How Tom Ford redefined brand Gucci

The newly released House of Gucci spotlights a challenging time for the family business, showcasing — only in glimpses — how a young American designer changed the brand’s sensibilities

By Mariella Radaelli

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Top Stories

Published: Fri 17 Dec 2021, 4:05 AM

Tom Ford eyed us warily that February afternoon in 2004 at Palazzo Marino in Milan in front of the mayor and the fashion press. The moment was tense when he announced his unexpected breakup with Gucci, the iconic Italian brand Guccio Gucci founded precisely 100 years ago in 1921.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Ford had staged his last Gucci runway show, the women’s collection for fall-winter 2004-05. We saw bitterness creep across his attractive face. I recall the top designer wearing a shawl-collar blue velvet jacket with a white shirt, unbuttoned just enough to show his tanned chest. His voice was strained — after all, the event was set up to celebrate his work. Yet, he had to tell the fashionistas divorce was inevitable. Gucci’s chief executive, Domenico De Sole, was sitting beside him.

Tom Ford’s announcement was short and curt, but he kept smiling. “They threw me out,” he said. His 10-year reign was ending. Those were the months the House of Gucci achieved double-digit growth. By the time Ford announced his departure, Gucci revenues had skyrocketed from $200 million to more than $ 3 billion. And when Ford officially left in March-April 2004, Gucci Group was valued at $10 billion.

Tom Ford was little King Midas for Gucci. Like the ancient Phrygian king remembered in Greek mythology, he could turn everything he touched into gold. Blessed with this Midas touch, Ford transformed the House of Gucci into a lush orchard of beauty. But Ford was alien to classical and Hellenistic Greek culture, and possibly unaware of how the mythological king’s story ended.

Thomas Carlyle “Tom” Ford was born in Austin, Texas, the son of two realtors. When he turned 11, the family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he was a regular at an arthouse theatre that played old movies with Cary Grant and Gary Cooper. He often dreamed of being like them.

A few years ago, he told Hollywood Reporter that he felt the weight of the world on his shoulder as a kid. It was the effect of over-protective parenting. “I mean,” he said, “when you’re a little kid, and someone says, ‘If you step into the road, you’re going to die,’ you know? ‘If you fall off that, you could have brain damage.’ That sort of fear is instilled.” He also admitted that depression struck early and continued into his adult life. However, he said he was in “a good place now”. Then, he remarked: “Those things are often hereditary — people in my family have had that — as is alcoholism, and that’s also something I’ve dealt with.”

At 17, he moved to NYC, where he briefly attended the faculty of Art History at New York University before transferring to Parsons School of Design at the New School in NYC. He graduated in 1986 with a degree in interior architecture. But by that time, his interest in fashion design had taken firm root. He often visited Studio 54, where he also met Andy Warhol. The club’s disco-era glamour would influence his future fashion creations. He would spend nights at Studio 54. The characters who attended the club were a source of inspiration. He would rush to a nearby cafeteria and draw fashion sketches.

After working as an in-house designer at New York fashion houses Cathy Hardwick and Perry Ellis, the 29-year-old designer decided to cross the ocean to relocate to Milan in 1990 with fashion editor Richard Buckley.

Tom Ford had been fantasising about Europe since childhood. One of the main advantages of the old continent was the freedom and independence it offered to American artists of any generation. They were not Europeans; they were not affected by European prejudices. They were separate, new personalities detached from everything that bound them. They were better able to generate ideas in novel ways.

In 1996 he told The New York Times, “If I was ever going to become a good designer, I had to leave America. My own culture was inhibiting me. Too much style in America is tacky.”

As soon as the young American designer arrived in Milan in 1990, he was hired as Gucci’s chief designer for the women’s ready-to-wear line by Dawn Mello, then Gucci’s creative director. Mello had an eye for talent — she introduced Tom Ford to Maurizio Gucci, the president and family scion, who was shot and killed in a hit job ordered by his estranged wife Patrizia Reggiani in 1995.

Gucci went through its most challenging phase in the late ’80s. Sales had been dropping steadily; so in 1989, Maurizio Gucci appointed Dawn Mello as artistic director of Gucci Italia. Mello had worked for many years at Bergdorf Goodman department stores in New York.

In the early ’90s, the company was still reeling from a series of financial and management disasters. Maurizio Gucci lost more than $22 million in 1993 alone. A year later, in 1994, Tom Ford was promoted to creative director, and would soon become the man behind converting Gucci into a desirable, luxurious brand, one that saw a 90 per cent increase in sales. Maurizio Gucci gave Ford total carte blanche. Gucci’s sales spiked with revenues of $500 million in 1995, the year Maurizio was murdered.

