When Tom Ford sends the supermodel Joan Smalls on to the catwalk in a silk blouse chastely fastened to the chin, and puts Gigi Hadid in a polo neck rather than have her velvet blazer expose even a hint of cleavage, you know the world has changed.
Ford made his name in the 1990s by pushing to the limit the mantra of “sex sells”. His tenure at Gucci reached its apex with an advert in which the brand’s logo was shaved into a model’s pubic hair.
On the opening night of New York fashion week, which runs until next Thursday, his latest collection revisited those Gucci glory days, but with the aesthetic updated for the #MeToo era.
The first three looks in Wednesday evening’s show consisted of a slippery satin shirt tucked into trousers, the exact combination that launched Ford to stardom at Gucci. But this time, blouses were layered modestly over knits rather than unbuttoned to the breastbone, and trousers tailored and high-waisted rather than dangling from hipbones.
Evening wear for the new season revolved around fluid jersey, perfectly cut to drape dramatically to the floor. Two decades ago at Gucci, similar dresses had daring halternecks, or shark-bite cutouts to expose flesh at the base of the spine; this season, however, they came with matching cardigans.
“My very first hit collection at Gucci was essentially a blouse and pants,” said Ford after the show, “and two seasons later, I did white jersey evening dresses. So I was revisiting that simplicity, but with a different cut and a different vibe, because it’s 2019 and not 1994.
“That was a very sexualised time, and now is not a moment to be sexual. You actually can’t be sexual at the moment. The right thing at the right time is the right thing, but the right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing. Fashion is supposed to be and should be a fashion designer’s perception of where we are culturally, and now is not the time for super-sexy clothes.”
Caramel and sugar pink, wine red and dove grey lent a soft filter to the collection. Ford described them as having “a warmth and humanity that I think we all crave at the moment”. The designer, who made headlines two years ago when he refused on principle to dress Melania Trump, said “the political climate has definitely influenced what I do. When I look around I feel beaten up, I feel worn out, and as a result I don’t want to look at aggressive clothes. I want to look at something beautiful and refined.”
Ford’s clothes remain rooted in classic glamour. Zippered pencil skirts and strappy high heels for women, with velvet tailoring cut to emphasise the waist for both men and women. “Everyone wants a waist,” noted Ford backstage. “Men as well as women. And there is no more powerful sight in the world than a beautiful woman in a pair of high heels.”
Far from mellowing, he said, his personal aesthetic is becoming sharper and more constant as he gets older. “You start out in the world as eau de toilette, and eventually you become more concentrated, like perfume. You become more and more yourself. At this point in my career, I just want to make clothes that I’m proud of,” Ford said. As he posed for photos backstage, his shirt remained resolutely unbuttoned.
Having already directed two films (A Single Man, and Nocturnal Animals), Ford, who moved from London to Los Angeles two years ago, has two Hollywood projects in the early stages. But most of his time is focused on his $1.5bn (£1.15bn) fashion empire, the bulk of which consists of perfume, cosmetics, watches and underwear. “Film moves so slowly,” he explained. “Everything takes years. Fashion is immediate, and that gives me a voice in popular culture.”
Even Ford’s fashion empire is dwarfed by the might of Ralph Lauren, which celebrated its bicentenary last year, and generates $7bn per year. An aspirational, idealised vision of preppy east coast Americana is bottled and sold as cotton polo shirts, cable-knit cotton sweaters, scented candles, button-down Oxford shirts and – at New York fashion week – silk palazzo pants and sequinned evening gowns.
This season, the Ralph Lauren show was staged in Ralph’s Cafe, a pop-up breakfast cafe installed in the flagship boutique, where the audience sat on leather banquettes and was served egg-white frittata, attended by waiting staff in crisp Ralph Lauren uniforms during the show.
Every piece in the collection spoke of grandeur and luxury, from filmy palazzo pants to crisp, gold-buttoned blazers. As an hour-long experience of full immersion in the Ralph Lauren world, it made the ideal showcase for a brand built on lifestyle envy.
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