and immediately introduced new designs that captured attention. Within a year, he brought on acclaimed photographer Mario Testino, and French stylist Carine Roitfeld to create a sexy new ad campaign. In just a year, Ford managed to increase Gucci’s sales by 90%. By 1999, Ford had taken the near-bankrupt company to a valuation of more than $4 billion.
In 1999, Gucci acquired Yves Saint Laurent and named Ford its new Creative Director. Just as Maurizio Gucci once despised Ford, Saint Laurent also disliked the young American, famously stating “The poor man does what he can.”
Despite the adversarial relationship, and Saint Laurent’s displeasure, Ford won multiple awards for his designs during his tenure with the brand. He was largely responsible for Yves Saint Laurent’s mainstream popularity and made it a name brand with his trademark sexually charged ad campaigns.
In April 2004, Ford left Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent with their CEO, Domenico De Sole, after creative differences over how the brands should be controlled with their parent company, Pinault Printemps Redoute. At the time, Ford was devastated to leave the brand he had helped recreate after fifteen years at the helm. At the time he left, Gucci was worth $10 billion. The brand ended up having to hire four executives to split the work that Tom Ford had managed to do himself.
The Tom Ford Brand is Born
Realizing his friend’s potential after seeing his huge successes in a short time at Gucci, Domenico De Sole encouraged Ford to open his own line. In 2006, it became reality. The line was focused on menswear, beauty, eyewear, and accessories. Ford named Domenico De Sole the chairman of the company and focused on the day-to-day designs. The clothes were made by Zegna, and the brand quickly adapted some signature styles such as a long Milanese buttonhole on the lapel and 5 sleeve cuff buttons rather than the usual 4. Moreover, the buttonhole closest to the cuff was longer than the other 4, thus creating a hallmark that only the most attentive to detail would spot.
The brand was an instant success. Ford focused initially on menswear, but soon pushed back into womenswear and has since made a name for himself on and off the runway, as a celebrity designer. Despite being sought after by celebrities for award show galas, Ford has said he prefers to focus on his real customer, who, he has described as himself: an international, cultured, well-traveled gentleman with disposable income. In the CNBC interview, he then described his female customer as “strong women,… intelligent women who know their own style.”
Despite only dressing one female celebrity per award show, he is well known for the celebrities who purchase his clothing. He has dressed Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Hathaway, Daniel Craig, Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Ryan Gosling, Will Smith, Julianne Moore, Hugh Jackman, Jon Hamm, and Henry Cavill. He designed the suits for Daniel Craig in the James Bond films Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and Spectre. And, in 2011, he dressed Michelle Obama in an evening gown for an event at Buckingham Palace. When asked who he would like to dress, he has said Prince William and President Barack Obama. However, he has said that he understands why he hasn’t had that pleasure, and it’s because Prince William prefers a more British appearance and President Obama can’t typically get away with wearing a $5,000+ suit. Despite not having the chance to dress President Obama, Ford is a Democrat and a long-time supporter.
He has said that he notices when people wear the wrong clothing, but he doesn’t get upset if it’s his. He enjoys seeing people happy and wearing his clothing, except, his one pet peeve is when people are decked out in his clothing from head to toe. He believes that people who copy a runway outfit haven’t found their own sense of style, and that’s something he really wants people to have.
One thing about Ford is that he is often mischaracterized as being this cocky, young designer. The reality – once you see him interacting – is that he is this genuinely kind, charismatic, gentleman who obsessively loves what he does.
Tom Ford’s Personal Style
By Sven Raphael Schneider
Interestingly, Tom Ford’s personal fashion choices often reflect what we usually encourage people NOT to do: wear a lot of solid black. Known for his monochromatic looks, Ford can almost always be found in a black suit, a white French-cuffed dress shirt and either a black tie or no tie with an open collar. It has become a uniform of sorts for him. Sometimes, it seems as if his shirt sleeves are a bit too wide and hence hang a little lower than what we would personally prefer but photos can be deceptive and as you know, a lot comes down to personal preference with sleeve length.
He tends to add small touch of detail with the use of bold sunglasses, a purposefully bunched pocket square – still usually monotone – and a boutonniere. His facial hair is cropped, well defined, and well-groomed. Everything about Ford looks like it was done on purpose, and as a self-described perfectionist, it likely has been.
The one thing we really appreciate about Ford is his apparent preference for a bolder lapel, rather than the newly-trending slim lapels. On the odd occasion, Ford can be found wearing something slightly more risqué than his typical black suit, but in most cases, it is a burgundy, brown or navy blue velvet dinner jacket. Because of his affinity to this fabric, you can also find all kinds of velvet dinner jackets in his collections.
The same is true for his ties, which always remained wide and were never subject to anything slimmer than 3.5″ / 9cm. Occasionally, he wears a collar bar or safety pin underneath his quite sizeable tie knots. The volume of the knot is owed to the thicker interlining of his ties, and not the tie knots themselves.
His shirt collars are classic, not small and not cut too wide, which suit his face shape very well. When he wears his shirt collars unbuttoned, he usually has the top 3 buttons undone, which shows quite a bit of chest hair. Most men look better with just 2 buttons undone but obviously, 3 undone buttons are his choice.
Tom Ford’s Love For Black Tie & White Tie
Unlike the vast majority of American celebrities, Tom Ford constantly displays formidable taste when it comes evening wear. Not only does he come up with numerous ways to make his black tie outfits unique, but he also dons white tie in a stunning way.
