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Tom Ford: Portrait of a perfectionist, anal-retentive, painfully shy vegan designer

According to designer Diane von Furstenberg, Tom Ford is “a cross between a Rolls-Royce and the Marlboro Man”. And, as one fan wrote in a YouTube comment, his voice sounds like what melted chocolate tastes like.

Tom Ford: Portrait of a perfectionist, anal-retentive, painfully shy vegan designer

Tom Ford in Los Angeles, Mar 21, 2019. (Photo: NYT/Ryan Pfluger)

Tom Ford has come early to rearrange the furniture. He thinks that the already stylish room in the hottest new private club in town, the San Vicente Bungalows, could be even more captivating. So a team of eight club staff members gets busy under his direction, pulling a potted plant from the terrace for one corner and setting up two dozen glowing amber votive candles.

Ford himself redoes the white flowers, plucking out the roses and leaving in the ranunculus, because he doesn’t like mixed blooms. The Murphy bed he can do nothing about.

As I enter, the designer is lost in thought, still fantasising about redoing the room in his own preferred palette, draping chocolate brown velvet on the walls.

Everything in life can always be more sensual and beautiful, if you think about it. And Ford is always thinking about it. From the time he was big enough to push furniture, at six years old, he was rearranging it in his house. And giving his mother critiques on her hair and shoes.

Being Tom Ford is awful, in a way. He always sees what’s wrong. And you can’t help but feel bad for him because you know his flawless flaw detector is always on. “I am a hyper-hyper Virgo,” he said. “Perfectionist, anal-retentive, supposedly. Seemingly uptight, seemingly aloof. We’re definitely homebodies also. We love the home.” (Or in his case, six.)

READ> Tom Ford named new chairman of CFDA, after Diane von Furstenberg steps down

Ford has been known to go to a movie in the middle of the day wearing a suit, and to make hospital corners with other people’s slipcovers. “He’s not afraid to say you need to cut three inches off your hair or lose weight,” said actress Rita Wilson, a friend. Even on vacations in the tropics or river rafting, she added, Ford looks eerily perfect. He used to tailor white T-shirts he bought at La Rinascente in Milan, but now he wears his own brand. “The cut of the sleeve has to be just right if you want your biceps to look right,” he said. In 2003, as the creative director of Gucci, he shaved a “G” in a model’s pubic hair for an ad, adding definition with an eyebrow pencil.

Lisa Eisner, who has done jewellery collaborations with Ford and inspired the Alessia character in his 2016 film, Nocturnal Animals, said he didn’t expect everyone to be as persnickety as he is. “At Graydon Carter’s wedding, I drank way too much and ran out to go to the bathroom and got sick on his shoes – really good Tom Ford shoes,” she recalled. “He just laughed and wiped it off.”

And his friends praise his fierce loyalty. Wilson recalled that after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2015, when she had to present at the Tonys feeling vulnerable because “you have had part of your body removed,” Ford designed her a beautiful dress to wear that “made my shape look like a normal shape – and he did it with such sensitivity, generosity and love.”

“I am a hyper-hyper Virgo. Perfectionist, anal-retentive, supposedly.” – Tom Ford

Ford did not check his phone during the three hours we spent together. He has perfect posture and lovely Southern manners and stands up when you return to the table from the bathroom. His voice, as one fan wrote in a YouTube comment, sounds like what melted chocolate tastes like.

Admiring the votives’ golden aura, I confessed that I’m obsessed with lighting and have been known to unscrew bulbs in restaurant booths or flip switches at parties. “Oh, I do that,” Ford said. “At Tower Bar, if you go to my table, the corner table at the back, there are these overhead spots and on mine it’s blacked out, because I told them, ‘You have to get rid of that spot or I’m not going to come here.’”

‘PAINFULLY SHY’

Ford cloaks himself in black, planted a black garden in London of black tulips and black calla lilies, contemplates death constantly and plans on designing a black sarcophagus. He is 57 but for decades has not seemed to get any older. And he’s wearing Beau de Jour (one of 39 Tom Ford fragrances), a scent meant to evoke the allure of Cary Grant’s neck. I told him that all this makes him a member of my favourite cult: Sexy vampires.

His face lit up. “A vampire cape was one of the first things I got when I could tell my mother to make something for me, and it was black satin on the outside and red satin on the inside,” he said. “And I had the vampire teeth, and I had the LP with the music from Dark Shadows. I was obsessed, and I wanted to be a vampire because vampires are sexy. They don’t age. Talk about seductive. I’m not talking about Nosferatu, you know. But vampires were usually rich, they lived in a fabulous house or castle. Wore black. Vampires are great.”

Eisner demurred: “Tom smells too good to be a vampire.” She said that those who know Ford simply through the famous shots of him with naked models and actresses probably think he’s “a sex pervert, someone who thinks about sex 24/7. Nope, he’s not that guy at all. Very married.”

