'Nobody Lives Happily Ever After'

Above Image | Set Design by Ward Robinson at Wooden Ladder.

Toronto Film Festival 2016

Tom Ford wears his role as Hollywood director as well as any of his slim $5,000 suits. The fashion designer, a human study in duality, is a man who stokes consumerism yet hates it (a theme of his new movie), disdains wealth but has it and has fought depression with no professional debilitation: ‘There isn’t really an hour that goes by that I don’t think about death’.

By Stephen Galloway
Photos by Austin Hargrave

TOM FORD SITS IN HIS OFFICE in the old Geffen Records building on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, one leg squeezed firmly over the other, his arms snapped tight across his chest.

He’s not so much curled up as he is coiled in his black-and-steel armchair (everything here is a variation on black, from the furniture to the walls to Ford’s stylish suit—except for a single bunch of white flowers sitting on his massive desk). He eyes me warily. We’re 30 minutes into a three-hour interview on a quiet Sunday afternoon, and he clearly feels uneasy.

It has been two decades since the brilliant and flamboyant designer took over Gucci and rocked the fashion world with his bold, hedonistic reinvention of the company—which he left under strained circumstances in 2004, before starting his own hugely successful Tom Ford fashion line. And it’s been seven years since he did the same behind the cameras, stunning the film world with his sumptuous, Oscar-nominated A Single Man. But right now, being interviewed, he’s not in control. And he hates it.

“I live in constant fear that something could change or go wrong,” admits Ford, 55, twisting himself in his chair. “And it’s exhausting, and it’s draining, and it can be upsetting, and it can lead to unhappiness. I’m always afraid something could happen.”

Over the next several weeks, plenty will be happening—not all of it certain to lead to unhappiness. Following the Sept. 2 debut of his new film, Nocturnal Animals, at the Venice Film Festival in Italy (“A graceful leap forward,” opined THR’s David Rooney), Ford will be heading to the Toronto Film Festival, where his picture screens Sept. 9. In between, on Sept. 7, he’ll stop off in New York to launch his new fall line, one of the first to experiment with a “see now, buy now” approach to marketing, with the clothes on the runway available at stores immediately—not five months down the line, as is the case with most fashion brands.

At some point, he might even find time to drop by L.A., where he has made a home with his longtime partner and husband of two years, Richard Buckley, 68, and their 4-year-old son, Jack. “We’re looking for a bigger place,” notes Ford, adding that their current house, a Richard Neutra original in Bel Air, is littered with children’s toys. (He denies reports that he’s been scoping out Bond producer Cubby Broccoli’s former $50 million estate.)

Even in an age when just about everyone is a hyphenate, Ford is a rarity—a top fashion designer who has built a second career as an honored movie director. Though one or two other refugees from the fashion world have made fresh starts in Hollywood—Joel Schumacher began as an artist for Henri Bendel department stores then worked as a designer for Revlon—never has anyone of Ford’s stature crossed over, while simultaneously running a vast fashion empire, which today earns about $1 billion a year in sales through 122 Tom Ford stores and other outlets.

The move to film was a risky, perhaps perilous leap, and even some of Ford’s friends were skeptical about his success. But A Single Man, which the designer partly financed, was a critical darling of 2009. It was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and its star, Colin Firth, got a best actor Oscar nomination and won a BAFTA for his role as a gay English college professor in 1962 who is tormented by the loss of his longtime partner.

Ford’s latest movie, which Focus Features picked up for $20 million at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, has a somewhat more complex narrative. Amy Adams plays Susan, a successful art dealer struggling to find enduring values in an increasingly disposable world, who has a life-altering experience while reading a novel about a family man who gets brutally attacked while driving through rural Texas.

Those two tales—the art dealer’s and the fictional family man’s (played by Jake Gyllenhaal)—intertwine throughout the film. And just as A Single Man touched on themes close to Ford’s heart, so does Nocturnal Animals, which explores the soul-sucking perils of materialism and consumerism (the very things that have made Ford—who sells a $19,400 Natalia alligator skin shoulder bag—a fortune).

“Susan is quite literally me,” he says. “She’s someone who has material things but realizes—maybe this happened to me seven or eight years ago—those aren’t the things that are important. She is struggling with the world that I live in: the world of absurd rich [people], the hollowness and emptiness I perceive in our culture.

