Tom Ford: ‘I wore a suit on set. It’s a uniform… I feel weak in trainers’

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tom Ford: ‘I wore a suit on set. It’s a uniform… I feel weak in trainers’” was written by Tim Lewis, for The Observer on Sunday 23rd October 2016 09.00 UTC

As I enter the hotel suite, Tom Ford stands in silhouette against an industrial, ceiling-height window, the light refracted behind him in a sunburst. It’s an irresistible image, so perfect it almost had to be composed: both man and room shown off to their optimal effect. And, who am I kidding, it probably was. I had been checked at the door for a minute or two while Ford had rearranged some furniture that was irking him. Even a rented room, used for a day to plug a new movie, can be improved. Ford is obsessed with beautiful things and has had an enduring and hugely successful career, first in fashion, now as a film director, making people and places look their best.

Ford strides towards me, eager, like a politician on the election trail, and extends his hand. I had read that he prefers to be called “Mr Ford” and check if that’s the case. “No, no, no,” he smiles, as if it was one of the top five most ridiculous things he’s ever heard. “Pleeease call me Tom.”

Tom Ford, the man, has always been the most compelling advertisement for Tom Ford, the creative output. He is, it’s almost inane to note, a very handsome individual. These are looks that many would sell their souls for, but Ford, now an impossible 55 years old, hasn’t needed to: just lots of vegetables and fish, no booze for years, tennis three times a week and an occasional restrained touch-up with Botox under the eyes and Just for Men dye on his beard stubble.

Today, as he almost always does, Ford wears a cinched black suit, matching tie, a gold collar bar. “A suit is armour,” he explains. “You know, I’m not good in knitwear.” His voice, almost a growl, is saturated with disdain. “I feel mushy and soft. I’m not good in anything but a boot. I feel solid and grounded. You gotta learn in life what makes you feel comfortable in terms of clothing and that’s what you should wear. Some people look great in knitwear; that’s what they want to wear, they look good in it, it feels right for them. Trainers: I feel weak in trainers. I mean, I wear them when I’m at the gym, but I feel soft and I don’t like that.”

How about when he was shooting his new film, Nocturnal Animals, did Ford wear a suit then? “Yes, I wore it on set, it’s a uniform. I’m comfortable, it suits who I am,” he replies. “Except the parts when we were in Texas, where I wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, which looks surprisingly good on me. Well, all of a sudden, 200 years of Texas pioneer background kind of genetically seems to just work on my head. And I don’t look like a fool.”

Ford – I hope this is coming across – is surprisingly funny. He is completely serious and at the same time, nullifying the criticism often levelled at those in the fashion world, completely aware that some people will find what he’s saying ridiculous. There are numerous stories-cum-urban-legends that have attached themselves to Ford over the years. That he takes five baths a day. That he doesn’t like to see or smell food in his office. That he once sent an employee home for wearing three-quarter-length trousers. That he cannot abide hot drinks. That – this one courtesy of Victoria Beckham – he flies long haul in his suit and his only concession is to undo a single waistcoat button.

Some people would regard him as eccentric, I say. “Eccentric?” says Ford, visibly perking up, his hands carving arcs, like a matador’s. “Oh, tell me about that!”

The multiple baths in a day. “Oh, I can explain that,” he counters, a little disappointed perhaps that the rumour was not more outrageous. “For me, it’s meditation. I take a bath in the morning, because the time I lie in the bathtub is when I work out all my problems. I think about the day, I think about what I’ve got to do. I think about nothing, I clear my head. Same in the evening, before dinner, I can’t go from work and out to a dinner and be good at a dinner – meaning be interesting and charming and be interested and listen to someone – unless I kind of wash away the day. The same at night, I can’t go to sleep unless I get in the bathtub and again, wash away the day. So it’s meditative for me, it’s not that I have some cleanliness obsession.”

So that’s cleared that up. “I don’t smoke,” he goes on. “Some people go out and have a cigarette. I don’t drink, some people drink.” He exhales theatrically. “I lie in a bath full of hot water.”

