The Business of Being Tom Ford, Part II

In Part 2 of a special interview to accompany the launch of the BoF 500, Imran Amed sits down with the one and only Tom Ford to understand how he built his own brand — projected to soon turn over $1 billion a year at retail — and the lessons he has learned along the way.

Tom Ford | Photo: Simon Perry

LONDON, United Kingdom — It was not long before Ford jumped back into the fashion mix, but surprising observers again, he started with menswear.

“[Menswear] is a detail-driven business. It really is about the fabrics, or the make, or the buttonholes, or the lapels. At the designer level, it is a very, very different business than women’s,” he says. “So I thought ‘OK, I am ready to go back to fashion,’ and this is a kindler, gentler way to do it.”

But unlike the easier price points of his fragrance and eyewear collections, the menswear offering was decidedly expensive, with off-the-rack suits retailing at over $5,000, about the same price as a bespoke suit from Savile Row.

“One of the reasons that a designer is successful is [because of] intuition. Everything I have done has been quite organic,” insists Ford. “Maybe it would sound better if I sat here and told you it was all a pre-mapped strategy and maybe in my subconscious it was, but it wasn’t. It was organic.”

Nonetheless, Ford’s entry into the menswear market was very well-timed indeed. After a short, sharp fall in luxury spending following the financial crisis of 2008, it was not long before the kind of ultra-high net worth men Ford was targeting were shopping again, driving a surge of demand in the luxury menswear market, which according to consultants Bain & Company, has been growing at 12-16 percent per year since 2010, even faster than womenswear.

And, like his entrées into beauty and eyewear, Ford did not try to do everything in house. Instead, he tapped a longstanding relationship — this time with Gildo Zegna, chief executive of Ermenegildo Zegna — to get a quick start.

“Zegna has built an entire business just on menswear. It can be a very profitable business,” he says. “I could have started with my own office, and I know all the factories and I could go to this factory to get my jacket and that factory to get my shirts, but I needed to go fast. I had worked with Zegna [on] both Gucci and YSL, and Zegna was the only partner which had the ability to make everything from suits, shirts, ties, sportswear, all of it, all at once.”

So, Ford inked yet another deal and soon, he was back in the thick of the ready-to-wear fashion business. As with every business line, he maintains significant control to ensure he gets the results he desires.

“We develop all of our own fabrics. That’s very important for our customer. They don’t want to come to us and spend $5,000 on a men’s suit and see that exact same fabric in someone else’s line,” he explains. “And we control our distribution. They handle the manufacturing and the shipping. It’s our showroom, and our staff, our merchandising team, and we decide where we are sold.”

BUILDING A RETAIL NETWORK

But selling was another challenge altogether.

“The main challenge in starting your own company is [creating] a distribution network — especially when you’re starting a luxury business,” says Ford. And whereas other brands may have chosen to begin by wholesaling their ready-to-wear collections in department stores and boutiques, Ford decided not to go down that route at first. To coincide with the menswear launch, Ford realised he needed his own retail presence, and fast.

“I wanted the very first store to be in London,” he recalls. “I needed to be either on Bond Street or Sloane Street and there [were] no properties available. When anything would come up, I’d get into a bidding war with LVMH, Richemont or Gucci Group. There was no way I could compete.”

Tom Ford Los Angeles Store | Illustration: Patrick Morgan for BoF

Tom Ford Los Angeles Store | Illustration: Patrick Morgan for BoF

So Ford set his sights on New York instead. Stumbling across a space that became vacant when the Gianfranco Ferré store at 845 Madison Avenue moved to a new location, he pounced. “I went right upstairs and called someone and said ‘Get on the phone and find out what this is,’ and that became our first store,” he recalls.

The store opened in April 2007, to coincide with the move into menswear, reflecting, as always, his own personal tastes and aesthetic, and creating a retail template that could be translated for future store locations. “It was initially just a replica of my London living room, right down to taking mirrors off my wall and having them copied,” he remembers.

Then, once again he quickly turned to leverage a set of global relationships built during his time at Gucci Group to set in place franchise deals for Tom Ford retail stores around the world. “We sat with potential franchise partners that we worked with at Gucci and YSL, and [they] committed even before the first store was built,” he says.

