Features: Successful Retail Strategies

Feb
2006

A Conversation With Tom Ford

A CONVERSATION WITH... TOM FORD

It’s all still a bit of a blur. And the only thing I can really compare it to was suddenly being sent to interview David Bowie for W magazine back in the late ’70s.

Here goes…

I’m smack, dab in the middle of a rather hectic weekend covering the Silmo Eyewear Exhibition in Paris for 20/20. Abruptly, Jobson Optical’s editorial director Marge Axelrad informs me we have to trash already tight agendas and immediately ditch the exhibition hall in order to interview designer Tom Ford. Don’t ask me the name of the luxury hotel he was camped out in. Don’t ask me the fake name under which he was registered. And… please, hope he speaks loud and clear since one of my hearing aid batteries just ghosted.

We were being given a scrutinized 30 minute audience and during that time one of the most important (and controversial) luxury designers in the world was going to deliver a personalized table tour, modeling his upcoming sunwear collection newly developed with Marcolin SpA.

Tom Ford’s personalized take on print advertising for his eyewear collection. Cheeky? Perhaps. Sweaty? For sure. Hair-raising? Definitely.
And WHY is this a big deal?

Even the shortest review of factoids from Ford’s past answers that. Tom Ford spectacularly combusted fashion in the ’90s. Wielding highly personalized dollops of energy, sex and glamour he charged into the title of creative director at the faltering facade of Gucci in 1994 and sizzled the brand into a proud $3 billion icon-o-plateau by 2004. Bookend this accomplishment with Ford’s early dedication to fine tuning the classic American suiting drape of Perry Ellis and the recent challenge of rekindling the status of Yves Saint Laurent back to its pivotal ’60s supremacy and you have a level of designer success poised and ready to etch his own logo as a worshipped fashion demi-god.

He’s a rock star. Plain and simple, Tom Ford’s biggest challenge in the next few months will be filling the shoes of… Tom Ford. And doing it in the glare of enormous public adulation.
He is everything and everywhere. He’s naked in a self-directed photo feature in W. He’s the key ingredient in cosmetic and fragrance giant Estée Lauder trying to freshen up collections from both their historic and current essence stable AND delivering the sweet smell of future success with the upcoming Tom Ford fragrance and beauty collection. He’s making movies. He’s guest editor/art director of Vanity Fair’s upcoming (and all-important) Hollywood issue (and we hear he’s driving them nuts on the details. But that’s a good thing since sometimes those high-brow magazines need to wake up, stop reading all those repetitive press releases and start causing some publishing excitement instead of just being print-programs for the over-saturated TV celeb shows over-air-waving every second).

There can be little doubt that the upcoming coral of Ford-logo’ed luxury products will certainly encompass everything every fashion-ista’s heart (or wallet) could ever desire. Not bad for a boy born in Austin, Texas and bred in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

But before all that there is the little but supremely important matter of eyewear. Ford thinks of glasses as “a very POTENT accessory.” And that interprets as gigantic in POTENTial since his licensing deal with Marcolin comes very early—second only to the Lauder connection—in his quest to establish his own name as the ultimate luxury brand.

So here’s Marge and James being escorted up to a Paris hotel suite continually being warned we have now less than a half hour (I guess they counted the ride up in the elevator) with Mr. Ford. We banter about our excitement. The Ford PR agent stares at me and I fully realize what a dead body feels like at a wake.

Pleasant confusion ensues immediately. “You’re Americans… like me.” Ford was actually expecting our British editor-in-chief of 20/20 Europe, Clodagh Norton. Our greeting and heavy ‘new yawk’ accents reassure that we’re stepping in for Clodagh who is hung up in terrible London-Paris airline delays. No problem for Tom as he quickly seats us down, ascertains that we might know a thing or two about eyewear as it relates to style and begins a sorta complimentary interview picking our brain for trends, definitions and affirmation that the specs he’s presenting might well be the future tense of frames facing the world.

The sunwear he’s handing us to try on is enormous. Big and brassy interpretations of classic shapes and styles. “Don’t use the word retro,” he warns. “Retro denotes dead. I live and create in a world of classical influences and classical materials.” And for Ford the over-sized looks are balanced by neutral tones sidestepping the current vogue of purples, blues and reds in both sun and Rx.