“[Life] can be an endless, unfulfilling quest for some sort of happiness that is elusive,” he goes on. “Because the whole concept of happiness as peddled by our culture doesn’t exist. Nobody lives happily ever after. If you buy this and do that and build this house, you’re not going to be happy. Life is happy, sad, tragic, joyful. But that’s not what we’re taught, that’s not what our culture pounds into our heads.”

AS A CHILD, FORD CONSIDERED himself an outsider—ironic, considering his life now as the ultimate insider, whose friends include the likes of Tom Hanks, Julianne Moore and David Geffen. He grew up in Austin, Texas, with his parents (both realtors) and sister (now a high school English teacher) until the family moved to Santa Fe, N.M., when he was 11. Even as a kid, he felt the weight of the world, probably thanks to overprotective parenting. “I mean,” he says, “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.’ Not that it was quite that bad, but that sort of fear is instilled.”

Though he did not yet know he was gay—a label he dislikes: “I think everyone is on some sort of sliding scale”—he knew he didn’t belong. “I was one of the youngest kids in the class because I jumped ahead [a year], so I was always the smallest,” he says. “I hated team sports. I was more artistic than [I was] a football player. I just had terrible experiences as a kid.”

Depression struck early and continued into his adult life, though he says he’s in “a very good place” now. He can’t say what triggered it but has accepted it as part of his nature and an engine behind his drive. “I can remember early thoughts of suicide at 8 or 9 years old,” he says. “Those things are often hereditary—people in my family have had that—as is alcoholism, and that’s also something I’ve dealt with.”

He has been sober for several years, which helps keep depression in check. “That’s a very big factor of my life, fighting against that,” he says. “It’s quite under control now. I don’t drink—that’s an enormous factor. And I am fairly grounded. I have a wonderful family life. I exercise, I play tennis every day, all those little things.” Still, he says, he is constantly pushing against darker thoughts, especially related to mortality. “Death is all I think about. There is not a day or really an hour that goes by that I don’t think about death. I think you are born a certain way. I think you just come out that way.”

Things got better when Ford hit puberty: He shot up in height, and his looks improved markedly. The scrawny kid turned into an Adonis, and he has retained his striking, dark-eyed attractiveness (although these days, he admits, not without the help of Botox). “I started to become what people would call handsome,” he says. “Girls started to love me, and teachers started to have crushes on me, and that just changed everything.”

For a time, he thought he might want to be an actor. “Not an actor,” he says, correcting himself in mid-sentence. “I wanted to be a movie star.” Attracted to the glamour of New York, he set off to NYU, majoring in art history, before transferring to the Parsons School of Design, eventually finishing his degree in architecture at its Paris satellite. Along the way, he found work as an actor in commercials and was shocked to discover that he hated it. “I was super-self-conscious,” he says, “which hasn’t changed. I can’t stand having my picture taken. I’m extremely shy, which isn’t something [people would expect].”

Instead, he turned his attention to fashion. After landing an internship with Chloe in Paris, he worked for U.S. designers Cathy Hardwick and Perry Ellis but felt his real future was in Europe. So, in 1990, he made the bold—and, as it turned out, fateful—decision to relocate to Milan with Buckley (whom he had met in New York when Buckley was an editor at Women’s Wear Daily) and take a job at Gucci.

Back then, the company was a fusty leather goods brand that was nearly bankrupt. But it turned out to be a savvy move. When other members of the design staff left, Ford stayed on, earning more responsibility as turmoil rocked the company—the 1995 murder of Gucci heir Maurizio Gucci; the complex machinations to take the company public; a foiled takeover attempt by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton—until he ultimately became its creative director.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, he created a rich, hot-blooded lifestyle brand that thrilled fashion editors and shoppers alike. He rose to stardom by reinventing classic Gucci design signatures and giving them a modern twist. He put the stodgy Gucci horse bit on covetable blue patent-leather high-heel loafers, dangled the GG logo from belts on velvet hip-huggers worn by Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow, used the house’s trademark bamboo to make mile-high stiletto heels and marketed it all with ultra-sexualized TV and print ads. He even had the Gucci logo shaved into a model’s pubic hair. His movie star looks and jet-set life excited fashionistas the way Halston and Calvin Klein once had. He became the very model of the modern-day designer-as-celebrity.

