Click here to watch Tina Brown’s video interview with Tom Ford; read the transcript below.
Tom Ford: Tina Brown has a piece of a sweater in her hair. No, I’m serious.
Tina Brown: What is going on?
Tom Ford: Okay, somewhere on this side….
Tina Brown: This is a photo shoot…
Tom Ford: Sorry!
Tina Brown: And you are a director…
Tom Ford: She’s done now she looks fabulous.
Tina Brown: Tom, when you left fashion, you knew you wanted to make a movie. And you looked and you looked before you came to this one, A Single Man. What was it about this book by Isherwood that made you think, “I have the movie I want?”
Tom Ford: It was intuition. You know, I knew what I stood for a fashion designer, but when you set out to make a film, you have to think, “Why? Who needs to see a Tom Ford film? Who cares? What is that?” And I wanted to make something that really meant something to me. I read this Christopher Isherwood book when I was 20 years old. I was living in Los Angeles. I was a young actor. It spoke to me because it’s such a beautifully drawn character story. Fast-forward to the future. A few years ago. Three-and-a-half years ago. I’d optioned a couple of books I was developing a couple of projects for my first film. Nothing was really speaking to me. Driving to the office one day, I realized I was thinking about George, who is the hero of the novel and the hero of our film. And I thought, “You know, I should pick this book up again.” Picking it up from my mid 40s and now my late 40s, it was an entirely different book. It is a book that I think would appeal to a lot of people who are having a midlife crisis or a change of life. It is a story of a man who cannot see his future. And I just had a feeling. You know, I thought, “This is the book.”
Tina Brown: Now was it important to you to find a story that had a gay hero?
Tom Ford: Not at all. In fact, the fact that George is gay wasn’t key to the story at all. What was important to me was that this is a universal tale of isolation that I think we all feel and have understanding that the important things in life are connection with other people.
Tina Brown: Did you face skepticism, though, when you began to set this movie up? Because after all you have this incredible visual sense, this incredible sense of the culture, the incredible commercial sense. But you had never directed a movie. So was this a big problem for you?
Tom Ford: I have a feeling you and I are not people who listen to other people when they tell them they can’t do something. Because we’re the kind of people, who when we get something in our heads or we visualize—I believe that if you can visualize something, you can make it happen and if you work hard, you know, you can make it happen. So, you know, I’m not going to say I didn’t doubt myself. And I’m not going to say I didn’t go through a lot of worrying and thinking, “Is this right? Is that right?” Of course! We beat ourselves up, people who like to be perfect. But no one was ever skeptical to my face. It’s funny, now that the film has finished, everyone asks this question. And people say to me, you know, “How does it feel to have made a movie when everyone was laughing at you behind your back?” Because no one ever did it to my face.
Tina Brown: Now obviously, you yourself had said, had come off a kind of midlife crisis yourself, right?
Tom Ford: Absolute midlife crisis!
Tina Brown: What was that midlife crisis?
Tom Ford: It’s funny. People can be so mean. I said this the other day to a journalist and she said, “What? You were having a crisis because your life was too perfect?” And I thought, you know, “Wow. You know, it’s really never fair to judge people because none of us know what’s going on inside anyone else’s head.” But, I was lucky enough to have had great success early on in life; to have had all the things the material world can offer. And yet, I realized that what I had actually neglected was the more spiritual side of myself, which has always been there. But it’s easy for us in our culture to become consumed in a sense by materialism. Now materialism is fine. We live in a material world. I’m not saying that beautiful things don’t enhance our lives. But, in our culture, we’re never happy. It’s, “When I get here, I’m going to be happy. When I have those new shoes, when I go to that new party, when I get that country house, when I get that new job.” You know, we will never be fulfilled because this will continue until the day we die.
Tina Brown: Yeah, but in some ways that’s a bit of a paradox because you are actually in the business of making us hungry, you know, for those things.
Tom Ford: Of course! And I’ve struggled with that.
Tina Brown: You made us long for those shoes and clothes…
Tom Ford: I’ve struggled with that!
Tina Brown: …and accessories and beautiful things.
Tom Ford: Of course!
Tina Brown: And you are to blame.
Tom Ford: But, no, it’s bigger than that. It is our entire culture. Of course I was a part of it. We’re all a part of it. And I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with it. What is important is that we stop and realize, “Okay. This is fine. I can enjoy that. But what is really important, what I’m really going to take away with me from this life, is my connection with other people.”
Tina Brown: And yet, now in your new store, you’re selling $75 socks, I mean, high of luxury. Where’s the connect there?