Most men just own one tuxedo, but Tom Ford seems to own at least a dozen. Whether it is the classic single button tuxedo with peaked lapels or with shawl collar, a double breasted 6×1, 6×2, the off-white or the velvet dinner jackets – he has them all. He is masterful in his attention to detail. You’ll always see him wear a boutonniere, a pocket square, a self-tie black bow tie as well as expensive, diamond and precious stone studded shirt studs and cufflinks to match. We are not aware of any other celebrity that has a larger selection of shirt studs than Tom Ford.
Single Breasted 2 Button Red Velvet Dinner Jacket
This burnt red velvet dinner jacket has the typical wide Tom Ford peaked lapels. Note the trademark 5 cuff buttons, with the last one being unbuttoned and longer than the other 4. The buttons are gray mother of pearl, the pockets are jetted and the pocket square is a black and white micropattern that picks up the colors of his white evening dress shirt with a gigantic black bow tie and soft French double cuffs. Of course, he has intricate studs and cufflinks with diamonds and black stones. Paired with a black pair of tuxedo trousers, it is a perfect alternative black tie outfit. Striking!
6×2 Double Breasted Black Tie
In this ensemble, he wears a wonderful cut 6×2 tuxedo in black with black silk satin lapels, silk faced turn back cuffs, cloth covered buttons and jetted pockets. Note that the pockets do not line up with the buttons and are intentionally cut to be right in between the buttons, which is an often overlooked detail. He pairs it with a black satin self-tie silk bow tie, a large white boutonniere, and a white pocket square. His shirt studs are square and studded with diamonds. Despite this cut not being “trendy” right now, notice how this classic shape creates an extremely elegant look.
His pants always have a break, although it seems they often could be a tad shorter and his shoes are always black, capless patent leather oxfords.
Cream 2-Button Dinner Jacket with Peaked Lapels
This beige cream dinner jacket with peaked lapels and two buttons is another item from his collection. This time, the lapels are not overly large and the cuffs and lapels are not faced with any silk. If you ever see non-black dinner jackets with silk faced lapel, you know the maker had no clue about classic men’s etiquette, but clearly, Tom Ford knows his sartorial history. The studs are the same as he wore with the red velvet dinner jacket, the black bow tie is not quite as big , the off-white boutonniere is beautiful and overall, it is an unusual look that he pulls off very well. This combination will certainly make him stand out from the crowd, even in Hollywood.
Blue Velvet Dinner Jackets
Tom Ford is also a fan of navy and blue dinner jackets, which he wears with a shawl collar or peaked lapels.
Single Breasted 1 Button Shawl Collar Tuxedo
The shawl collar tuxedo jacket has a very vintage inspired cut. Today, most shawl collar jackets have a collar that becomes slimmer towards the closing button. On the other hand, this jacket maintains a collar with roughly the same width, which is then abruptly shortened towards the closing button. Overall a nice silhouette. In combination with nice cuffs, the signature big bow tie, boutonniere, pocket square and studs, this is a very classic black tie outfit with a vintage twist.
Sadly, very few men know how to pull off white tie properly, but Tom Ford is one of them. Early on, he had his tailcoat made by Savile Row House Anderson & Sheppard. The lapels were wide, but otherwise, it was a very classic outfit. He combined it with the classic Marcella pique bow tie, shirt front and vest, white boutonniere, studs and white evening men’s leather gloves.
At a more recent appearance, Tom Ford wore a silk waistcoat and silk bow tie in a slightly off white paired with a stiff boiled shirt front, beautiful studs and matching waistcoat buttons. Of course, he also had the obligatory boutonniere, pocket square and white leather gloves.
Despite Ford’s personal style and seemingly traditional designs, he has – on a few occasions – stated that he believes the eccentrically-dressed Lapo Elkann is the most fashionable person in the world.
Ford’s Other Pursuits
In addition to his work as a fashion designer, Ford is a celebrated film director, producer, and screenwriter. His first film, A Single Man, starred Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. It premiered on September 11, 2009, at the 66th Venice International Film Festival, and received multiple nominations and awards. In 2015, Ford announced his second film, Nocturnal Animals, which will star Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams in the lead roles.
Tom Ford’s Personal Life
Today, Ford is a family man as well as a fashion mogul. He is married to his longtime partner, Richard Buckley, a fashion journalist and the former editor in chief of Vogue Hommes International. Together since 1986, Ford fell in love instantly with Buckley and claims he knew at first sight, that he would spend the rest of his life with him. Together, they have a son, Alexander John Buckley Ford, who was born in September 2012.
A self-described international man, Ford, along with his family and two dogs, live in Italy but also maintain residences in Los Angeles, Santa Fe, and London.
In private, Ford is well known to ditch the black suit and opt for a simple t-shirt and a pair of casual trousers when at home on his ranch or simply out shopping on the town with his husband and son.
Tom Ford is a visionary regarding pushing fashion forward and creating something beautiful and unique. He maintains a very focused sense of design and is known for the small details. It is not his choice of black suits, his ability to turn losses into billions, or his expensive brand name that makes him a Gentleman of Style. It is, instead, his uniquely engaging charisma, his deep sartorial knowledge, and his elegance paired with his ability to appear perfectly poised in everything he wears that marks him as one. We may not recommend his clothing in our guides, his colognes as gifts, or his sunglasses in the summer. But we do recommend him, as inspiration for anyone who is interested in men’s style and savoir vivre.
What do you think of Tom Ford? Do you wear his suits?