The American fashion designer and film director gained fame for turning around Gucci. He’s now content with a newborn son and his fox terriers.
While the legendary designer is best known for his smouldering advertising campaigns and his run-ins with management on creative direction, Ford and his partner, journalist Richard Buckley, who have been together since 1986, announced the birth of their son, Alexander John Buckley Ford, in October last year.
It’s a sobering reminder of the real lives many designers lead, behind the glamour and sweat of international stardom. Buckley was the former Editor in Chief of Vogue Hommes International, who met the 25 year-old Ford 25 years ago. They’ve become inseparable ever since, even surviving the added strain of Buckley being diagnosed with cancer in 1989. After his recovery the two moved from New York to Italy, now residing in London, and the birth of their son last year is the next installment of this starter family, which also includes three fox terriers. Their first dog, named John, lived fourteen years with Ford and Buckley, and appeared on the runway and in some photos with Ford. Currently, they own Angus and India, who are six and four years old, respectively, one of them even appearing in Ford’s movie A Single Man. The appearance of their son, however, will certainly not be as public as their fox terriers. Ford is quoted as saying early last year, before the birth of his surrogate son, “No one will ever see the child because I certainly wouldn’t use it as a press tool. If I have a child, you won’t even notice that I had a child. Maybe you’ll see it when it’s 18, but I will keep it out of the spotlight.” Ford’s own journey into the spotlight is filled with all the rich storytelling and drama that you’d expect from someone who has become a design icon.
Born August 27, 1961, in Austin, Texas, to realtors Tom Ford and Shirley Burton, he spent his early life in the suburbs of Houston, Texas, and in San Marcos, outside Austin. His family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, when he was 11, leaving at age 16 after dropping out of college. He then moved to New York City to study art history at New York University from which he also dropped out after only a year, preferring to concentrate on acting in television commercials. At one time, he was in 12 national advertising campaigns simultaneously. Ford then began studying interior design at the famous art and design college, Parsons School of Design. During his time in New York, Ford became a fixture at the legendary nightclub Studio 54, where he first realized he was gay. The club’s disco-era glamor would be a major influence on his later designs.
Before his last year at Parson’s, Ford spent a year and a half in Paris, where he worked as an intern in Chloé’s press office. Though his work primarily involved sending clothes out on photo shoots, it triggered his love of fashion and he spent his final year at Parson’s studying fashion, nevertheless graduating with a degree in architecture. Despite his lack of fashion experience, Ford called American designer Cathy Hardwick every day for a month in the hope of securing a job at her mid-price sportswear company. Eventually, she agreed to see him. Hardwick later recalled the incident: “I had every intention of giving him no hope. I asked him who his favorite European designers were. He said, ‘Armani and Chanel.’ Months later I asked him why he said that, and he said, ‘Because you were wearing something Armani’. Is it any wonder he got the job?” Ford worked as a design assistant for Hardwick for two years.
In 1988, Ford moved to Perry Ellis, where he knew both Robert McDonald, the company’s president, and Marc Jacobs, its designer, socially. He stayed at the company for two years, but grew tired of working in American fashion. In a later interview with The New York Times, he commented, “If I was ever going to become a good designer, I had to leave America. My own culture was inhibiting me. Too much style in America is tacky. It’s looked down upon to be too stylish. Europeans, however, appreciate style.”
Ford would soon have the opportunity to enter the world of European fashion: Gucci, a faltering luxury goods company, was seeking to strengthen its women’s ready-to-wear presence as part of its brand overhaul. At the time, “no one would dream of wearing Gucci,” said Dawn Mello, then the company’s creative director. Mello hired Ford—then a near-unknown—as the brand’s chief women’s ready-to-wear designer in 1990. “I was talking to a lot of people, and most didn’t want the job,” Mello said. “For an American designer to move to Italy to join a company that was far from being a brand would have been pretty risky.” Ford and his longtime partner, fashion journalist Richard Buckley, relocated to Milan that September.
Ford’s role at Gucci rapidly expanded: he was designing menswear within six months, and shoes soon after that. When Richard Lambertson left as design director in 1992, Ford took over his position, heading the brand’s ready-to-wear, fragrances, image, advertising, and store design.
In 1993, when he was in charge of designing eleven product lines, Ford worked eighteen-hour days. During these years, there were creative tensions between Ford and Maurizio Gucci, the company’s chairman and 50% owner. According to Mello, “Maurizio always wanted everything to be round and brown, and Tom
wanted to make it square and black.” Though Maurizio Gucci wanted to fire Ford, Domenico de Sole insisted that he remain. Nonetheless, Ford’s work during the early 1990s was primarily behind the scenes; his contributions to Gucci were overshadowed by those of Mello, who was the company’s public face.
In 1994, Ford was promoted to creative director. In his first year at the helm, he was credited with putting the glamour back into fashion introducing Halston-style velvet hipsters, skinny satin shirts and car-finish metallic patent boots. In 1995, he brought in French stylist Carine Roitfeld and photographer Mario Testino to create a series of new, modern ad campaigns for the company. Between 1995 and 1996, sales at Gucci increased by 90%. On the strength of Ford’s collections, Gucci went public in October 1995 with an IPO of $22 per share, followed by an additional global offering in March 1996 at $48 per share and a third offering in 1999 at $75 per share. In early 1999, luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, headed by Bernard Arnault, increased its shareholdings in Gucci with a view to takeover. By 1999, the house, which had been almost bankrupt when Ford joined, was valued at about $4.3 billion. When Ford left in 2004, Gucci Group was valued at $10 billion.
When Gucci acquired the house of Yves Saint Laurent (YSL), Ford was named the creative director of that label as well, displacing Saint Laurent himself as designer of the company’s ready-to-wear line. Saint Laurent did not hide his displeasure with this development, openly and regularly criticizing Ford’s collections. “The poor man does what he can,” he is quoted as once saying of his successor. During his time as Creative Director for YSL, Ford was able to catapult the classic fashion house back into the mainstream. In April 2004, Ford parted ways with the Gucci group after he and CEO Domenico de Sole, who is credited as Ford’s partner in Gucci’s success, failed to agree with bosses over artistic control of the Group. He has since referred to this experience as “devastating” because he had “put everything into that for fifteen years.” Setting up his film production company, Fade To Black, the following year found a new outlet for his creativity and a lesson that life carries on regardless. As his grandmother used to tell him, ” You have one decision to make in life. You can either be happy or not be happy.”