Tom Ford directs Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals.
‘That very hard, lacquered, manufactured, glamorous life is part of the story’: Tom Ford directs Amy Adams in the opening scenes of Nocturnal Animals. Photograph: Merrick Morton

It is common, as shown here, to fixate on Ford’s aesthetic. This is, after all, how he made his name: he arrived, unheralded, as a designer at Gucci in 1990, when the company was on its knees; when he departed in 2004, it was one of the world’s most desired luxury brands, owning Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, and valued at $10bn. In 2006, he started trading under his own name and there are now 122 Tom Ford stores, which take around $1bn each year in sales. Daniel Craig insists on Tom Ford suits for the Bond films, while Michelle Obama chose one of his gowns when she met the Queen.

The idea, though, that he might be stronger on style than substance endured when Ford moved into film. His first feature, in 2010, was A Single Man, which followed a day in the life of a college professor, masterfully played by Colin Firth, who is contemplating suicide. It was a deeply assured debut and one that Ford was involved in every aspect of: as a writer – adapting Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel – director and producer, plunging in some of his own savings, not all of which were returned at the box office. Still, many reviewers struggled to see past the lush cinematography and Firth’s instantly iconic thick-rimmed spectacles. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian wrote that it sometimes resembled “a 100-minute commercial for men’s cologne: Bereavement by Dior”.

Ford believes, with some justification, that there is a perception of him as an individual that precedes his films. “I’m a very, very, very private person,” he says. “I’m also a very shy person. So what most people know of me is a product. It is a billboard. It is a selling tool. That’s not to say it’s false. It comes from me. Everything I make I am proud of. So this is a part of my personality, but it’s the surface. When I made A Single Man, I actually had people say to me, ‘My God, I didn’t realise you had such depth.’ It’s kind of shocking. You realise, ‘Oh, oh-kay…’”

His point is that the real Ford is more than the guy with perma-stubble who happens to look fantastic in aviators. “I’m glad that there is a large part of my character and my personality that is private,” he says. “You know, I don’t have a personal Instagram account, I’m not photographing my dinner every night and sending it out to the world. I’m quite private and the older I get the more I guard that, and the more famous I’ve become, the more and more and more I guard that.”

It’s not just reviewers, either. When Ford approached Jake Gyllenhaal to star in Nocturnal Animals, the actor has admitted that he was concerned Ford, whom he didn’t know at this point, would “focus on the aesthetic over the heart of the story”. Gyllenhaal, however, was quickly convinced after speaking to the director, as was Amy Adams, who signed on to play the female lead, Susan, a privileged but unhappy gallery owner.

“I have to say, luckily most of the reviews of Nocturnal Animals have been terrific,” notes Ford. “But the very few criticisms have been that’s it’s too beautiful, too stylised. I think if I didn’t have another life as a fashion designer I wouldn’t be hearing that and people wouldn’t be judging that.

“Not comparing myself to Hitchcock,” he continues, “but I’ll use him as an example. He was notorious for spending weeks on his leading ladies’ hair, makeup, look, clothes. What most directors do is intentional: how they frame something, whether it’s composed or not composed is part of telling the story. In this particular case, that very hard, lacquered, manufactured, glamorous life is part of the story. It’s key to understanding who Susan is and how she lives. It isn’t just random because I wanted to see some beautiful clothes and beautiful hair and beautiful makeup. This is part of the story.”

That story is something of a departure for Ford, as well. Nocturnal Animals – a Grand Jury prize winner at Venice – which is adapted, again by Ford, from a 1993 novel called Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, begins as very much a companion piece to A Single Man. Susan lives in a striking modernist house straight from the pages of Wallpaper*; her husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), seems to smell of money, but they clearly don’t much like each other. Susan has even inherited Colin Firth’s signature glasses.

Colin Firth in Tom Ford’s acclaimed directorial debut, A Single Man (2009), based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood.
Colin Firth in Tom Ford’s acclaimed directorial debut, A Single Man (2009), based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood. Photograph: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

Everything changes, though, when Susan receives a package from her first husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t seen in years: it’s a novel he’s written, dedicated to her; a brutal page-turner about a family travelling across the Texas desert who find themselves in an altercation with a gang of young droogs. Nocturnal Animals now starts flicking between Susan’s sedate, joyless life in Los Angeles and a pulse-racing crime thriller that plays out in her head as she reads Edward’s book. Ford ultimately intertwines these stories into one suffocatingly intense narrative and makes powerful, sometimes stinging comments on the importance of loyalty, the thrill of revenge and the perils of consumerism.

