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:: Spotlight :: Tom Ford interview

By: Monita Rajpal (CNN)

In an ‘Art of Life’ exclusive, July‘s show is dedicated entirely to a man considered to be the most influential fashion designer of the past decade, Tom Ford. From his business to personal life, past and present, 'Art of Life's’ host, Monita Rajpal, gains unprecedented access to the man who brought glamour back into fashion with his reign at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.

MR: CNN anchor Monita Rajpal
TF: Tom Ford

MR: Thank you very much for agreeing to sit down with us and for inviting us into your home. You have been described as a man who is well rounded, when it comes to great talent, when it comes to a great sense of marketing, and a sense of branding. Where do you think your talents lie?

TF: It's so funny, marketing and branding are two words I absolutely hate. I suppose I have often been called a marketer. But marketing is something you have when you don't have anything to sell. What I've always focused on doing was try to cerate products that people couldn't live without. If you make something that people have to have, everything else takes care of itself. So if you call that brilliant marketing, I mean you still do have to get your message out to the public, I guess I have always thought about advertising, campaigns and press, and things that reach out to the public as another layer of design, because that is a design. That's the design to get someone's attention, to get them into your shop to try on the great product that they're going to love.

MR: How do you define a luxury brand in this day and age?

TF: I think that most brands today that are called luxury brands are not true luxury brands. In the nineties, and I have to say that we were partly responsible for this trend. In Gucci, we made luxury quite accessible. The globalization of fashion and luxury in the nineties because of the globalization of everything, you now find the same luxury brands in every city. The stores look the same, the products are the same. The price points have come to a point. The quality of the product, it is still a very good quality product but it is now readily available to everyone. It's a kind of mass luxury. What I am trying to no at this stage in my life and at this stage in my business is bring back the notion of true luxury which is really creating the very best thing you can possibly have. Not actually thinking about the cost of, not actually thinking about building and artificial false cost. People who can afford it don't mind paying almost anything for it as long as they can sense the value. So it's trying to bring back real luxury not only through the actual product but also through the service because that's something we have lost. In my office if anyone switches their phone onto voice mail, oh it's the one time I really lose my patience. I hate voice mail. The world has become quite automated, and it has its place. When I call someone and I go somewhere, I want to deal with a human being, a person. So we've also tried to put that kind of service back into what we're doing.

MR: Do you feel you can do that because you are your own boss? That you don't have shareholders to answer to? That you feel you are in control of everything and the bottom line is not a pressure?

TF: That's certainly part of it. In starting something that's never been done before, if I did have shareholders I'd have to defend myself and explain why I want to do it this way because this is not the normal way to build a company. But I have always acted with a combination of a cerebral insight and intuitive feeling. Intuition, if you are fashion designer is really the key to everything. You intuit certain things. I just really have the feeling that this is the right thing at the right time and it's the right moment in time to create a new business model. Obviously I have facts and figures that could back that up. It isn't a gamble; it's a calculated risk. Your question about being a privately held company, yes, it's wonderful. I've worked for and with a publicly held company. In fact we took the company public for many years. While the publicly held company really gave me the rigor and structure to understand how to organize things, because you really have to follow quite a precise method of action for everything when you are public company. But at the same time, public companies today so worry about what's going to impact the results for that quarter, and sometimes those decisions are maybe not in the best interests of the long term success of the brand. So, it's wonderful, specially at the start-up stage to be able to let this develop somewhat organically.

MR: You are now very interested in emergening markets: Asia, the Middle East. But these are also markets that are very much interested in the mass marketing simply because the market out there is so interested in luxury goods. How do you combine the two?

