Known for his provocative reinventions of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, fashion designer Tom Ford has now remade himself, as director of A Single Man. Kevin Sessums’s frank interview with Ford reveals the extent to which he’s shedding his old skin.
“I don’t think of myself as gay. That doesn’t mean that I’m not gay. I just don’t define myself by my sexuality,” says Tom Ford with no sense of irony in his voice. Ford built a fashion empire at Gucci. When Yves Saint Laurent was acquired by Gucci in 1999, he reinvented that brand. Since then he has launched his own Tom Ford line of menswear and accessories. Always, throughout his career, whole collections and marketing campaigns were designed around his highly honed sense of the needs of others to define themselves as sexual beings.
“The gay aspect of A Single Man certainly wasn’t what drew me to make a film of the Christopher Isherwood book. It was its human aspect, that unifying quality,” he continues, segueing into a discussion of his remarkable directorial debut. The film, which was nominated for the Golden Lion top prize at the Venice film festival, and for which Ford won Venice’s Queer Lion prize and Colin Firth the best actor award, opens in limited release December 11.
“If you said name 10 things that define me, being gay wouldn’t make the list. I think Isherwood was like that too. There are many gay characters in his works because his work is so autobiographical, but their gayness isn’t the focus. The one thing I liked about Isherwood’s work—especially when I was younger and grappling with my sexuality—is that there was no issue about it in his writing. That was quite a modern concept back during the time when he was writing. Quite honestly, I just don’t think about my sexuality. But maybe this has to do with being a part of the first generation to benefit from all the struggles of the gay men and lesbians that came before us.”
Ford is lounging on a plush sofa in the upstairs inner sanctum of his eponymous store on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue. The sofa is a shade of gray that matches the lighter gray of his shirt and the darker gray of his trousers. His closely cropped hair is not gray—a decision that seems more his than his hair’s. I have known Ford for close to 30 years, since we were both slightly more than boys making our way in New York City. He was one of the city’s great beauties back then—much more beautiful than any of the bartenders at Studio 54, where we first learned to lounge on plush sofas together—and he is still, at 48, remarkably handsome. His forehead is also remarkably unlined. Does he use Botox?
“Of course I do,” he readily admits, a brash honesty having always been one of his most endearing traits. “Usually I’m not even able to frown, but my last injections are wearing off a bit and I am able to frown right now. I’d never get a full face-lift, though. Face-lifts on men are a disaster. But I’m a firm believer in Botox and Restylane. Absolutely. Why not?”
Such self-regard does not always lead to self-reflection—other than the sort one gets when immured in the many-mirrored fashion world. But Ford, after feeling as if he were forced out of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent in 2004, dealt with a bout of existential angst that resulted in the kind of self-reflection that went much deeper than the dermatological. Rereading A Single Man—the stream-of-consciousness story of one day in the life of George, a 58-year-old college professor who is trying to break free of his grief over the death of his longtime lover, Jim—and deciding to adapt it for the screen as both the director and (with David Scearce) writer, was an attempt to stake his claim as an artist and, in so doing, begin the healing process of a kind of rarefied grief of his own: the loss of himself.
“I was going through a very similar thing to what George is going through in the book—a very serious midlife crisis,” Ford says. “I think back during that part of my life I wasn’t in touch with my spiritual side. I had neglected that and had become absorbed really in materialism. I had a wealth…of every kind of material success. Fame, a great boyfriend, plenty of houses, tons of money. I could indulge in anything I wanted—which included a lot of cigarettes and vodka, which I have now stopped. But then I hit a point when I turned 40—even though I was still at Gucci until I was around 43—when I had a very severe midlife crisis. I have always struggled throughout my life with depression. I’ve never made any of this public because…well…”
Ford pauses and gathers himself. “I’m not one to wear any of this on my sleeve. When someone would come into my office in the morning and ask me how I was I’d always go, ‘I’m great! Great!’ But I wasn’t great. My own emotional suffering led me to realize I had neglected this spiritual side of my life. I had always depended on this inner voice to lead me along in life and I had shut it out. I had silenced it. I was raised a Presbyterian and went to a private Catholic school in Santa Fe, but I guess I’d describe myself now as perhaps closer to a Taoist. And this is why the book spoke to me so much—this renewed need for spirituality in my life. I had originally read the book in my 20s when you and Ian [Falconer] and I were visiting David Hockney and he introduced us to Christopher Isherwood.”
Falconer, Ford’s first boyfriend, became even a closer protégé of Hockney and is now a much-in-demand set and costume designer for ballet and opera companies and the author and illustrator of the successful series of Olivia children’s books. But we were all back then part of a kind of Hockney harem of young guys who yearned to have artistic careers of our own.