Yes, you read that straight: Tom Ford is railing against the perils of consumerism. A man whose eponymous fashion label sells an oversize Dakota bag for $6,450 (£5,250) and whose suits for men all cost in excess of $5,000 (£4,100). A man who owns a house in Bel Air designed by Richard Neutra, an 1827 John Nash Mayfair townhouse and a ranch in New Mexico, on land larger than Manhattan, with Tadao Ando buildings and an airstrip, which was recently put on the market for £60m. But Ford is no fool and well aware of the extreme potential for hypocrisy.

“The character of Susan is quite autobiographical; in some ways, she was a female version of me,” Ford admits. “Fortunate or not, I live in that world that Susan lives in. I know those people. A few years ago now, I really had a midlife crisis. I think a lot of my younger years – and a lot of people’s younger years, I bet – are spent achieving whatever it is, when you’re young, you think you need to do. Getting ahead in your career, getting this, getting that, buying your first apartment, getting married and then you realise, ‘OK, well I’ve done all that, now what? Is this what there is?’”

A low point came when he acrimoniously left Gucci: his drinking got out of control, he became depressed. “A lot of people keep it in check. I didn’t. That doesn’t mean you want to give up those material things, but it means you need to keep a balance and so yeah, I’ve struggled with that. And I’ve struggled with contemporary culture. Sometimes, contemporary culture revolts me. And where we’re moving, it just disgusts me.”

Ford shakes his head. He’s aware he’s asking questions and not supplying too many answers. “We’re culturally taught now that there’s this thing called happiness that’s achievable,” he sighs. Where we’re just happy because we’ve done this and that, we’ve gotten there, we’ve bought this house and we’ve got these kids and we’re just happy now. That’s a relatively new idea. Because happiness doesn’t exist. A happy morning exists and then maybe a depressing lunch and a bad afternoon and maybe a nice evening. We’re sold this concept and I realise that I’m one of the people that’s helping do this because I’m responsible also for our contemporary consumer culture.”

Tom Ford on the set of Nocturnal Animals.
Tom Ford on the set of Nocturnal Animals. Photograph: Merrick Morton

Ford grew up middle class in middle America, first in Texas, then New Mexico from the age of 11; his parents were real-estate agents. From as early as he can remember, Ford had a singular fascination with style. He often chose to wear a suit as a child and was mercilessly bullied at school for carrying a briefcase. “Actually, it was an attache case,” he corrects. “But that’s true, they were really mean to me. I look back at pictures of myself in a little raincoat and briefcase and I just think, ‘Oh God…’ But that was me and my parents just let me express who I was, which was also great.”

Again you get the impression, though he might deny it, that Ford has never been bothered by being regarded as eccentric. “I have a sister, she didn’t dress like that at all,” he says. “She’s not remotely interested in fashion, she’s an English teacher. She could have all the Tom Ford clothes she wants; she doesn’t care. She’s quite beautiful but she’s never been into fashion. My mother is, however, and my grandmother was to the nth degree. So I had women around me who were. I don’t think I ever saw my mother without her makeup as a child. Ever. But that’s a very Texas thing. My first scent memories were hairspray – it was the early 1960s, I was sitting on the floor playing while she was getting dressed.”

Ford has been reflecting on his early years more since he’s become a parent himself. Jack was born four years ago, reportedly by in-vitro fertilisation and a surrogate, to Ford and Richard Buckley, a fashion writer and his partner of 30 years. “He’s going to grow up in a very privileged world and I want to make sure that he’s grounded,” says Ford, who, after 25 years living in Europe, mainly London, recently moved his primary residence to Los Angeles (“All of a sudden I needed some sun. I did!”). “So a big consideration is to try to raise him in a very natural, non-elitist way.”

Jack’s arrival, Ford believes, has made him perhaps a fraction less uptight; he’d hoped that Jack would play with tasteful, grey wooden toys, but his stark, beautiful houses are now defiled by lurid plastic. “At the end of the day, he always tells me about his day and I tell him about my day and Richard talks about his day,” says Ford. “The other night, Jack says, ‘Well, how was your day? You look sad.’ And I said, ‘Well, it was a tough day.’ Then he said, ‘You know, you say that every night.’ And I said, ‘I do?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. So what are you going to do about that?’