TF: Like in any society, you have different strata of individuals and different levels of wealth. Of course as the entire population steps up to a new level of wealth that level of population needs accessible luxury, more mass luxury. At the same time with the creation of these markets, it's the most dramatic creation of wealth possibly the world has ever seen, and those individuals want the very best; the best that money can possibly buy. Most of these emerging markets are actually cultures that have been quite materialistic at a certain time in their lives. They were very materialistic cultures: the Chinese culture for example. These cultures have been denied materialism for eighty years or more. So they are hungry for this. These are also patriarchal societies where the moment a man makes money the first he does is put it on himself and then worry about dressing his wife, his girlfriend, his children. So, the idea of men's wear, luxury men's wear happening at the same time that there's this enormous wealth creation all over the world in emerging markets, and in existing markets, I think we're going to hit with the right concept at the right time.

MR: Are you dictating the timing and what people want at that time?

TF: Well, I hope I am, because again, that's the job of a fashion designer. It's to intuit what people want six or eight months, a year before they want it. So that it's there, waiting for them. But again, if I weren't doing this, in a year or so, someone else might, because I believe it's the right thing at the right time.

MR: Do you feel you’ve reached a point in your career where don't have to compete?

TF: I feel I don't have to compete in certain ways. I am also at a stage in my life where I want to only do things that I love. I only want to do things that make me happy. Making money is important, but it's not my ultimate driver.

MR: Yeah but can you say that because you have made a lot of money…

TF: Of course, of course, of course, and I've had a lot of success and I feel satisfied and sated in a certain part of my life, in a certain part of my drive, and my creativity. But, that doesn't mean that my life's over. And perhaps, everything that's come before was just the prelude to what I'm about to do now, which took me a while to figure that out. You always have to compete. I don't have to compete in the same way. I do have the luxury of doing only the things that I want. However, I think that those things in life are always the best things. I had to speak at the school that I went to in New Mexico, a few weeks ago, and that's what I said to the students. Ask yourself, am I happy doing this, when you are studying or taking a class, because if you are happy when you did something, whatever did you produce is better and people can feel that. And, it works; the rest takes care of itself. I have always felt that you can endow a product with a quality that a consumer feels. If you are excited when you are designing something, they're excited when they see it. Somehow, you endow that product with that energy, and when a customer is clicking through a rack, they stop. I think to do what makes you actually happy as a designer, also is a key to success.

MR: How did you get to this point?

TF: A lot of hard work, twenty years in the fashion business, and I suppose, a lot of soul searching, and while I am only forty five, and when I am sixty five or seventy five or eighty five, I‘ll probably look back and say, 'Wow, I didn't know anything.’ Right I do feel I have a good sense of who I am, what I like, what I'm good at, a sense of what I can contribute and what makes me happy. So, with that comes a certain security and that also gives you a certain strength, when you have that security.

MR: If you are going to be serving what can be described as the upper echelons of society, those who can pay the thousands and thousands for a suit or for whatever kind of service, how long do you think it will take you to actually draw a profit from that?

TF: We have a very well developed business plan. We've been doing this for quite a long time. Domenico de Sole, who is my partner, and I have worked together for the last fifteen years. At this point we have quite accurate costs we think. We've opened our first store, we've opened our store in Milan. We know how much it costs us to produce the collection. We know what's selling well, is performing very well. I have to say, which is great. We also have franchise partnerships in place all over the world. So we know where our stores are going to be opening. We have market results from those stores. Some of those locations are opening, I think fifteen stores next spring in different parts of the world, and we'll have a hundred stores within the next ten years. So, our current business plan shows us breaking even at the end of 2010. If we've planned accurately, I think we might even do better than that, because we've been very conservative in our planning. So, it is possible and will be possible. I hope to make a lot of money at this.

MR: How much of that is the Ford-Sole partnership that we saw in Gucci and how much of that is what it is just the Tom Ford brand now?

