Born in Austin, Texas in August 1961, Tom Ford is best known for his work as a fashion designer and is credited with reviving the fashion houses of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent through influential collections and provocative advertising campaigns, which transformed the once-ailing Gucci brand into the bedrock of one the largest and most profitable luxury fashion conglomerates in the world.
Ford left Gucci Group in 2004 and founded his film production company, Fade to Black, as well as his eponymous fashion company in 2005.
Tom Ford's success in the fashion industry has been recognized by numerous awards including: five awards from the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America, five VH-1/Vogue Fashion Awards and the Fashion Design Achievement Award at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum's National Design Awards.
In March 2007, Tom Ford was honoured with the Vito Russo Award from GLAAD. Ford lives in London and Los Angeles. His debut film, an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, earned three Golden Globe nominations: Best Score, Best Actor (Colin Firth) and Best Actress (Julianne Moore) and an Oscar nomination, Best Actor, for Firth.
- You must be delighted with the response to your debut picture?
Absolutely. I’ve been in the business of fashion for long enough to know whether people’s compliments are sincere or whether they’re fake; and whether people are trying to be polite. It has been nice because I can tell that people have responded to this. Comments like that always make you feel good.
- Do you feel in any way vindicated by the film’s success were there people in the film or fashion industries who doubted you?
Now it’s over I’ve wondered about that. I made this film because I was dying to make a film and I thought I had something to say. I hope I have more films in me for the rest of my life. It was a different form of expression from what I get to do as a fashion designer.
It was something I needed to do in my life, to have a certain deeper way of expressing what I was thinking, and having a different reaction to culture.
Since the film has screened, however, people have said, ‘Do you feel good, because everyone was laughing at you?’ I had no idea that anyone was laughing and that some people thought it was a ludicrous idea, because no one had ever dared say that to me before. Now that it’s over people are like, ‘We didn’t think you could do that!’
- Even very close friends?
Yeah! They were like, ‘Yeah, we just humoured you.’ So the film’s success is not a ‘Screw you’ to people who doubted, it is just that I feel really happy. It could have been a disaster.
- It’s all the more impressive when one considers that you shot it on a tight budget of just $7 million
It did take me three years to develop this project, and another five years working on films that I did not make. In the fashion press, it was written after about a year: ‘Oh, well he didn’t make a film! That was a disaster, he wasn’t a success at that and now he’s gone back to fashion.’
There is no understanding in fashion of the time it takes to develop a film. In fashion, everything is like that (he snaps his fingers).
- Are the fashion press particularly unforgiving?
America’s becoming much more like the UK with the tabloid press our culture is about ripping people apart, and we’ve all come to think of that as funny and amusing, and it is, unless you’re the one being ripped apart! But it’s also negative and we thrive on that as a culture.
The fashion press is very tough, but the film press can be ruthless, so I feel relieved to have escaped unscathed. It’s like when you’ve finished a collection. I understand that with my next film, I could be ripped apart. Basically, you should just do something you believe in.
- You first discovered Christopher Isherwood’s novel back in the 1980s...
I discovered the book when I was in my twenties, and I didn’t understand the spiritual side of it. At the time I wasn’t really aware that it was one of the main themes of the book. But reading it again in mid-life; well Isherwood spent the second half of his life developing the spiritual side of his nature he was a student of Vedanta and was trying to feel a connection to the present and to figure out and feel his connection to the universe.
- You poured a lot of yourself into the film’s main character, George. Was it difficult to reveal part of yourself on screen?
Easier than in really life! In truth I only ever really reveal myself to my five closet friends There might be four or six; that’s all most people have in their life. It’s all you need.
If you have one or two people in your life that you truly connect with in a very soulful way you are lucky. But, yes, there’s a lot of me in this version of George, who has a spiritual crisis at mid life. That comes to many people.
I achieved a lot in the material world at a very early age: money, professional success, a wonderful life partner of 23 years, two great dogs, and lots of friends, but I felt that I had lost my way somewhat.
Our society says that our problems can be solved with material things and yet that’s not true. I realised that I had neglected the spiritual side of my life.
- So your success has been a real boon in that way
Of course. I think most people achieve a certain amount of success in their life, so had I not had that success I would have discovered the same thing at some point, I think. But there’s a scale to success.
I had all those things that culture said we should have but I was really missing something in my life.
- The clothing in the film says a great deal about the characters, right?
Well, first I worked with a great costume designer in Arianne Phillips, and she really did do the costumes. We discussed how the characters’ personalities would be manifest in the clothing.
There were very particular choices. [Julianne Moore’s character] Charley is a great example. Her dress is tending towards 1964 and pop art.
Is it a bit advanced for 1962, when the film is set, and it would only have existed on a few people, and yet her character thrives on her ability to stay ahead of the curve: she believes people are going to love her if they think she has the coolest house, the coolest music, is up to date on art and has the coolest clothes.
She’s still clinging to this and will have to let go of it if she is to move on. But this is part of her personality. So I wanted her to wear something that was very different from what you would have seen in a magazine in 1962.
- The idea of weaving characters into the fabric of their clothing is particularly pronounced in George
George is the same thing. People can ask why does he have these beautiful clothes and house and car? But he obviously doesn’t live on his professor’s salary. He’s from a moneyed background and he’s doing this job as a way of giving back.
Christopher Isherwood was from that kind of family as well, went to very good schools and had a certain life in the UK that had its own income. George is glamorised from where he was in the book, but you have to put your own vision or viewpoint in the story.
George is a college professor and he is going to have grown up and had his clothes tailor-made in London. We even went as far as to sew a label inside that you get from a Saville Row tailor. I did that with everything.
If you opened any drawer at George’s house it would have been filled with things that George would have had. We’re not going to see inside those drawers but I wanted to create that kind of world for the actors and I believe that you feel it.
The film sets don’t look like sets; they look like a world and a house, and that is because they’re personal. That helps the actors, too.
- The film has gay characters but is a universal story. Do you bemoan the fact that society still likes to define people by their sexuality?
I don’t know that I bemoan anything, and I’m very happy with the direction we’re going. When this movie takes place, in 1962, the Civil Rights movement hadn’t even happened. There were still black and white drinking fountains. Today we have a black President. So I am optimistic; I am in a lot of ways.
- You must have been filming A Single Man when the state of California voted to withdraw the right of same-sex marriage
We were shooting that very day; the scene with George on the phone hearing that Jim had died. It was the day Obama was elected, and the day they revoked gay marriage. I felt disappointed with my country although I feel less so now that Obama is President rather than Bush.
When he was President I was embarrassed to be an American. I think there will be a time when we can look back and say, ‘Can you believe there was a time when you could only get married if you were a man and a woman?’ People will say, ‘No!’ Like women voting; it was hard to believe there was that time. It was less than 100 years ago in the States.
- As we enter a new decade, what have you made of the Noughties, fashion-wise?
It’s so hard to comment on a decade when you’re quite close to it. It’s 10, 20 years down the line that the style becomes really known. We live in the middle of it. It’s like we don’t really know what we look like in real life.
We might look back at ourselves and think we were quite handsome while at the time we did not. Or you might look at an old photo and realise you were quite fat. I do think the last decade was quite glitzy though!
A Single Man is released 12th February