“And I thought, ‘Wow, what am I going to do about that?’ Their observations are so simple and so clear: ‘Well, you’re sad, you need to do something about that.’ It’s very interesting. Then I felt guilty and terrible: ‘Oh God, I’m going home every day and seeming sad and I should be really there for him.’ But you know, just the daily stresses of businesses sometimes get to you.”

Films make Ford happy, he insists, but he still retains a stubborn streak of melancholy. “Working, for me, keeps me distracted and keeps me from pondering the ultimate end to all of this, which is the same for all of us,” he says. “We have to let go of it all, we have to say goodbye to everything. That doesn’t terrify me, but I’m aware of it every second. And I think it’s one of the things that makes me appreciate things, because you realise this isn’t going to last, so I need to look at it, I need to experience it, I need to try to drink it in. Beauty I find so sad. There’s nothing sadder to me than true, true beauty because it is so temporary and so transient, so somehow you’ve got to embrace that aspect of it.

“I don’t know,” he concludes, “I sound like a crazy person. I guess I’m quite philosophical and I spend an enormous amount of time pondering all of these things – in the bath. In the bath!”

Ford walks the runway during his London fashion week show at Lindley Hall, February 2014.
Ford walks the runway during his London fashion week show at Lindley Hall, February 2014. Photograph: Samir Hussein/WireImage

Seeing as much of modern culture, as he says, “disgusts” him, does Ford ever worry about the world that Jack will grow up in? “I think every generation feels that,” he replies. “You go back and read something 100 years old and that’s what adults are talking about. For them, it will be their world. And some day Kim Kardashian is probably going to be on some stage at Kennedy Center Honors [annual awards given to a handful of artists judged to have made a meaningful contribution to American culture] when she’s 80, getting an award.” Ford claps, perhaps sarcastically. “And everyone’s going to say, ‘Oh my God, Kim Kardashian, don’t you remember when she was…’” She will be their Marilyn. She will be there because this is the world we live in.”

It’s been seven years since A Single Man, but Ford has been keeping busy. He wanted to devote proper time to raising his son. Meanwhile, the fashion juggernaut rolls on, requiring a new collection for men and women twice a year. There were false starts, too, before he settled on Nocturnal Animals as the script to pursue. “There’s been work. Thought. And things I turned down.” He laughs. “And two screenplays I wrote that are not so good and I wouldn’t make.”

Ford continues to love clothes and he’s proud of the enduring popularity of Tom Ford, but it’s hard not to feel that he has little left to prove in that world. He pretty well admits as much. “There’s a moment in fashion when you think of the idea,” he says. “You think, ‘Oh God, fuck, that’s it!’ And a lot of times you’re wrong and it doesn’t work at all, but that moment when you think it does is great. But fashion is very fleeting. You can look at that same thing the next year and you’re like, ‘OK, yeah that’s nice.’ And you look at it years later in a museum and you go, ‘Well, that’s interesting, look at how I did that stitching, that was great.’ But it never has the power that it does at the very beginning.

“And film does,” he continues. “You watch an old film, everyone’s dead but you’re crying with them, you’re emoting with them; it’s the most rewarding thing if you’re someone who wants to express themselves. It’s the most permanent thing I think that we have. Even painting. Let’s take abstract expressionism. The very first time people saw an abstract painting it would have been shocking. Today, it’s modern vocabulary, we see it everywhere, it can’t have the [same] power. Film doesn’t do that. Film, if it’s not something that’s easily dated, if it’s genuine, has the same power when you watch it 30 years, 40 years, 80 years later. It’s not diluted. And that’s incredible.”