TF: It is different in that, from a taste standpoint, I'm not working within the parameters of a framework that existed before, which is a challenge and is also really fun. To be able to think, okay, I inherited all this other stuff I used to work with all the time, but do I really like it? What am I about? Why does the world need me? What is my voice? What do I have to say to consumers? So, stylistically it's very much one hundred percent, Tom Ford. From a business standpoint, Domenico and I are wonderful partners, and we've worked together. We can finish each other's sentences. We also like to work very quickly. At Gucci, I was vice chairman, so we worked together. I not only work on the design, but I spent a lot of time in board meetings and looked at all of our acquisitions and was very much involved in our business, and I always have. I love that. The business tells you what the customer wants. I look at the flash sales everyday from our stores and I could tell you which shoes are selling, which shoes aren't selling, but I need to, and I always did that at Gucci. So in that way, it is very similar, yet at the same time it is also very different.

MR: How do you understand the business that you are in right now? What is it about that success factor where you are able to not only be in tune with the business but actually direct the timing of it?

TF: Figuring out what's right for now is, as I said earlier, a combination of intuition and honestly, it's mostly only intuition. I remember I used to sit in rooms with financial analysts at Gucci. Well we're not just designing bag. We have a grid here. We know that we need an x number of evening bags at this price point. Our markets have requested this. And all of that is true and all of that is how we work. I still work in that way today. I work in a pragmatic, rational way. However, a lot of it was just said to comfort analysts because a design business is inherently dependent upon the intuition of its chief designer. Luckily I have a track record that if you give five pairs of shoes I will almost always pick the one pair that will sell the best pair out of all of them. It's just a gift, maybe I have for mass taste of a link with what people want in a certain moment in time. So that's a really hard question to answer. I'm not sure I've answered it.

MR: I think I like that fact that you said you may have a gift in that.

TF: Well, that's what I do, that's my job. I am a fashion designer. It's my job to anticipate what the world wants and make sure it's there. That's my job. You're great in real life and on camera with the news, and I'm great at picking the right shoes.

MR: What was your life like when the decision was made to leave Gucci? When you said, 'Done.'

TF: It was terrible and I've never been someone who likes these people who sit around and whine publicly and talk about everything they've gone through and all the therapists they saw and blah blah blah. So, I'll sort of minimize that a little bit. But it was really terrible. I think it came at a time in my life when I was possibl due a mid-life crisis anyways. I worked so hard all my life to get to a certain point and there's a wonderful quote about mid-life crisis that a mid life crisis is when you get to the top of the ladder only to find out that it's against the wrong wall. So, perhaps some of my priorities weren't in the right place. But, I took a little bit of time and cleared my head. I always think you can always learn something no matter what happens to you in life. Even though I didn't want to leave Gucci at that time and it was quite traumatic for me, I tried to learn something from it. The thing I learnt was that I never ever in my life want to retire. I'm not a good person when I am not thinking and I love building and I love designing and I love making things and I had forgotten that. You work so hard sometimes that work just overtakes you and you forget why it is you got into a particular business. So what I learnt was that I love designing. Like it or not, I am a designer just by nature. So I realised I need to go back to design. But I wanted to do it in a different way. I didn't want to go back and recreate the same life I had had for myself and just work and work and work to just get back where I was. I think that we are doing it a different way. I do feel that this is a completely different concept, and one that is valid and right for now.

MR: What else did you learn from Gucci?

TF: Oh god, I learnt so much! I know how to make a handbag. I know how to make shoes. I know every shoe factory in Italy. I know exactly how things should be stitched. I also know how to work in a large corporate company. I know how to guide people, lead people, inspire people. I am very comfortable with working on a large scale because it doesn't scare me. I've done it before. It taught me so much. I grew so much in the fifteen years I was at Gucci. Working at Yves Saint Laurent, I leant an enormous amount. I learnt an enormous amount about how to construct women's clothes. It was very different than my experience at Gucci. I always knew how to make clothes. I knew how to cut and drape and sew myself. Not very well, but I can certainly do it. But I learnt a lot from Yves Saint Laurent, from my four years working for those wonderful ateliers where people really still do make things by hand. I learnt a lot because of the fact that the whole thing fell apart and I was no longer going to be able to happy in the company, and I decided to leave. It really might have been the prelude, and prepared me for what will now be my own company, Tom Ford.