Richard Buckley, Ford’s husband since 2013, a longtime fashion journalist with whom he had a coup de foudre during an elevator ride 32 years ago, confirmed that the facade of gleaming black lacquer is deceiving. “The one misconception I think most people have of Tom is that he is some kind of press whore who loves to have his picture taken,” he said. “He is, and always has been, painfully shy. He did acting when he was in his early 20s, so he is able to ‘turn on’ for interviews.”

(Photo: NYT/Ryan Pfluger)

The designer takes their six-year-old son Jack – who already prefers black despite drawers filled with colourful clothes – every day to school, where “the mothers have to see Tom Ford looking great at eight in the morning while they look like hell,” an amused Eisner noted.

Buckley, 70, said dryly that their lives are not “all Champagne and caviar,” opening up about his nightmarish struggle with the after-effects of radiation for throat cancer for which he had surgery in 1989, three years after the men became involved.

“Tom has seen me through so much, from throat cancer to my brother and mother dying 48 hours apart, to more bouts of pneumonia than I can count,” Buckley said. Ford made his husband grey merino wool turtleneck dickeys with keyhole slits for his tracheotomy tube, and, for formal events, a black silk scarf with slits. “Tom is actually quite good at sewing,” Buckley said. (These days, a designer need not be.)

“The one misconception I think most people have of Tom is that he is some kind of press whore who loves to have his picture taken. He is, and always has been, painfully shy.” – Richard Buckley

Recently, it was announced that Ford will succeed von Furstenberg as the head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a job he was persuaded to take by her and Anna Wintour.

“He’s a cross between a Rolls-Royce and the Marlboro Man,” von Furstenberg told me. At a time when Donald Trump’s America is turning away from the rest of the world, Ford, who has spent half his life working and studying in Europe, says he will reach out because “if American fashion is going to flourish, it has got to drop the idea that it’s American fashion and become global.”

“It’s a turbulent time in some ways for fashion, which has been rightly criticised for its lack of inclusivity, for not having enough women in CEO positions,” Wintour said. “These are things Tom cares about.” Indeed, back in the Gucci days, Ford was one of the first designers to prominently feature African-American and Asian models on the runway and in ad campaigns.

Virgil Abloh, creator of Off-White and artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, said that, at the CFDA, Ford will not be “just a puppet of the industry going with the flow. He has rigour in his work and his personality, and he will bring challenging ideas.” Abloh added that Ford’s provocative Gucci ads inspired him when he was a teenager in Illinois, into skateboarding, hip-hop and normcore. “I was an outsider,” he said, “and he made me believe in fashion.”

READ> Louis Vuitton's Virgil Abloh can do no wrong – and that might be his superpower 

WARHOL NIGHTS

Women’s Wear Daily sleuthed out the news that Ford was the buyer, for US$18 million (S$24.5 million), of the Paul Rudolph modernist four-story town house on 63rd Street in New York City where Halston once lived, hosting some of the wildest parties of the 1970s (Ford’s favourite decade) for glitterati like Truman Capote, Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Liza Minnelli.

In Los Angeles, Ford lives in a US$39 million Holmby Hills mansion that is a study in black and white, complete with a Scottish butler named Angus. He also has property in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where his family moved when he was 11, including a US$75 million ranch, which he’s selling, that includes a Western movie town used to shoot Cowboys and Aliens and All the Pretty Horses. But “I’ve kind of lived in that house in my mind for many years,” Ford said of the Rudolph place. “It has dark brown glass, it has a garage, it has a legal curb cut.” There are 32-foot-high (9.75m) ceilings, skylights galore and a roof garden. And while he loves Los Angeles, he said, “I do want Jack to know how to put on a jacket, go to a restaurant, go to a museum, walk on the street, go to a play.”

(Photo: NYT/Ryan Pfluger)

Ford recalled the night when he was studying art history in his freshman dorm room at New York University, feeling disoriented. “I just said, ‘Oh my God, please, please, please let something happen to me.’ Knock, knock, knock. I went to the door, and there was Ian Falconer, this guy from art history class, in a little blue blazer, and he said, ‘Do you want to go to Studio?’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding me, Studio 54?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m going with some friends.’”

One was Andy Warhol, who picked them up in a Cadillac limousine. “It was literally like a movie; everyone got pushed aside, and we walked right in the door. ‘Oh my God, here I am, Studio 54 for the very first time’ and I drank a lot.”

Even back then, he always visualised the sort of cinematic life he has now, with several Warhols on the wall, including a triptych of vulvas and a “Big Electric Chair.” He has sold a fright-wig self-portrait of the artist at Sotheby’s for US$32.6 million to pay for his stores in China.

That night at Studio 54 was the first night he ended up with a man, and it “freaked” him out. “And I said to him, ‘This was great. but this isn’t really what I do or who I am,’ and I went back to my dorm room. I suppose I struggled with it for maybe six months. Maybe it was coming from my family background in Texas where, you know, guys are guys. I was nervous about telling my parents, but they’re liberal Democrats who met at the University of Texas, and it was pre-AIDS, and they were totally cool with it.” (His parents were real estate agents.)