Then, almost overnight, it was gone. Following a battle with French tycoon Francois Pinault, who had purchased Gucci and added it to a stable of other luxury businesses—but who refused to give Ford the independence he craved—he resigned from the company. In 2004, at age 42, after a swift 14-year rise to the top, Ford was out in the cold—at the very time his personal issues were coming to a head. “[I was dealing with] alcoholism, depression,” he says, “and all of a sudden, [there I was] not having the job that I’d had, not knowing what I was going to do, having worked so hard to achieve something that now I had left.”

Fortunately for him, he didn’t leave empty-handed: He retained stock options worth around $100 million, according to Forbes. He seized the moment to reinvent himself—as a filmmaker.

Movies long had been a source of inspiration, especially in the early days of his career. “I built collections around [Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 film] The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” he says. “We [designers] use all those things. People think we just throw some things on and send the [models] down a runway. We don’t. In the fashion world, we pull images [from movies] like crazy.” Fueled by that love of cinema, vowing he was done with the fashion business forever, he set up his own production company, Fade to Black, and started looking around for film projects and investors. And looking. And looking some more. Raising money and developing scripts turned out to be harder than he had imagined.

“I panicked,” he says, explaining how eventually, in 2006, he decided to return to the fashion business with his Tom Ford line. “I thought, ‘I’m established and well-known as a fashion designer.’ I’m very practical.”

Right from the start, the new line took off, finding an especially eager clientele in Hollywood. Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Anne Hathaway, Ryan Gosling, Will Smith, Henry Cavill, Johnny Depp—they’ve all worn Ford’s label on red carpets at one point or another. Daniel Craig practically became a spokesmodel, wearing Tom Ford suits in the past three James Bond films (and not just suits: sales of Tom Ford’s Marko sunglasses jumped 80 percent after the release of Skyfall).

Sure, there have been missteps—like Ford’s Penis Pendant Necklace, which stirred up a controversy with Christians who mistook it for an obscene crucifix—but nothing that Ford couldn’t handle. Even Michelle Obama became a believer, wearing an ivory, floor-length evening gown designed by Ford to Buckingham Palace for an audience with Queen Elizabeth in 2011. “Doing something like that is easy because you’re dictated to,” he says. “‘She’s going to the palace, the queen is wearing this color, she needs to wear that color, she has to have gloves, she doesn’t like this, she does like that.’ It’s pretty simple.”

Still, as his fashion line continued to flourish, Ford couldn’t shake his desire to direct. His film company had optioned the rights to a 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood about an English professor in Southern California—A Single Man—but he couldn’t find financing.

Then his friend Geffen gave Ford a piece of advice that changed everything: “He said, ‘There is no better investment than yourself,’” recalls Ford. “‘Pay for it yourself.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, he’s right.’ So I did. I lost a little money on it—other people made money—but it was worth every penny. [Making A Single Man was] the most fun I ever had in my entire life.”

Firth, for one, owes Ford a huge debt for his 2009 Oscar nomination. “He’s one of the best [directors] I’ve worked with in 30 years,” says the actor. “Tom’s elegance and composure are obvious to everyone. He’s immaculate, calm, articulate and gentle.”

Ford says he is “far more dictatorial” as a fashion designer than as a director. But the success of A Single Man proved that the gulf between the fashion and film worlds was not so unbridgeable after all. “People said, ‘Wow, you have no idea how ridiculous we thought you were,’” Ford remembers his friends telling him after the film’s triumph. “Almost everyone said that. ‘We thought it was ridiculous when you said you were going to make a movie.’”

ABOUT FOUR AND A HALF YEARS ago, there were two major developments in Ford’s life. The first: He and Buckley became parents to Jack. “You see yourself as a link in the chain,” he says of the impact of becoming a parent. “And you see a chain that stretches to infinity in both directions—where you came from and where we’re all evolving into as a culture. You see the world differently.”

The other development: Ford optioned Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, which would become the basis of his second movie, Nocturnal Animals. Writing the script became a compulsion, then an obsession, with Ford locking himself in his bedroom and burying himself under the covers, fully clothed, as he typed away on the Final Draft program on his laptop. Once he finally finished, his agents (CAA’s Bryan Lourd and Craig Gering) went looking for stars and financing (the film cost $22.5 million to make). “I cheated when I was sending the screenplay out and when I was raising money,” acknowledges Ford, who made the script seem more economical than it actually was. “I altered the margins on the page so it only came to 126 pages. It was really 139 pages.”

