Ultra Cool

By Lance Avery Morgan

Native Austinite and international design superstar Tom Ford does it again. He’s taken his astute fashion sense and created a new women’s wear line, a line of eponymous clothing stores, a make-up and scent line with Estee’ Lauder cosmetics. And, he’s applied his stylistic point of view to filmmaking and scores a box office triumph with A Single Man, now out on DVD. Here we give you an insider’s look at this Texan’s successful reinvention.

Oh, come on. You haven’t really been living if, by now, you haven’t been affected by Ford’s strong design point of view toward sexuality in pop culture, going on three decades now. He brought sexy back way before Justin Timberlake’s song of the same title became a hit, by redefining how men and women should dress as a backlash to the austere beginnings in the 1990’s. He brazenly reintroduced Halston-esque velvet hip-huggers, body-molding satin tops that were an homage to YSL, and high-heeled patent-leather shoes that still affect fashion to this day. With all this verve, the world couldn’t help but follow suit, wearing a sexier silhouette that was based on Ford’s earlier club-hopping days in Manhattan. And, yes, the world looks sexier because of it. Ford’s vision has become synonymous with seductive and theatrical.

For Tom Ford, life is theater, plain and simple. His pristine point of view toward life, fashion, and now the adding to his repertoire, the art of filmmaking, has garnered him nods from Hollywood, where his minimalistic design approach has now come alive from the runways to the silver screen. At 5’11”, with his trademark stubble and closely cropped hair, and more svelte these days by having lost 12 pounds by having admittingly stopped drinking for no particular reason, he is poised for fresh beginnings in his life. Yet, all this talent had to start somewhere.

Picture this: In 1961, Austin, Texas had a population of 185,000 people, roughly an eighth of the size the area is today. That was the world into which Tom Ford was born; a small, middle class city that spun on the axis of academia and state government. Living in Austin and nearby San Marcos until his early teen years, his family moved to Santa Fe, where he lived until heading to Manhattan to pursue art history at NYU. Back then, in the last, heady days of Studio 54, Ford also got a street smart education of the era’s glamour that would later inspire his design aesthetic. He was greatly influenced by the club’s icons Jerry Hall, Lauren Hutton and Bianca Jagger. Plus, so was spending six months in Paris as an intern in design house Chloe’s press office, before returning to NYU’s The New School and obtaining his degree in architecture.

Upon graduation, Ford secured a job with mid-priced designer Cathy Hardwicke (he named Armani has his favorite designer in the interview with Hardwicke, astutely seeing that she was wearing that Italian designers clothes, and got the job). There, he spent two years before joining Perry Ellis in the early 1990s, and as he told the New York Times, “If I was ever going to become a good designer, I had to leave America.” He then joined Gucci in Milan, a decision that would change the rest of his life as well as modern style during that era. At the time, the stalwart luxury leather goods company had seen better days. The interlocking GG insignia had become passé, its brown leather with red and green trim was ho-hum, yet the brand was somehow still revered.

Once Ford arrived at Gucci, his career’s true ascent began. In 1994, he was promoted to creative director and in 1995 he created a series of new branding ads for the company. Due to Ford’s astute design aesthetic, between 1995 and 1996, sales at Gucci increased by 90% and by 1999, the fashion company, which had been nearly bankrupt when Ford joined, was valued at over $4 billion. Near the same time, Gucci purchased Yves Saint-Laurent and Ford signed on as creative director of that label, too, making him very busy and much in demand. During his time there, Ford won numerous Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards and like he did with Gucci, was able to propel the classic YSL label back into the mainstream minds of its fans and followers, rendering it sexy and sleek once again. But transformation is just that, it’s always transforming, especially in Ford’s life. By 2004, Ford and the labels parted ways. Then came The Sabbatical.

The fashion and style worlds were aghast. He explained to Richard Buckley, his life partner of over 20 years, that he wanted more out of life. He didn’t design. He played golf. He traveled, thought and read. Always considering himself a big reader, he read a little book by Christopher Isherwood at a young age, then re-read it. It was A Single Man, a book that would eventually play a pivotal role in his future life. But first, after taking his furlough from fashion, Ford started his own eponymous design company, which includes glasses, beauty and now, a menswear line sold at his Manhattan store in 2007, and boutiques following in Zurich and Toronto and now in numerous locations including his Tom Ford boutiques in Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue stores, too.

