Person of the Week: Tom Ford

ByTerry Moran

March 12, 2004 -- Designer Tom Ford presented his final fashion collections for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent this weekend, and he said goodbye to the world of fashion.

"You're putting so much of yourself out on the runway," Ford said about his craft. "You are saying, 'This is what I think.' It's fairly egotistical to say the world should look like this, women should look like this, and men should look like that. You're putting yourself out there for real criticism; it is, in a sense, a performance."

Ford knows that better than anyone.

He's a designer for celebrities; stars such as Helen Hunt, Susan Sarandon, and Charlize Theron have graced the red carpet wearing his designs.

But chances are, even if you've never heard of him, you're probably familiar with one of his design creations over the past decade.

"Tom Ford's influence, you can see it everywhere," said Patrick McCarthy, chairman of the fashion publisher Fairchild Publications. "You see it on other runways; you see it in the windows of Banana Republic and the Gap. You'd actually see people walking down the street with faux Gucci looks."

Bootlegged knockoffs might make some designers angry, but not Ford.

"It makes me so happy to see knockoffs," he said. "Imitation is a serious form of flattery. It means you've done the right thing, and that's great. I love that."

The wildly popular hiphugger pants trend started when it appeared on Ford's runway. In fact, every time you see a sleek men's suit or a silhouette dress, those design ideas can be traced right back to Ford.

"He took something that was a totally fuddy-duddy image and made it glamorous and sexy and exciting and risqué," said Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue.

Ford's Early Beginnings

Born in Austin, Texas and raised in Santa Fe, N.M., Ford said his family always encouraged him to be and to do whatever he wanted. "I was very visual as a kid," Ford said. "If my parents left to go to the movies, I would rearrange the furniture. I would say you shouldn't wear that, you need to change the color of that. I was visually obsessed as a child, and I still am."

Ford moved to New York when he was 17. He began his career acting in commercials, but he says it wasn't very satisfying.

He enrolled at Parsons School of Design, and after earning a degree in environmental architecture, he turned his attention to fashion.

He was working as a junior sportswear designer when Gucci discovered him in 1990. The legendary label was falling apart and almost at the point of declaring bankruptcy.

"What I tried to do was to put it at the forefront of '90s fashion," he said. "I tried to modernize Gucci and make it more relevant in today's world."

Reviving Gucci's Brand

Ford revived the brand in a way that has never been done before. It wasn't just about clothing.

"He controlled everything — not just the design, not just the runway shows, but the stores, the advertising, the packaging, the bags that people carried out the doors," said McCarthy. "He was a complete control freak, and that's what made the company successful."

By 1995, Ford was responsible for 11 fashion categories including accessories and fragrances. And when Gucci bought Yves Saint Laurent in 2000, Ford took on the French line's couture collection too.

Last year, the Gucci Group earned $1.5 billion.

At 42, Ford is going to take a break for a few months. He believes he is at his best when under intense pressure, and while he's not sure what's next, he thinks directing a film sounds intriguing.

"With fashion, I feel that I've done it," Ford said. "That doesn't mean that I couldn't do it more and I couldn't do it better, that I couldn't do it longer. But I feel like I've been very successful at it. But I do feel that perhaps I should challenge myself in a new way."

Gucci actually hired four people to replace Ford, although most people in the fashion world say the way he interprets beauty and his sense for the cultural moment are decidedly irreplaceable.