Indeed, driven by Mr de Sole, the list of signed partners is formidable and spans the biggest and best luxury retail partners around the globe: The Lane Crawford Joyce Group in Asia, Villa Moda and UAE Trading in the Middle East, Mercury in Russia, Harrods in the UK, Holt Renfrew in Canada and Neiman Marcus Group in the United States.

By the end of this year, Ford’s retail network will begin to rival that of some of the biggest luxury brands in the business, in some of the world’s best locations, with 97 stores and more than 240,000 square feet of space, including 25 directly-operated stores, 23 franchised stores, and 49 shop- in-shops in 23 countries around the world.

A RETURN TO WOMENSWEAR

But Ford’s return to fashion wouldn’t have been complete without a womenswear collection, something that he actively resisted at the beginning.

“It wasn’t that it wasn’t appealing,” he says. “I’ve been a fashion designer for 25 years, and I was doing 16 collections a year. It wasn’t specifically clothes, it was just kind of the entire industry,” he continues. “I was very worn out from having generated all of that. I think the women’s fashion business is probably the hardest, toughest business in the world.”

But he finally returned to womenswear in September 2010 in a way that only Tom Ford could pull off. At a secretive show held in his New York store, Ford caught the industry completely by surprise, with a highly exclusive approach that went counter to the prevailing winds that were beginning to transform and democratise the industry.

Only one hundred of fashion’s super-elite editors were invited. Only Terry Richardson, who acted as house photographer, was allowed to shoot the show, and his images would not be released to the public until months later when the collection was available to buy. Attendees were banned from tweeting and taking their own photos in what amounted to a social media blackout.

What’s more, instead of just using models, a diverse coterie of some of the most world’s most famous and beautiful women — including Beyoncé, Julianne Moore, Lauren Hutton, Victoria Fernandez and Rachel Feinstein — stepped in to show Mr Ford’s new wares, alongside star models like Joan Smalls, Natalia Vodianova and Liya Kebede.

At first, his return to womenswear was seen as triumphant by the industry. In her review of his comeback show in the International Herald Tribune, Suzy Menkes said Ford brought “vibrant emotion to a collection of superbly crafted clothes that, while not new or edgy, filled the needs and stoked the desires of women as diverse as those famous and fabulous females in his show.”

This is exactly what he was hoping to achieve. “I wanted to make clothes for every single woman. [She] should be able to walk into my store and we will either have, or be able to make, clothes for that particular woman, in the way that old couture houses did,” he explains. “So I had these different personalities in my show and I made things specifically for them, and I thought ‘Aha this is the new concept!’”

BUMPS IN THE ROAD

But the following season, Ford faced the first major bumps on his comeback journey. Doing away with the idea of a show altogether, he invited a select few journalists to see his collection in his London showroom. This approach ruffled more than a few feathers, especially on social media and blogs, and led the influential online community at The Fashion Spot to weigh in on the debate: “Tom Ford’s “Secret” Shows — Brilliant or Arrogant?”

The next season, the criticism continued. Virginie Mouzat was the most vocal and public critic, using words like “nightmare” and “old-fashioned” in her review for Le Figaro, criticising not only Ford’s collection and its “borrowed inspirations,” but also the make-up, styling and invitation process.

“I agree with her that it was a terrible collection. It was probably the worst collection that I have ever done. It was a terrible, terrible show,” admits Ford, while adding that he thought her review crossed the line, amounting to a personal attack. “It was not meant to be a show, it was a showroom collection that 4 days before we decided to put on a little runway, because everyone kept calling and getting really angry.”

“Without those [real women] in it, when you put those things on a model, what you end up with is a mess. You end up with an outfit that looks like this, and an outfit that looks like that, but it doesn’t give a cohesive point of view, of what you as a designer, house, brand, believes in for the season,” he says, adding later: “it was also not a good collection because my initial concept for women’s did not work.”

