In his role as creative director for the Gucci Group, designing collections for both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford was central to early twenty-first-century fashion. Under Ford’s direction, creativity and innovation shared equal value with marketing and promotion in the positioning of the brands.
Born in 1962 and raised in San Marcos, Texas, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, Ford first began his career as a model for television advertisements before studying interior design at Parsons School of Design in New York City. In his final year of school, he changed his focus to fashion design. As a freelance designer on Seventh Avenue, he first worked for Cathy Hardwick and then in 1988 in the jeans department of Perry Ellis, under the short-lived direction of Marc Jacobs.
In 1990, the company’s worst year financially, Ford was appointed womenswear designer at Gucci. Because of loss of strategic and creative direction and in-house family feuding, the company was losing 340 billion lire annually. In 1992 Ford was appointed design director, and in 1994, creative director; by the first six months of 1995, the company’s revenues had increased by 87 percent. This financial turnaround was largely achieved by a consolidation of the company’s product range, editing out weak licenses for vulgarly branded goods and redesigning core items, typified by the reappearance of the classic Gucci loafer in rainbow hues (1991) and the success of the Gucci platform snaffle clog (1992).
The international recognition of Gucci as a producer of prêt-à-porter collections was crystallized by the autumn/winter season of 1995-1996. From the prevailing aesthetic of pared-down minimalism and understated luxury, Ford presented a sleek, retro-inspired collection evoking a somewhat louche sexuality. The look was defined by velvet hipster trousers with a kick at the heel and a narrowly cut silk shirt, accessorized with a large, unstructured shoulder bag and matching platform court shoes in patent leather with a metallic shine normally associated with car chassis.
The collection was pivotal, as it established a trend for the consumption of seasonal fashion defined not so much by a total look as by how the look could be attained through buying the “must-have” accessory. As Ford later suggested, “You have to get the product right, it’s the most important aspect.” Much of this success was achieved through the advertising campaigns the company produced with fashion photographer Mario Testino, where the glamorous proposition of the dressed models was matched on the opposite side of the spread by an isolated close-up of the accessory. The close relation between the image of Gucci and its advertising campaigns eventually produced a lapse in confidence, when for the spring/summer collections in 2003 the company ran an image of a model who had her pubic hair shaved into the Gucci “G.” The image was widely criticized for being too blatantly sexual and in dubious taste. Meanwhile, the Gucci Group had acquired the Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) brand after the legendary designer retired from the couture. From an uncelebrated opening collection (largely due to the French press berating an American ready-to-wear designer for having the audacity to step into the most hallowed of shoes), the brand developed consistently and confidently, particularly from Ford’s gaining access to the YSL archive.
Through his close relation to Domenico de Sole, CEO of the Gucci Group, Tom Ford was central to the increasing dominance of the company in the designer fashion and luxury goods market, as Gucci acquired stakes in Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Bottega Veneta, and Sergio Rossi. The unexpected 2003 announcement of Ford’s departure from the Gucci group, effective in April 2004, shook the fashion world, and speculation immediately began about his successor as well as about his own future plans.
Ford, Tom, for Gucci. Light. Visionaire 24. New York: Visionaire Publishing, 1998. Unique, multiformat album of fashion and fine art published three rimes yearly in numbered, limited editions. Artists are given freedom to develop a theme. In issue 24 Visionaire and Tom Ford created the first such publication that is battery-operated. Only 3,300 copies were made.
Forden, Sara Gay. The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed. New York: Perennial, 2001.