Tom Ford: Sex, Branding and the Cult of Celebrity
Other than Gianni Versace and Azzedine AlaIïa, there have been few designers to emerge in the second half of the 20th century as synonymous with sex as Tom Ford. From his breakout days helming Gucci to the expansion of his eponymous label, Ford’s fetishes, along with his desire to pique those in others, has been his defining trait and one he has translated to every ad campaign and glossy package. It is something that extends beyond his actual design aesthetic to shape how the public perceives his work while constantly fueling their renewed interest in where he will push them next. Though the products themselves have varying degrees of desirability once placed on the shop hanger or behind a glass case, they nonetheless draw people hoping to possess a morsel of Ford’s rarefied world.
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As with most, Ford’s sensibility, however innate, was largely shaped by experiences in his youth. “I love the 70s,” he told The Guardian in 2015. “That was my coming of age and of first seeing things that were so beautiful. I was 17 in 78 and 18 in 79, so that’s the period where I first thought things like, ‘Oh my God, she’s so beautiful,’ ‘His body is so amazing,’ ‘This house is so incredible.’” He continued “The generation right after me, like Nicolas Ghesquière [of Louis Vuitton], they’re all about the 80s, because that’s when they came of age. Giorgio Armani is all about the 1930s – his whole aesthetic, his whole brand is built around Italy in the 1930s and 1940s. I think that’s a personal thing.”
Consequently, Halston, whom Ford knew, and the remarkably holistic vision he set forth to conquer the heady 70s probably remains Ford’s most important design touchstone. It would be easy to compare the two: both attractive gay men, both share a penchant for whipping up pieces of sophisticated sensuality, both curated a posse of beauties who simultaneously inspired and represented them. But whereas Halston was able to infuse couture-level technical innovation into the mix, Ford has always relied more heavily on his brilliant marketing skills. His ability to toe the line of vulgarity without diminishing the elevated status of his work is perhaps his real genius. It isn’t to say that Ford is incapable of creating some showstoppers–he certainly is–but how he presents his work is often stronger than the sum of its parts. There’s simply no other reason one would pay nearly $1,600 for an unremarkable viscose shirt.
Gucci is the place where Ford found his footing as a designer and businessman, but also where he established his template for risky advertising. The daringly unbuttoned shirts, low-slung pants and wandering hands forged an image as much about attitude as about the wares being proffered. That same attitude could be found on all of his runways, not to mention the slick look of every store. When asked about his relationship with sensuality, he told New York Magazine, “I suppose everything I do has sexual undertones, but I don’t set out to make everything about sex. My clothes are more about sensuality. What I do is dress and beautify the body. My feeling is, if you have something beautiful, then show it. I don’t start out by saying to myself, What can I do that’s sexy? It’s more that what I find beautiful is also sexy and sensual.” It remains a philosophy very much at play in the present day at his namesake house.
The potency of his formula has worked masterfully with his brand grossing nearly $2 billion in revenue in 2017 according to a report from the The Business of Fashion, an article that also laid out Ford’s ambition to become one of the world’s five largest luxury brands on par with the likes of Chanel and Hermès. Considering the breadth of his retail categories, it seems more than likely he will accomplish just that within the next few years. The sense of myth surrounding Ford is something carefully curated and its aura is not unlike those of the more established luxury houses he intends to dominate.
But this fiscal success isn’t merely solid business strategy producing consistent growth. It is also the result of Ford’s natural sense of commercialism. “You put five shoes on a table, I will pick the one that more people than not will find attractive and that will outsell all the others,” he told Time in early 2016. “Simply by saying, ‘I like this one best,’ it will sell the most.” It’s the confidence of this, as Ford called it in that same interview, ‘dictatorship mentality’ that almost wills his label to prosperity. It is perhaps also the reason that Ford was able to transmute would could have a been a flash in the pan early success at Gucci into a respected, lucrative career three decades in length.
In a 2011 television documentary series entitled Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind, which aired on Oprah’s OWN network, Ford mused on a designer’s place and what it means to be of your time. “I know one day I’ll be irrelevant because, no matter how hard you try, there is a cultural window where it is your moment and you’re in that space and you can cling to it and cling to it and cling to it, but eventually your window’s gone. Your time on earth is finished. You might as well leave.”
Ford wisely uses the elements of celebrity he cultivated during his ascent to intersect with the rise in celebrity’s hold of culture in general. Through it, he’s earned a relevancy he might not otherwise enjoy. Celebrity is what he projects, explicitly or otherwise, because it’s what our ravenous society demands with its insatiable media platforms in need of constant feeding. Perverse as it may be, it is the ultimate act of seduction, one that keeps the tills cheerily ringing.