For Tom Ford, runway shows aimed at critics are now out

By Booth Moore
Los Angeles Times

Tom Ford knows how to work the spotlight. During last year’s awards season, the designer-director was riding the success of his first film, “A Single Man.” This time around, he’s introducing his long-awaited women’s collection and new boutique on Rodeo Drive with a star-studded opening party Thursday.

The campaign to whet the public’s appetite for the clothes began in September during New York Fashion Week, in a private showing where they were modeled by some of the most stylish women in the world (Beyonce, Julianne Moore, Lauren Hutton and Daphne Guinness among them). With just 100 guests and no photos allowed, the event turned the fashion circus on its head and signaled that Ford was going to do things differently.

While designing for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he brought hedonism back into fashion with feather-trimmed jeans, velvet hip-huggers and keyhole cutout jersey gowns. He also ushered in the era of mass luxury, transforming Gucci from a fusty leather goods house to a global fashion leader, with sales increasing from about $230 million to $3 billion annually by the time he left.

All the while, Ford was the star, in a shirt unbuttoned over a triangle of man tan, ready to provoke with $75 Gucci condom cases and ads featuring pubic hair shaved into the shape of a GG logo.

Now, he’s reading the zeitgeist again. And he’s found that many women feel divorced from what the fashion world has become (in no small part thanks to him) – a place that provides entertaining content to be blogged and tweeted but that isn’t necessarily a place to find something beautiful to wear.

So he’s shifted focus to what he calls “personal luxury,” designed with the customer in mind, not the potential critic.

“What interests me today, after having worked 25 years in the fashion industry, is the very best – the best fabrics, not the second best, the best quality and stitching. I want clothes that will evolve more than they will radically swing,” he says in early February, during an interview at his office in the former Geffen Records building on Sunset Boulevard.

So no more blockbuster runway shows with rose petals raining down while fashion reporters scribble furiously.

“I don’t want to be reviewed,” he says. “I’m not an artist with an opening; this is not a film. I’m just trying to make pretty clothes. And beautiful clothes make beautiful women, but sometimes they don’t make fashion news. I don’t want to be pushed to think about what we have that’s new when we don’t need anything new except another version of what we did last year that still looks good to me.”

This means the clothes will be seen when they’re in stores – not six months before at big runway shows attended by fashion editors and critics. Ford is banking on his force of personality, along with the highest-quality products, to lure customers.

Where most designers need a runway to brand themselves and create an identity for lucrative accessories and beauty collections, Ford’s name was already established when he left fashion for a respite in 2004. When he returned just a year later, he started from the bottom up, licensing fragrance and beauty collections to finance his future clothing ventures, including his design studio in London.

He launched his menswear line in April 2007 at his first menswear store on Madison Avenue. Since then, his slim-fitting suits and tuxedos (starting at $3,800) have become Hollywood favorites, worn by celebrities as disparate as Brad Pitt and Jay Z.

There are many custom details and options in the ready-to-wear and made-to-measure menswear. Suits can be ordered in wool, mohair, cashmere, silk jacquard or velvet. And a tie (starting at $220) can be customized from among seven widths and matched to an exact collar spread. Ford makes everything for the private-jet set, including riding clothes, riding boots, shooting clothes, ski clothes, $900 walking sticks, $4,900 moon boots and jeans with 18-karat gold buttons.

The women’s collection will be just as comprehensive, with handbags, shoes and jewelry, as well as clothes for every occasion. The spring collection features an ivory viscose peak lapel jacket ($4,500) and wide leg pants ($1,700); gold-dipped feather earrings ($1,390); black lace and feather spiked heels ($2,410) and many gowns so luxe — a silk georgette hand-embroidered fringe evening column, for example —s they are listed simply as “price upon request.”

“Even if they are not affordable to everyone, I want people to think, ‘If I had the money, I’d love that,’” the designer says.

Ford is as controlled as Colin Firth’s character in “A Single Man.” Every surface in his nearly all-black office is sleek and spotless. There is no clutter. In fact, clutter probably doesn’t exist in Ford’s world. On a shelf, there are five golden statuettes — not Oscars (yet), but fashion awards. He positions himself in the chair facing the windows, which are mirrored on the outside. Every once in a while, a young woman strolling down Sunset will stop to check her hair and makeup, which amuses Ford to no end. One day, it was Britney Spears surrounded by a phalanx of photographers.

Right now, his ambitions are boundless. He points out that Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld and Ralph Lauren are all in their 70s, and says, “I don’t believe there is anyone else coming up behind who has the commercial appeal across a broad range of products globally. So my goal is to be the next … take your pick.”