But this only emboldened Ford to find a new path. “I thrive on failure. I thrive on things that are not perfect. It sends me back into the ring to get it right,” he says. “About three seasons ago, we started focusing things more, and I think the two collections we did previous to this last one were really good and I had great press coverage … but no one saw them,” he admits, acknowledging that by limiting exposure of his collections online and restricting media from reporting on them, he was doing his business a disservice.

EMBRACING THE INTERNET

So, Ford changed his tack again. At his show in London in February, he put on the first full-scale show since his days at Gucci and invited a few new media mavens, including Susanna Lau of Style Bubble, to attend his show for the first time. And while the reviews of his latest collection were mixed, the move signaled Ford’s newfound understanding of today’s media landscape.

“I think one of the reasons I was really resisting digital, was because it’s less controllable. The thing about a journalist like Cathy Horyn or Suzy [Menkes], [is] that they have a certain integrity. They fact check. They have a history. They know what they are watching. A blogger today could have a lot of followers, but maybe doesn’t have that sense of history or that level of professionalism. You can’t control that so you have to just let go,” says Ford.

“I was talking to a friend who’s a journalist and he said ‘You’ll never have that kind of hit in the way that you’re used to in the days when the Internet wasn’t so powerful. You had a consensus of five or ten people who decided whether something was a hit and that’s what the world read, and that’s what the world believed.’ Now it’s very diverse and ultimately the customer decides, which is nice.

Ultimately, that’s what I wanted to do and why I wasn’t showing to the press — because I wanted to design for the customer and not necessarily for editorial.”

Indeed, Ford is perplexed by how digital is changing the fashion industry. “I love black dresses, I think everyone should own a lot, but black dresses don’t sell online because on the computer they don’t read like anything. Fashion has changed so much because of the Internet, not only because of the way it’s reported, but more and more [because of] the way it’s sold.”

But make no mistake. Ford realises the power of the Internet as a commercial vehicle and expects that his own online store will soon become the top door for TFI globally when it launches early next year. Partially, he has arrived at this understanding through his own online buying behaviour, a byproduct of his hectic, peripatetic lifestyle.

“I live, I shop almost exclusively on the Internet,” he says. “I’ve bought cars on the Internet. I watch television, I do everything on it. I even watch my son online,” referring to the baby monitor camera app that he is able to check on his iPhone.

THE FUTURE

Despite the ups and downs, Ford remains sanguine about the future of his business and seems genuinely excited about the prospects of his soon-to-be billion-dollar brand. “[Now that] we have our distribution network, it’s about to tip,” he says.

So, does that means things are easier for him personally now than when he was at the helm of the Gucci Group empire?

“I feel more worn out now,” he says. “I’ve just had a week in LA with my son, so I’m less worn out than when I left two and half weeks ago, but I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard in my life.”

That said, “the company is profitable, it runs itself and I don’t have to sell paintings,” he says jokingly, referring to the Andy Warhol self-portrait that he sold for $32.6 million in 2010 to help finance the expansion of TFI. “It takes a lot of the stress off of it.”

But, it does beg the question, how long can Tom Ford go on working this hard? Though he refused to even entertain questions about selling his business, he would certainly be in a position to make a considerable amount of money from an exit one day.

“I don’t have to think about it yet, because we are just at the tipping point. I’m still only 51,” he reminds me. “I do know that I want to work ’til the day I drop dead. I might not be doing exactly what I’m doing now, but absolutely I’ll be working until the day I die. I might be making a movie, I might be doing something else, but I will be getting up and doing something.”

And perhaps, this, more than anything, is the secret to the business of being Tom Ford: an indefatigable work ethic combined with an innate desire to build things.

“I think it’s primitive,” he says. “It’s the same thing as if you put a kid in a sandbox. He stacks blocks and he knocks them down and re-stacks them. It’s the same thing: I’m stacking blocks. I’m making a business. I’m building something and when I feel it’s completely built, or I’m bored building it, I’ll build something else.”

Read Part 1 of our exclusive interview with Tom Ford here.

A version of this article first appeared in a special print edition of The Business of Fashion, published to accompany the launch of the BoF 500. To get your copy, click here or visit Colette in Paris, Opening Ceremony in New York, London and Los Angeles, Le Mill in Mumbai and Sneakerboy in Melbourne.