Then, enter: Hollywood. The entertainment capital has always been captivated by the sultry Tom Ford and he’s made many friends while living in the Hollywood Hills, many of them Texans with whom he would travel to the jet-set destination island of Mustique over Christmas holidays. He is much loved by his personal friends and they have all described to me their deep level of friendships with him. His perfectly manicured life on both coasts lends itself to the perfection to which Los Angeles often aspires, and that translates into film and a strong box office appeal as with his debut film, A Single Man, a universal story about relationships, love and loss, uniquely and stylishly told.

Style, meet your good friend, substance. In the world of Ford, they are synonymous. Mid-century masterpiece are the first words to come to mind about Ford’s film placed in 1962 Los Angeles. Set in one day of a man’s life, a man who is contemplating suicide usually doesn’t connote the words light and breezy to forefront when it is described either, yet it is indeed a masterpiece for a first time film director. By anyone’s definition. “There is a good deal of my soul, if one has a soul, in that film,” Ford has said of the project. “I’ve never shown that side of myself.”

The film starred Colin Firth ad was funded primarily by Ford at a budget of $7 million dollars, pennies in Hollywood terms where that budget seems more aligned to a film actually made in 1962. Much revered British actor Firth plays George Falconer, a college professor who months before lost his life partner of 16 years, played by Matthew Goode (“Match Point”, “Brideshead Revisited”) and how society in that era obliviously reacted to such an event… as if it didn’t exist. Julianne Moore plays Charley, his gin-soaked long time best friend and neighbor, also a Brit. Resembling a Mrs Robinson-meets-Jane Fonda-in-her-heyday role, Moore is the deliciously beautiful, yet bored socialite who offers a grounding, interwoven tapestry element to George’s character and his grieving of his partner’s loss. She signed on early in the project when she ran into Ford at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala and rekindled their earlier conversations on filmmaking and the project.

Another co-star is the period design aesthetic (read: perfectionism) Ford imparts throughout the film. It is important to note the film’s art director, Dan Bishop, who lends the 1960s visual point of view to AMC’s hits series, Mad Men, too. And, period-specific the film is. “I loved every minute, every phase,” Ford states of the directorial process, admitting, “I’m best when I’m in complete control.” That complete auteur-istic control began when Ford co-adapted the screenplay based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel. Then, came the directing. Firth was the third actor to sign up to play George, after earlier two actors quit before filming began. Moore’s Charley was written for her, states Ford, as they kept in touch as the film was in the works for years before.

Flawlessly shot locations replicate a vibrant post-war Los Angeles. From the film’s personal spaces like a bathroom drawer, period objects like a hi-fi stereo set, to the perfectly coiffed and dressed women and immaculately groomed men of the era, one wonders if Ford is on a one man mission to singlehandedly bring back the era’s style to today. If so, he’s on the right track and rightly so, as the era did aspire to perfection, as Ford does in his film. Outward perfection to mask inward imperfection seems to be the underlying theme of the film… denying oneself of true happiness due to the rejecting society of the era. In the film, flashbacks of George and the late partner, Jim, serve to illustrate the strong bond they shared, and it helps to explain why George is so utterly devastated by the news of his partner’s Jim’s death, while present day characters such as Carlos, a stranger, and Kenny, a student, further explore the ranging depths of George’s character.

It is Interesting to note is that Kenny, played to perfection by another Brit, Nicholas Hoult (“About A Boy”), Ford has stated often, is Ford himself at the tender age of 20 when he was on his own journey of self discovery. Hoult first met with Ford and attributing the fact that he lived in the rather provincial Reading, England, admits he knew little of Ford. They met to discuss the project and cinematic history was born. Man, meet thyself is more like it, with Ford immediately seeing his own past as a handsome boy into the incarnation that is Hoult; the wide-eyed, dewey white knight of the film, riding in as a potential saving grace to the protagonist, Firth. And, another star is born, courtesy of Ford.

While Tom Ford is basking in the limelight of his critical debut hit, he’s not resting on his laurels. Not even close. Besides his fashion industry obligations, including his new women’s wear collection, he wants to do a film every few years and really get it right. Personal films. Films that touch others, like “A Single Man” that has touched so many already. Embracing his “life as theater” credo, Ford even recently designed costumes for the world premiere of “The Letter”, an opera performed six times only at the Santa Fe Opera, in the town where he spent many of his formative years, thus completing another part of the circle of life.

No doubt the native Texan’s star is ascending and the brightness might be blinding at times, but look directly into it, because you will see something. Very much of something bright that reaches beyond the mere aesthetic of cool, as only genuine talent can create.

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