Tom Ford: Just because one is spiritual doesn’t mean that one doesn’t like crocodile, cashmere. We live in a material world. We still experience these things. It doesn’t mean to completely disregard them.
Tina Brown: So how does one market in today’s world? You know, a lot of people in the fashion world, the luxury world, are in a state of great confusion. I mean, obviously business is very, very bad. So people are having to figure out… how do they rethink marketing? I mean, how…
Tom Ford: I always hated that word “marketing” and I hate it now. Because for me, and this may sound simplistic, the key to marketing is to make something people want. When they want it, they buy it. When they buy it, you have sales. So the product has to speak. The product is what markets things. Advertising is of course important because advertise is the final design. It’s the last layer that speaks to the customer, that tells them what you have. When they come into the store, if they put on a pair of pants, and their butt doesn’t look good, no matter how much marketing you’ve had, they’re walking out of the store. They’re not buying those pants, so marketing is important. I don’t like that word because often, marketing is used for hollow products that don’t really speak. And it’s the only way you can sell them.
Tina Brown: But obviously Tom you know, you were known for the most sizzling, provocative, you know, sexy kind of advertising. I mean, you shaved a “G” in a model’s pubic hair.
Tom Ford: I know, and I actually did shave that G in that girl’s pubic hair myself. Because why? Because we like to do things, we like to be in control, right? I wanted it exactly that way. I had to fill it in with an eyebrow pencil a little bit so that we could read it on camera.
Tina Brown: But I mean that was maximum, in your face…
Tom Ford: It was, but you know, I think it was the right thing at the right time. And it was meant to be taken with a bit of humor. It was a commentary on where we were with branding. We had pushed branding to the absolute limit. Everything was branded. So why not brand, you know, a guy branding his girlfriend’s pubic hair.
Tina Brown: What was the moment? When you were there you were king of the hill, right, at Gucci for all those years. I mean, where you were was where the action was, all of that. What was the first feelings of sort of creeping unease, spiritual angst, when did it start to manifest?
Tom Ford: Well, I left Gucci in 2004 and we sold the company. But it had started before then. You know, I left because I was not going to be able to have the kind of creative license that I had had for so many years and that really helped build the company. And I was at a point where I had been used to that.
Tina Brown: Now there were some people of course who thought that you’d almost become a little hubristic about it. I mean, why should you have total control? You had a huge amount of control creatively. I mean, nobody would have really messed with you. Then you left. Did you have a period of thinking you might have made a mistake?
Tom Ford: Never.
Tina Brown: I mean, you jumped out of this huge success.
Tom Ford: Never. No.
Tina Brown: Did you feel sidelined by the years out of there?
Tom Ford: No. Not at all. I mean, I’m not going to say that those years were easy. I never felt I made a mistake. In fact, I knew I had to leave. I knew even then, even though it was painful and even though I couldn’t necessarily see a clear future, I knew it was absolutely the right thing to do. And I feel that way today. So no. I went through some tough times because if you’re used to having a voice in contemporary culture and all of sudden, you don’t have that voice, you don’t have that outlet. I didn’t appreciate that. I didn’t understand how important that was to me. And all of a sudden, after investing all this time and energy, I had no identity. I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know what I had to say. I didn’t have a way to say it. It was very painful.
Tina Brown: It is difficult to do that. I know so many people and I know I went through that a bit myself when I left magazines and felt that, you know, 9/11 happened and I didn’t have a podium to talk about it. It is a difficult thing to go through. What did you learn about yourself though in those years when you didn’t have that podium, that voice, that vehicle?
Tom Ford: I learned that I never want to retire until the day I drop dead. I want to work and work and work because work, I don’t do for money, I do for love. And I love to work. And people say to me, “How can you work 20 hours a day?” Blah blah blah. That’s not work. It’s love. It’s passion. And I learned that. I think a lot of people fantasize about one day, having free time to do things. I played golf as a kid. I had three months when I was retired in 2004. I bought some golf clubs. I thought, “I’m gonna play golf!” Yeah, right. I played golf once. I almost lost my mind. Three months was enough. I realized, “I want to work until the day I drop dead.”
Tina Brown: It took a lot of courage though to do this. I mean, Ralph Lauren for instance has always wanted to do a movie, You know, he, like you, is kind of obsessed with it, feels he would be a great director of a movie, but he hasn’t. I suspect because he feels it might ultimately damage the brand if for some reason it didn’t work. Did you have any concerns about it maybe, you know, not working and therefore damaging the brand?