Ford restored the Florentine fashion house, an icon of the Italian dolce vita, with a new, broad, daring post-modern style. Keeping Gucci’s genetic code of distinctive elements borrowed from the equestrian world, Ford charted out a super-glam new direction. He had a clear vision for a more sexy Gucci by instilling a lure of fleshly vanity and eros in his designs. This meant sexy cutouts, short skirts, and top models like Kate Moss and Esther Cañadas on the runway.

It took a Texan-born designer to reinvent Gucci. Just as the House of Chanel could rise like a phoenix from the ashes, thanks to Karl Lagerfeld who took it from a small house to an industry leader, Ford breathed life into the House of Gucci.

At Gucci, Tom Ford embodied the seductive glamour, the power, the sex appeal of fashion in the mid-to-late ’90s. He captured the spirit of the decade, stunning the fashion world both with his talent and physique du rôle. His style was an ode to hedonism that The New York Times dubbed “a louche sexuality”.

He mastered the secret code of seduction: not only did he teach its magic through his designs, but also through his handsomeness. Many women bought Gucci just because he was the creative director of the fashion house.

Partygoers would speak his bold language wearing leather coats, slinky satin shirts, hip-slung velvet jeans and stilettos.

Among Tom Ford’s strongest collections at Gucci, can we avoid any mention of the 1995 unbuttoned jewel-tone satin shirts and the sensual keyhole cutout jersey gowns that would earn the endorsement of Madonna? She took the MTV Video Music Awards red carpet by storm in a Gucci unbuttoned blue shirt and sheer black bra that year.

Many other hyper-sexy collections filled Tom Ford’s glory years at Gucci. Boldly theatrical outfits marked the 2003 collections, jackets with silk-floss embroidery in patterns of plum branches and herons that resembled cropped Japanese kimonos. Male models would walk on the runway in cool, sleek suits and velvet hip-huggers.

His ad campaigns were risqué, sometimes shocking. They aimed at grabbing attention and disrupting the status quo. Particularly controversial was the one Gucci unveiled in 2003: a provocative spread shot by Mario Testino featuring a model with pulled-down briefs that exposed her intimates shaped into the famous Gucci double-G logo. Not only that specific campaign elicited many outrageous responses, others received formal objections as harmful and distasteful. “When I started doing Gucci with Tom Ford, he pushed me to new heights,” fashion photographer Mario Testino said years ago. Fern Mallis, the mastermind behind New York Fashion Week, noted, “Ford understood more than anyone else that sex sells.”

Despite criticism of Ford’s hypersexual work at Gucci, his brand policy proved effective — sales soared. When in 2000, Gucci Group acquired control of Yves Saint Laurent’s cosmetics, perfume and ready-to-wear, Ford simultaneously applied the sensual formula.

On that bittersweet February afternoon of 2004 at Palazzo Marino in Milan, the fashion phenomenon also joked about his future. “Now I am going to finally take a nap,” said Ford. Gucci’s executive Domenico De Sole was leaving too. They were finding themselves in a battle with Gucci’s biggest shareholder over who should have control of the company. In a later interview with Women’s Wear Daily, Ford confirmed that money had nothing to do with his departure from Gucci. He clarified that “it was about control”.

After only a year of respite, Tom Ford founded his own eponymous luxury brand. The Tom Ford label went on to reach great success and is known today for its exceptional tailoring and sophisticated aesthetic. Domenico De Sole, whom Ford met while at Gucci, has been chairman of Tom Ford International since 2005.

Now the top American designer, also chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, has a second career as a filmmaker. His two movies — both Academy Award nominees, A Single Man (2009) and Nocturnal Animals (2019) — are cautionary tales. The latter was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. But cinema is another chapter in the story of a man whose meteoric rise to fame has all the elements of a Hollywood movie.

The Texan boy turned 60 this August and remains a cult figure on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.

In the heart of Florence, the Gucci Museum overlooks the Piazza della Signoria where, in 1497, Friar Savonarola held his first Bonfire of the Vanities. The museum is a beautiful array of archival delights that reflects on the famed Gucci craftsmanship ever since the brand was founded in 1921. Two rooms are dedicated solely to Tom Ford. They display the epitome of his memorable tenure: the iconic slithery white dresses, the scandalous ads, the colourful furs. Ford’s bold style contributed a great deal to the brand’s history.

If not for Tom Ford, there would be no Gucci as we know it today. The fashion house is now helmed by Alessandro Michele, who, as its creative director, has made sustainability a priority and has infused a neo-Rennaisance universe through design. Michele’s new collection called Aria celebrates 100 years of Gucci (Aria refers to Italian opera that originated in Florence). In this collection, Michele reinterprets key pieces Tom Ford designed for Gucci, for instance, the iconic 1996 red velvet tuxedo suit. Perhaps he sums it up the best when he says, “Tom understood right from the beginning that Gucci had some kind of magnetism, this cult power.”

More news from