There’s a stubborn sniffiness about a fashion designer making films, but the process is remarkably similar, Ford has found. Both require a strong vision, something to say and the ability to command an army of hired hands, working them hard without demoralising them, inspiring them to bring to life what you have in your head. Both activities also suit an obsessive, single-minded temperament. It’s easy to mock the idea of Ford luxuriating in three baths a day, but he wakes at 4.30am, barely sleeps and can subsist for days on just iced coffee and Oreo Thins.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Tony Hastings in Nocturnal Animals.
Jake Gyllenhaal as Tony Hastings in Nocturnal Animals. Photograph: Allstar/Universal Pictures

Ford has also brought a mastery of the eye-catching stunt to both fields, often involving nudity. One advertisement for Gucci, shot by Mario Testino, featuring a female model pulling down her pants to show a G shaved in her pubic hair. Sophie Dahl sprawled libidinously on a silk sheet for Opium by Yves Saint Laurent, meanwhile, found its way on to the Advertising Standards Agency’s “Top 10 Most Complained About Ads” list. Ford, though, has always considered himself “an equal-opportunity objectifier” and in 2002 he showed a male martial artist full frontal in an ad for YSL’s M7 fragrance.

The opening scenes of Nocturnal Animals have been causing a similar fuss at film festivals. It depicts a montage of full-figured, not-young women dancing naked in slow motion. They are accessorised with bits and pieces of Americana while glitter tumbles around them. Eventually, the viewer clicks that it is in fact a video art piece that is being projected in Susan’s gallery. So Tom Ford, what were you…

“What were you thinking?” he interjects. “What the hell was that?”

Exactly. “When I was young I had a poster of Farrah Fawcett in a red bikini, which I’m sure you’ve seen, with the big teeth and hair, and I think that was a lot of people’s idea of America: the land of tans, beauty and youth,” Ford explains. “And I decided that today, perhaps, to the outside world America looks gluttonous, overfed, ageing, sagging, decrepit. So I shot that and I had the most fun day making that. These women were so happy to be there, they were so free, they were just liberated, they were spectacular. I fell in love with them. And I realised that actually they were the opposite of Susan: they were joyful because they had let go of what they were supposed to be and they were just themselves. Whether you like them or hate them and think they are fat or not fat, they were themselves. And they were comfortable with that. So that became the opening art sequence.”

Ford has clearly thought about his defence, marshalled his arguments, but he can’t help a mischievous aside. “From a practical standpoint and a theatrical standpoint, it also pulls you right into the film from the beginning,” he says. “Gets your attention and that’s important. And then you’re like, ‘Where’s this going?’ And you’re watching.”

Watch the trailer for Nocturnal Animals.

Nocturnal Animals is likely to surprise many people: it is smarter, more visceral, more thought-provoking than doubters would have expected from Tom Ford, while still being just as beguiling to look at. He draws compelling, award-worthy performances from Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon, as a nihilistic Texas policeman charged with tracking down the thugs. It is a terrific film that stirs and aggressively challenges the head, eyes and heart.

Ford vows that it won’t be seven years before he has a new movie project; he’ll never be prolific, partly because he wants to be involved in every stage of the process, but three years is more like it. What about children, would he like more? “Originally, I thought yes; however now I think no,” he says. “I love Jack, we’re a great family, we’re very happy, the three of us. I’m not a young dad, Richard’s an even older dad. If I pick Jack up out of the bathtub and he wiggles the wrong way, it throws my back out. I think there’s a reason why people have children when they’re in their 20s and 30s! So no, we’re really happy as a family as we are.”

This is perhaps the most shocking moment of the interview: Ford, a man who seems personally to defy the progress of time, acknowledges that he is getting older. As we wrap up our conversation, I ask him if he’s just a bit terrified about ageing. “I think it’s time I started ageing, otherwise I’ll start looking odd,” he says. “You have to give in to it. I mind the physical part that comes with it, but the actual mindset that comes with it, I love. Because while I don’t like it, I also don’t care as much. So what? This is who I am.”

What about letting himself go grey? He looks at me sternly, then a little hurt. “What makes you think I’m grey?!” Then his voice rumbles like a muscle car revving its engine: “Oh no, I’ve planned on going grey. I know exactly when I’ll go grey. I have a four‑year-old child, there’s lots of time to go grey. I plan on living into my 90s, so maybe 72, 73, 74, I’ll go grey. Then I’ll have a good 20 years of grey.” A stickler for good manners, he walks me to the door of the suite. “That’s plenty.”

Nocturnal Animals is out on 4 November

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