Tom Ford: No. It isn’t that I didn’t question that it might not work. Although, I don’t know that I even thought about that. I just knew it was something I had to make and I suppose it could have damaged the brand. But I don’t think of my, I mean, I guess I have to think of myself as brand—to me, as I said, they’re two very, very different things. I’m not sure that people would’ve judged what I do in fashion any differently if I had not been able to make a successful film. I don’t know. But all I can say to Ralph is he should make a movie. He should. The clock is ticking. It’s ticking for all of us. If he wants to make a film, he should make it.
Tina Brown: Now who is your creative hero?
Tom Ford: Ralph is one of my absolute creative heroes. Ralph Lauren really invented this idea of a lifestyle. Ralph was not just a designer and he’s a great designer, but he was the creative director of a world. And there are a few of them. Karl Lagerfeld I have to say, I get credited a lot with being the first of a certain generation, yes, to reinvigorate an existing house. But, you know, Karl was the very first one to do that at Chanel in the early 80s.
Tina Brown: Yeah, he really pointed the way, didn’t he? How you could do it.
Tom Ford: Absolutely. Pointed the way. And I love Karl. And he’s a friend. And, uh, you know, Karl is quick man. Not missing a thing.
Tina Brown: No. He’s also rich in culture and life.
Tom Ford: So rich!
Tina Brown: I know. It’s wonderful, I love him, too.
Tom Ford: And not just money, but…
Tina Brown: He’s great. But of course, that wasn’t the case with Yves Saint Laurent, was it? Because, I mean, when you took over that label, he was not exactly supportive of his successor.
Tom Ford: It’s so funny. It’s so funny. I’ve been so quiet about this for so long and I said it recently in an interview and now everyone’s picking up on this. Because I don’t like to say bad things about people, but no, Yves and Pierre were not supportive. They were at first until, I think the women who sat in the front rows of their shows were sitting in the front rows of my shows, and our sales were doubling and doubling and doubling each season. And then all of a sudden they became not supportive and they were pretty difficult. But that’s okay!
Tina Brown: You said “evil,” I think was the word you used.
Tom Ford: I did say “evil” and people keep bringing that up. And I don’t mean they were evil people, but they were pretty evil to me. I’ve got a four-page letter from Yves. I have two of them! Hand-written. You know. “In one collection, you have undone what 40 years of my life went to build.” And you know, things like this, but that’s okay! You know, I think Yves was one of the great, great designers. I have tremendous respect for him.
Tina Brown: Who do you think today is the chicest man in the world?
Tom Ford: Hm. Well, I have to say, in one way, um, Lapo Elkann He’s very, very stylish. Now a lot of people might look at Lapo and say, “Whoa!” You know. “What is that?” But the reason he’s stylish is—he wears very outlandish clothes—but he’s so confident of his look, of what he’s doing, of who he is as a person—he has very individual style and that’s what becomes iconic.
Tina Brown: Mmhm. What about a woman?
Tom Ford: A woman right now. I think Tina Brown is incredibly stylish.
Tina Brown: That is a cop out. This is definitely copping out.
Tom Ford: A living woman. I have to tell you, that is harder because I think more and more, you know, women are objectified in our culture. And more and more, it takes a great deal of confidence, especially as a woman, to break the mold. You know, you’re afraid that you’re going to covered in a magazine as a “fashion don’t.” You know. That’s why you see all these girls on the red carpet looking the same.
Tina Brown: What about the Obamas?
Tom Ford: Well, I love them. I can’t get enough of them. I would love to see…
Tina Brown: They looked wonderful. At the Kennedy Awards, they looked magical. I mean, she was in this purple dress and he was straight backed.
Tom Ford: And by the way, I wouldn’t mind seeing 8 years of him and 8 years of her. I wouldn’t mind an Obama dynasty going on here. And by then, the daughters might be the right age because, God, are they beautiful! Not that that is important in having a president and a first lady, but they are so beautiful.
Tina Brown: So what’s the next movie, Tom?
Tom Ford: You know, I have something that I’m working on, but I’m not thinking clearly right now because I finished this movie in August. We had Venice, where Colin won “Best Actor” in September. Then we had Toronto Film Festival, London Film Festival, Tokyo Film Festival. So I need to get a little bit of distance because I would like to think and hope that each movie for me will be a real personal statement and something that I believe in and love.
Tina Brown: Tom Ford, thank you.
Tom Ford: Thank you!
Click here to watch the video interview.