“I love the color and luxury message of horn tones. I want to use colors that enhance skin tones… caramel, blush, brown, cream.” And those colors are all reflected in the sun lenses. He searches for a word on the tint pattern and we suggest ‘gradient.’ He’s thrilled. “I love gradiated lenses that go from light on the bottom to dark at the top. I like their mystery and what they say about both the past and the future of eyewear.” That tone-quality “brings a sensual and sexy look for both the wearer and the person looking at them. And that relationship is what’s most important to me as a designer.” For Ford it’s not just about the object being designed. It’s about the product in relationship to the wearer.

“Eyewear is very potent,” Ford reinforces that word for the second time. “Like shoes and also like a fragrance. My intended purpose is to convey a tremendous sense of mood and attitude. So often I’ll think of one of my inspirations like Cary Grant and put that person in my thought process when reaching for the essence of the style of a product. It could be menswear… or glasses…or even cologne… but I ask myself would Cary Grant wear this?”

That assimilation of creativity is going on even as we chat with Ford. He listens to our take on the definition of luxury and puts himself on a synchronistic playing field of opinions. “I’m not the same person I was when I first started at Gucci but the difference is that I’m reacting to a different world at the age of 44 than when I was 32. Back then things were more sexual and now they are more sensual. And that word needs exclusivity in order to exist. Everything I’m doing now is really a search to establish luxurious exclusivity.”

The sunwear styles shown to us by Ford are already entering the U.S. optical market. And he feels the Rx collection due to debut in March will push the fashion envelop even further. “I think the consumer is really ready for something new and that radical change will be easier to accomplish considering the relatively calm status of regular eyeglasses currently available.” Take a look at Ford’s frames on our cover to sense that “radical” rewrite of ophthalmic eyewear. We leave interpretation of success up to you, dear reader, but in a true sense of the word these glasses are going to be BIG.

Time’s up.

That PR watchdog enters to tell us just that. Ford himself seems cut short. “I hope I see you today at my booth appearance [at Silmo]. It would be nice to see some friendly American faces out there.” We show up for what turns out to be the most crowded, awe-inspiring event at Silmo. Ford is literally swamped with fans. He could have body-surfed down the aisles, instead taking time to grin-and-greet (and have his picture taken with) adoring fans from both sexes intent on claiming a piece of Ford flesh.

When we first met Ford I handed him some copies of 20/20 knowing he has always been a magazine fanatic, often crediting his passion for fashion magazines as the root of his instinct toward design. The copies I give him happen to have covers of Donald Trump and Kenneth Cole. “Wow. This is a real magazine. It looks really good.” (Believe me. That is exactly what he said. I wrote it down and underlined it three times as Marge had begun throwing out warm-up questions.)

About 15 minutes into our cab ride back to the exhibition hall, Marge gets a call from the Marcolin/Ford handlers. They tell us Ford would love to be in the U.S. 20/20 and would even be happy to art direct his own photo shoot, providing exclusive pictures.

Tom Ford and Maurizio Marcolin have
quite a lot in common as they greet the
Silmo crowds of Ford fanatics.

Things happen pretty fast after that. Maurizio Marcolin, CEO of product licensing, puts the plan in motion even though we’ve never done a feature portrait without being present at the shoot. But remembering Ford saying he honors, appreciates and respects his close working relationship with Maurizio, deadlines are set and the wait for film (and further info on the release of the eyewear collection in the U.S.) began.

Jitters set in when, stateside, we got a look at Ford personally letting it all hang out in a self-dir-ected multi-page photo spread in W. It’s all there… the sex, the hairy bodies, the men with the women with the men … and the women and the men with Ford…You get the picture? Concurrent to this we shyly previewed the new Estèe Lauder ads for Ford’s revamp of Youth Dew featuring a naked Carolyn Murphy.

Not exempt from any of the controversy, the first ads for Tom Ford Eyewear cast a man and woman more than a bit sweaty, hairy and sexual in a playful-porno way.

Fortunately the images sent to us are MUCH safer. Ford follows the exacting measurements of our cover dimensions; he dutifully wears his own eyeglasses for the cover shot by Nigel Parry and gives us a coy twist on fame and infamy by posing in front of a posterized image of Andy Warhol.

And that’s the story of our shared (doubled) 15 minutes of fame with Tom Ford and all his frames so far.

 

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