“And I learned later on that it was a plus because people thought if you weren’t gay, you couldn’t possibly be a good designer.”

‘I NEED MY ARMOUR’

Tom Ford is elegantly dressed, naturally, all in Tom Ford: A black double 002 watch with a removable woven leather band; a white cotton French cuff shirt (“because it’s one of the only things a man can have, a pair of cuff links”); trousers, plain-weave; the black velvet peak lapel jacket favoured by Hollywood moguls; and a pair of black cap-toe Chelsea boots.

“I don’t feel secure in a slip-on or a tennis shoe,” he said. “I think it’s the Texan in me. I could never go to a business meeting in a tennis shoe. You feel soft, bouncy, not in control. I don’t feel good in sweaters either, when I’m out. I feel soft and mushy and vulnerable. I need my armour.”

What about that time in St Barts when he was nude on the beach and Wintour happened to walk by? A talented mimic, Ford described the awkward moment: “‘Hi, Richard. Hi, Tom.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, hi, Anna!’ Oh, I’m naked! It was a wake-up call.”

(When I asked Wintour about it, she answered breezily: “Everyone was naked in St Barts in those days. And if it happened, I’m sure Tom looked as perfect as he always does.”)

“I don’t feel secure in a slip-on or a tennis shoe. I think it’s the Texan in me. I could never go to a business meeting in a tennis shoe. You feel soft, bouncy, not in control. I don’t feel good in sweaters either, when I’m out. I feel soft and mushy and vulnerable. I need my armour.” – Tom Ford

He was drinking a Coke with his grilled artichoke and cauliflower steak, having become vegan, allowing himself the occasional piece of salmon, after watching the documentary What the Health. He cheats with baked goods, jelly beans, Starbursts and Skittles. “Sugar is my weakness,” he said. He weighs himself daily, holding at 165 pounds (74.8kg), and hasn’t had a drink for 10 years.

“For several years leading up to stopping drinking – because I drank a lot – on the mornings after, I would have to send flowers to this one and flowers to that one and, ‘Oh, I can’t believe I did that’ and ‘I can’t believe I said that,’ and I told Richard for at least a year, ‘Oh my God, I wish I could just not drink at all.’

When Ford moved to the land of green juice and kind bud, culture shock ensued. “I was at an afternoon party at a friend’s house, and Martin Short said to me, ‘Do you think you might have a drinking problem?’ Because it was lunch and I was just kicking back the vodka tonics, and I didn’t think anything of it. It was the first indication I had that, ‘Oh, maybe this isn’t normal.’” He worked with a therapist for a year, tapered off and then one weekend just stopped.

‘AN UNSUSTAINABLE THING’

Ford said he feels enormous empathy for women who get frightened about their looks fading. “There’s nothing more powerful in our culture than a beautiful woman.” But “it’s an unsustainable thing. One day it stops. And I have lived through it with so many female friends, and part of my job is to imagine myself, the female version of myself, would I want to wear that? Where would I go in it? How would I feel in it?”

He confessed that his hair “is a little more salt and pepper than it looks. I mean, Diana Vreeland stayed with black hair all the way until the end. And I’ve been open about using Botox and fillers, although I can move. You have to be very careful with it. I do it about once every eight months. When I go to the dermatologist, I get a hand mirror, I take a white pencil, and I say, ‘Right there.’ If I could do it myself, I would.”

Now that he is a parent (and no longer walking naked around the house, as he once did), does he feel the need to tone down the sexuality of his fashion ads?

“Oh, yes, absolutely,” he said, adding that it may also be because of “the hyper-politically correct culture. I mean, you can’t say anything anymore. I was shooting an ad campaign last week, and the guy came up behind the girl and was kissing her on the neck, and he was holding her wrists from the back and I said, ‘No, no, we have to change that. Put his hand in her hand.’ I don’t know that any of us will survive this scrutiny.”

(Photo: NYT/Ryan Pfluger)

His friend and collaborator, photographer Terry Richardson, was banned from Conde Nast and several fashion houses as part of a wave of #MeToo accusations. “Ugh! I love Terry,” he said. “And I have to say that I never in my entire life saw any of that with Terry. One of my assistants went out with Terry for two years, and he was the kindest, gentlest person in the relationship.”

I wondered about the fracases over cultural appropriation. “Two shows ago, I showed the girls with scarves on their head, which were not durags, and that was not where that idea came from,” he said, adding that it came from the 70s, which I know to be true, because I wore them in college. “And a couple of people wrote that it was durags and appropriation. Well, first of all, if you’re appropriating something, why isn’t that great? You’re celebrating it.”

After we split a lemon meringue pie, the designer dropped me at my hotel in his chauffeured Range Rover. The next day I flew home. On the plane, I saw a picture of Priyanka Chopra on Page Six, the gossip section of The New York Post. She was wearing the same Tom Ford red ruched tulle dress that I wore for the interview. With horror, I realised that I had been wearing my velvet corset belt backward all night, with the hooks behind and laces in front.

Ford was too polite to mention it.

By Maureen Dowd © The New York Times

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