MR: Did you feel lost?

TF: Oh yeah, absolutely. I felt lost. Whenever you get to a point when you can't see your future, if you're someone like me who always has to have a plan, and always has to know where they are going, oh my god, if you can't see your future, you start thinking, well maybe I don't have one. Now I can see my future again.

MR: How did you get yourself out of that? How did you get to the moment when you realised that is the prelude? That is just the prelude?

TF: I'm very tough I think and very strong.

MR: Is that the Texan in you?

TF: It is probably because my family's been in Texas since the early nineteenth century. I think all the weak people in out family died off. It's a pioneer spirit of okay I am down but how am I going to get back up? So I think I am quite strong. That's not minimizing that it was difficult. It's only been two years because in the last two years there's been so much work that has gone into the setting up this company that people didn't see. Clearing my name and registering it all over the world and setting up our manufacturing licenses all over the world, setting up all the different companies, difference offices, different showroom, working with the taxes, the logistics of that, planning our business, strategizing it, putting it all together took an enormous amount of time. Then, designing it all, designing though store, figuring out what I needed to say, what I wanted to say to the world, what I was about, what the packaging looked like, what the advertising's going to look like, creating all of this and then finally three months ago, we opened our first store in New York. Even though, it'd all been in my head, all of a sudden it was together in the same room: the shoes, the clothes, with the things, with boxes, with the store, and all of a sudden I could feel, wow, I'm really proud of this. This is really going to work, I hope. I could very clearly, even though I had already started to see my future, I had a real sigh of relief, okay, this was all the right thing, and this is going to work.

MR: Correct me if I am wrong, but I had read somewhere that you had registered your name a while ago as your own brand, so did you think that at that point that it was either insurance, security or in the sense hat maybe somewhere down the line, this is where you needed to be?

TF: It was security and insurance. As I said, I am very pragmatic. I am always thinking about everything that could possibly go wrong and trying to cover all of that. I didn't think I was going to be staring my own company. But once my name became valuable and became recognizable, and other people started registering it, I had to step in and register it. But in some of those places when I went to really formalise everything I found that one of the registrations had lapsed and someone had come in and bought my name for this country. It was not completely easy. It took about eight months just to do that part of it.

MR: Describe for me the difference between Tom Ford, the man and Tom Ford, the product.

TF: Tom Ford, the product is very confident, very strong. Tom Ford, the man is also those things, but Tom Ford the man is also very shy. No one ever really believes that about me. Being public for me is a performance. That doesn't mean it's not genuine, but I have to get my head into place and I have to perform and I have to be Tom Ford, the product. But I was an actor when I was young and I think I understood very clearly the separation of myself as a product or myself as a human being, because you do that as an actor. You constantly have rejection. Someone says, the hair is not right, he looks terrible; his nose is too big, whatever. It's not you they are talking about. It's you as the product to fulfill whatever they need. So, I separate them. Obviously, Tom Ford the product has a lot of Tom Ford the man in it. My life is probably less interesting and less sexy and less exciting. Fashion amplifies everything, glamorizes it even more to a level that it doesn't actually exist. No of course I have wonderful life. I am not saying I have a boring life. I have a great life. But I am much more shy and private as a person than probably ever comes off.

MR: How do you shut off? How do you close the door?

TF: I work, meaning, the whole time I was at Gucci, we were building quite a few different houses. I went to architecture school, so I am frustrated architect. I would come home and just dive into architectural plans, and it would clear my head of everything in my work. I have movie projects in the works, So I come home and work on a screenplay. People say, how do you do this? My work is my hobby. I love what I do. I am visual, I love what I do. So that is already very rewarding too. All these other things I do too that a lot of people thing are work, they're fun for me. So that's what I do. I do a lot of art. I'm actually quite athletic which people don't know, so I play tennis a lot. I ride, I ski, I swim, I hike, and I love being outside. I am very athletic. So, I spend a lot of time doing that.