Gyllenhaal was among the first cast members to sign up. “On our very first phone call, Tom went into great detail about how personal this story was to him, how it was a reflection of previous loves he had had and lost,” recalls the actor in an email. “And the first day I sat down in person with him was an interesting feeling. I was worried that he would focus on the aesthetic over the heart of the story—perhaps this is my own prejudice. (He did notice a detail on the jeans I was wearing from very far away!) But he was so different than I expected. He had thousands of research photographs. He had a palette for each character. Everything was packed with thought and detail.”

Adams came aboard around the same time as Gyllenhaal, followed by a slew of others, including Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Shannon, Laura Linney, Armie Hammer and Isla Fisher, and the 34-day shoot began in Los Angeles and the Mojave desert in the fall of 2015.

At one point, George Clooney was attached—not to star but to produce, along with his partner Grant Heslov—but he fell off the credits before production started. According to Heslov, it was simply a matter of not having enough to do. “George and I talked to Tom about coming on board early on in the project,” says Heslov. “We loved the script and think Tom is an exceptional talent. After talking with Tom for a couple of weeks, it was clear he had everything he needed already set up. Financing. Casting. He knew his crew. It seemed silly for George and me to just put our names on a terrific project that was so far along.”

There may be more to the story than Heslov lets on, but probing Ford on the subject is pointless. “That [question] feels a little tabloid to me,” he says, arms going back up around his chest. “It’s a little tabloid and invasive and not about the film.”

ONLY AS OUR THREE-HOUR interview comes to a close does Ford begin to seem relaxed. His arms have left his chest, and he is gesticulating with a passion, particularly when discussing some tiny detail of his film’s preproduction or shooting. But when the conversation turns back to fashion, he’s suddenly considerably less passionate. For a man who may be one of the biggest fashion influencers of the late 20th century, he seems much more in love with movies than the garment business. He describes himself as a “commercial fashion designer,” but regards his films as deeply personal works.

“There are fashion designers who are true artists,” he says. “Alexander McQueen was one. I think in some ways Riccardo Tisci is one at Givenchy. Miuccia Prada I love, as well. [But] I think perhaps I’m too cynical to be a true artist.” He speaks of his best work as if it lies in the past. “I had a run of 10 years from 1994 to 2004 where I was one of the driving influences in fashion,” he acknowledges. “But I’ve moved into a different phase where I have a different kind of influence. I am very innovative now, I think, in the way I approach the business. Perhaps that’s more innovative than the kinds of clothes I make.”

The fashion world that once so excited him “[has] become a spectator sport for the most part,” he says. “Fashion is still worn—it is worn in London, it is worn in Italy, and it is worn in New York and Los Angeles and maybe a few key cities—but most of the American population is switched off of fashion. They sit there in their T-shirts and jeans, and they’re critiquing who is on the red carpet and what they’re wearing and, ‘Oh I hate that and that.’ But they are actually not consuming any longer.”

Except for when they are consuming—and then they’re consuming too much.

Like Susan in Nocturnal Animals, Ford has gone through his own soul searching over the orgy of materialism that he as much as any other individual has helped perpetuate in American life. And he’s obviously given some thought to that other pillar of modern-day consumerism—celebrity. “We all sell an image of ourselves, and I trade on my image,” he admits. “It’s on ads and billboards, and it’s public. But the more famous you get, I think, the more self-conscious you become. Because the disparity between who people think you are and who you really are becomes broader.”

So who is the real Tom Ford? He’s a modernist who speaks with nostalgia about the past. A radical who considers himself old-fashioned (“Loyalty is very important to me”). An insomniac who drinks multiple cups of coffee a day (“I completely rely on sleeping pills and tranquilizers to go to sleep”). A recovering alcoholic who sees a therapist once a week (“It used to be two or three times a week”). And an A-lister who critiques the very lifestyle that has made him rich (though never the people who live it, paying $200 for his sunglasses or $3,000-plus for his suits).

Most of all, he’s both a cynic about the fashion world that made him a star and also a pure romantic when it comes to the film world he now finds himself a part of.

“You can watch an old 1930s movie and you’re crying with the people,” he says, relaxed now, or at least as relaxed as he’ll ever be in front of a journalist. “All the actors are dead, everyone who worked on it, yet you’re feeling the emotion that that person wanted you to feel. You’re right there again. It’s alive forever, sealed in this bubble. Every time you watch it, the same thing happens. And it’s forever, forever, forever.”

Booth Moore contributed to this story.