Tom Ford: His wild world

A nude magazine spread, and an obsession with pornography that’s seen him paying advertising models to have sex on set. Oh, and trouble with the neighbours. What’s driving Gucci’s former chief designer?

WWW- Pink rose petals cascaded from the ceiling and the catwalk vibrated to the 1998 Ultra Nate anthem, “Free” (“You’re free / To do what you want to do”). That was fashion week in Milan almost two years ago and the occasion was Tom Ford’s farewell show as the chief designer for Gucci after a triumphant 13 years.

Nobody imagined – least of all himself – that the perennially chic Ford, with unerring uniform of white shirt (unbuttoned to halfway), black jacket and trousers, was about to vanish from public view. While he swore off creating womenswear, he said he knew exactly what he wanted to do, after a bit of a rest anyway. He was going to Hollywood to make movies. Big, splashy, wildly successful movies.

He has since opened a production house in Beverly Hills, called, appropriately, Fade to Black, but nothing much has emerged from it. The reasons we are paying attention to him again has nothing to do with film-making, but everything to do with the vision of his bare buttocks – actually bare everything – in a recent magazine spread, his alleged fascination with pornography and a nasty run-in he has been having with residents of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he is planning to build a monster adobe mansion.

And then there is unkind rumour that Ford, 44, has gone a bit nuts in retirement, becoming a crazy control freak. Never mind that this criticism about him is old. People don’t get to turn around a company such as Gucci, as Ford did – from a family firm fractured by feuds worth about $150m (£85m) to a luxury-brand Goliath valued at his departure at around $3bn – without being a trifle exacting of his minions.

But that hasn’t stopped tabloid and blogosphere gasps as they have relayed troubling reports from the West Coast, where Ford has been engaged by Vanity Fair as guest artistic director for its annual Oscars edition, due out in March. His main task is overseeing the shooting of the photo spreads, mostly of the hottest starlets of Hollywood. (Think Keira Knightley, Scarlett Johansson and Rachel McAdams.)

One of his crimes, the New York Post tells us, has been chronic finickiness over the dresses being brought to the shoot for his models to wear. If they are the work of a designer he doesn’t care for, Ford reportedly instantly vetoes them. “It was getting comical,” one on-set source told the Post. “He would like a dress and then look at the label and send it back because he hates that designer. Eventually, somebody got the idea to cut out all the labels so he couldn’t tell what was what.”

Maybe more worrying for Vanity Fair’s editor-in-chief back in staid old New York, Graydon Carter, may be Ford’s alleged attempts to photograph the women without a stitch to their ultra-famous bodies. Sans clothes resolves the designer label problem, after all. A request that she strip off for the cameras reportedly triggered a brief walk-out from the set by McAdams, recently of the thriller hit Red Eye, before she reconsidered and returned (but not before she fired her publicity agent).

It is perfectly possible that all this madness from Ford will produce the best-selling issue of Vanity Fair ever. There will reportedly also be sexy shoots of George Clooney in a pool and the Jarhead actor Peter Sarsgaard suspended from the rafters in some kind of S&M fantasy. Good sales could lead to his appointment as artistic editor permanently. At which point, everyone would have to agree that post-Gucci, Ford is as frenzied as ever, regardless of the slow progress of his movie-making.

There has always been a thin line between seeming to go bonkers and generating free publicity. Maybe he has been encouraging reports of his banning anyone from attending meetings with him at Estée Lauder, the cosmetics company with which he is developing a Tom Ford line, if they are not wearing black socks. Or why he put on his birthday suit – and very tanned it was – in a spread of photographs in W magazine to advertise his venture with Estée Lauder, which has begun with the relaunch of its venerable women’s fragrance Youth Dew, renamed Youth Dew Amber Nude.

There is that nude thing again. Other pictures featured Ford engaging in various different activities with a set of identical triplet male models. He also had some fun with a group of inflatable sex dolls. The pictures were a success – they set off whispers of awe around the world.

As may a television commercial he has just finished shooting to introduce luxury shoppers to another of his new ventures, sunglasses. Come this spring, we will be able to treat ourselves to Tom Ford shades. (There will be 23 frames, for men and women.)

“They’re the things I love,” he says of sunglasses in general. “As a man, eyewear is one of the few expressive accessories you can have.” If you haven’t already guessed, the commercials for the new line have a saucy, if not actually pornographic, theme, as he recently told one interviewer. “We shot it with porn stars, two men and two women. And we paid them to have sex on set.” And you think Graydon Carter needs to worry. Ford did, at least, add: “You don’t see it in the shot, but you feel it.”

All of which makes you wonder what he has in mind to promote his most important new project yet – the launch later this year of a line of luxury men’s clothes. The label, to be called simply Tom Ford, is being put together by Ford himself and his longtime business partner Domenico De Sole, who was the executive chairman of Gucci until he resigned at the same time as Ford.

The first Tom Ford menswear boutique will open in Manhattan this year, followed swiftly by others in Los Angeles, London (where Ford has a newly purchased Mayfair mansion as a part-time home) and Milan.

Ford recently insisted that sex is not what the menswear line will be about, because he is so over that. That sounds contradictory, but it’s what he says. “Tom Ford is always going to be raw, but more sensual and elegant than I was. The mood changes and I’m not in the mood for sex right now. I’m older.”

And he is doing it not for the money – also to be taken with a pinch of salt – but as a gift to over-salaried males everywhere. “I’ve had all my clothes made since I left Gucci. Suits, shoes, shooting clothes, tennis shorts… but nothing’s ever quite right. So this will be the ultimate luxury store for men.”

Getting older seems to be on the mind of Ford, who has been with the same partner, Richard Buckley, for 18 years. He has given up smoking – in deference to Buckley who suffered throat cancer in the 1990s – and worked hard to lose weight. More tellingly, his plans for the mega-house in New Mexico, where he was raised, include an on-site mausoleum for himself and all his family. It has also reported that Ford has also already penned the design for his own coffin.

If that is what Ford wants, why shouldn’t he have it? Indeed, that seems to be the more charitable attitude of some in Santa Fe. Others, however, are more hostile about the plans for Ford’s home, which originally called for a 17,147 square-foot complex high on a bluff overlooking the city.

In keeping with New Mexican traditional architecture, it will be a double-walled house with a large central courtyard covered by a pergola. A garage annexe will include a caretaker’s apartment, while the structure will be surrounded by trees and shrubs.

One of those leading the fight to have the project at least downsized is Art Roth, who recently told Santa Fe Historic Review Design Board that the proposed house looks like “a Wal-Mart perched on a hill” and “a battleship cresting on a wave descending down into Santa Fe”. No one has ever before uttered the names Tom Ford and Wal-Mart in the same breath.

But Ford, despite what anyone may say about his alleged imperiousness, has apparently shown some consideration for his neighbours’ worries, recently agreeing at least to reduce the footprint of the buildings a little, down to 16,470 square feet, principally by shrinking the garage. At a recent meeting of the design board, he promised that the 10-acre plot will “be more beautiful than its current denuded site” and said he would continue to take advice on how to ensure this happens.

Whether he will be forced to compromise further is in the balance. Before he can break ground, he must get the design board’s green light. At its last minute, in December, four of its 10 board members spoke in favour of approving the Ford house, while the rest raised objections. A decision is expected in February.

Ford has just over a month to persuade anyone in Santa Fe who doubts his good taste, at least on home-building. Perhaps a free all-nude cabaret show on the hillside with midget porn stars recruited by his Hollywood production studio might do the trick. But a more subtle approach is probably called for.

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