MR: Are you a control freak?

TF: I hate the word control freak. But, yes, I probably fit that description. I've always found it amusing that sometimes I have been criticised for that when the very nature of being a designer, it's not a democracy, it's a dictatorship. Women should look like this, men should look like that, the heel of that shoe should look like this. It is a dictatorial thing. So how can you be a good designer and not be a control freak? Well, you know, I don't really know what that heel is going to look like on that show and I don't care. I mean, it's your shoe. It's your idea, your concept. The heel has to look exactly like that. So, of course I am control freak.

MR: What makes a man stylish?

TF: What makes a man stylish? You're going to think I am just corny and I am just making these things up. The way he treats other people. Sometimes you see people that are beautifully dressed. They're rude, they're obnoxious, they're loud. I think the thing that makes anyone stylish is something that comes through. Their respect for other people. If we're talking pure clothing style, I think the people who wear things that they are comfortable with, and I don't mean comfortable like my feet kill me, so I am going to walk around all the time in flip flops. I mean comfortable in I am very comfortable in a jacket. It suits me, I feel good in it. I always have. So knowing what suits you and what you feel good in, whether it happens to be in fashion in that moment of time, that to me is style. Repeating that over and over can give you a style.

MR: What makes woman beautiful?

TF: What makes a beautiful woman is that she is a beautiful person because it projects through your eyes. If we are talking pure physical beauty, I think, a certain amount of confidence makes anyone beautiful, and hopefully well cut shoes and beautiful accessories and shoes help you have that confidence. There is nothing more exciting than someone who's confident. I don't mean boastful, because then their mind is off of themselves. If they are so self-conscious and they are not confident their mind isn't fully on you or the other person or the issue that you are discussing. I think confidence is what makes people attractive.

MR: I’ve read that as Tom Ford the man in private is quite shy, but in public very confident.

TF: I am shy but I do usually say what I think, which often gets me into trouble. Maybe that comes from a Texas upbringing where you tell it like it is. I may be very shy but I have always been very comfortable with sex and I find it quite a beautiful thing and I find people's bodies quite a beautiful. I don't find them shocking or scandalising at all. There are other things that I find shocking, violence and lots of things.

MR: As a fashion designer and as somebody who has had and does continue to have full control over the kind of image that you want to project, what kind of, if any, obligation do you have to young society, young women, young men even in terms of their own image and their own self esteem?

TF: We have an idealized, aspirational version of life. It is not real. I hope that when people look at advertising they realise that it's not real. It is not real. Because you dream about the day you get those perfect pair of shoes and your life is just going to fall into place? Right? Okay, it's not going to happen. Yet the dream of that perfection is important. It's important to be able to dream. It's the same reason that we had all these movies in the thirties in the middle of depression with all this glamour. It's a form of escapism and a form of being able to dream, and no matter how old your skin gets, to know that you can always look down at a beautiful shiny new pair of shoes. There is a certain nice consolation in that, that as you deteriorate, everything on you can stay completely fresh.

MR: Are you happy?

TF: I'm very happy. Very, very, very happy. I wasn't, a year or so ago. So, it's nice.

MR: Do you feel you are successful?

TF: I was discussing this with my sister the other day, because success for me, is not about material things. My sister is a school teacher. She has three children, and she has the most wonderful family and the most wonderful life, and at many times in the last fifteen or twenty years, I have felt the unsuccessful one, even though I make more money and I have all these things, because she has managed to have a life that she adore and raised three beautiful children. So success is something each one of us will have to measure. We have to each decide, what is our destiny, what makes us happy and then we have to fulfil our destiny. So, yes, because I am fulfilling my destiny and have fulfilled my destiny, I am very content, at times very happy. I've been so fortunate, that honestly, I'd like to have more of it, and I'd like to have more days of doing things that I enjoy, but if I didn't, I feel that I have fully lived and have no regrets, and I have had a wonderful, wonderful life.

Interview courtesy of CNN's Art Of Life programme