“I think I developed a taste for vodka and cigarettes because my first kiss with a guy was with Ian, and he tasted like vodka and cigarettes back then,” Ford says, both bemused and touched by the memory as he displays again a bit of his endearing brashness. “I never knew I liked men sexually until Ian came into my life. And he wasn’t just my first male kiss. The first blow job I ever gave anyone was the one I gave to Ian in the back of a cab on the way home from a night at Studio 54 as we made our way down to where he lived on Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue. Of course, it was a Checker cab,” he jokes with his innate ability to be both snooty and vulgar at the same time (those now defunct taxis had large backseats—enough room for dalliances en route). Indeed, one of the many personal touches that Ford has incorporated in his version of A Single Man is giving George a last name: Falconer.
On a brash roll now, he mentions another. “In the movie, when George talks about shaving off his eyebrow after taking some mescaline—that happened to Ian and me on that trip when we all were visiting David. One night Ian and I took some mescaline to go to Studio One, and I ended up shaving my own eyebrow off. Back when I read that book in my 20s, I loved it and kind of had a crush on George as I read it.
I’ve always had a thing for older, smart guys. And then I read everything I could find by Isherwood after we all met him. I was in awe of him and became a bit obsessed with him, really. When I picked up the book again in my 40s it affected me on a much deeper level. I realized this is a book about the false self. The first line kind of stopped me in my tracks: ‘Waking up begins with saying am and now.’ The underlying theme of the book is letting go of the past and being able to live in the present—which was what I was struggling to do at that point in my life. I no longer had a crush on George but felt as if I had become George myself—both mentally and spiritually. Though I certainly love the book, through the process of making the film I grafted much of myself onto it. It was cathartic.”
Although Ford has elicited Oscar-worthy performances from Colin Firth as George and Julianne Moore as his blowsily stylish confidante, Charley, many Isherwood purists may be upset by some of the grafting he has done. The most important Isherwood purist, his longtime lover, Don Bachardy, has given his seal of approval to the film, however, and told Ford that Isherwood himself—he died in 1986—would have loved it and been OK with the changes. Ford has made George, now a bit younger at 52, much less frumpy in his version of the story. In fact, he’s now downright chic. There’s even a slight resemblance to Yves Saint Laurent in the figure that Firth cuts on-screen. “Other people have said he reminds them of a young Michael Caine,” Ford says. “Yves Saint Laurent had never occurred to me. For one thing, Colin is masculine and Yves was very femmy.”
It’s tempting to see a correlation between Ford putting his own spin on A Single Man and Ford putting his own spin on the couture houses he led, including Yves Saint Laurent.
“I don’t even remember much about my time at Yves Saint Laurent, though I do think some of my best collections were [there]—other than that black-and-white initial one. That one wasn’t very successful and wasn’t very good. But being at Yves Saint Laurent was such a negative experience for me even though the business boomed while I was there. Yves and his partner, Pierre Bergé, were so difficult and so evil and made my life such misery. I’d lived in France off and on and had always loved it. I went to college in France. It wasn’t until I started working in France that I began to dislike it. They would call the fiscal police, and they would show up at our offices. You are not able to work an employee more than 35 hours a week. They’re like Nazis, those police. They’d come marching in, and you had to let them in and they’d interview my secretary. And they can fine you and shut you down.
Pierre was the one calling them. I’ve never talked about this on the record before, but it was an awful time for me. Pierre and Yves were just evil. So Yves Saint Laurent doesn’t exist for me.”
Ford didn’t buy anything from the YSL estate sale in February 2009. “God, of course not. I have letters from Yves Saint Laurent that are so mean you cannot even believe such vitriol is possible. I don’t think he was high when he wrote them either. I just think he was jealous, and Yves and I were friends before I took over the company. But then we began to move the company forward and were very successful…he just became so insanely jealous…that phase in my life just doesn’t exist anymore.”
Ford’s imprint on A Single Man includes his decision to have George walking through his day planning to commit suicide at the end of it; the revolver he removes from a drawer is almost fetishized throughout the film. He deleted important characters to focus on George and Charley and Kenny, the student of George’s who becomes a kind of stalker. Kenny, played by Nicholas Hoult, gives a rather problematic performance. Are his slightly stilted line readings the result of Kenny’s own ill-at-ease youth or Hoult’s? Or is the deeply English Hoult—remember him as the child in About a Boy?—just being extra careful with his American accent? He is, thankfully, achingly sexy and ultimately quite affecting. Ford also uses his own beloved dogs, Angus and India, with heartrending results in the film. Ford’s longtime lover, fashion journalist Richard Buckley, is seen fleetingly in a cameo appearance, and Ford puts some of Buckley’s own witticisms into George’s mouth. He creates a scene with a Spanish hustler at a liquor store that is not in the book but is one of the film’s most visually stunning. Ford’s love of architecture and style and fashion also gives the film a heightened visual scheme. The movie, set in 1962, has the look of a haute couture Mad Men. The film stock seems to have been saturated with a stunning combination of sadness and beauty.
“To me, beauty and sadness are very closely linked,” Ford says, sliding lower into the sofa’s plushness, his languor not studied, no longer louche, but the result of his busy worldwide work schedule. “Truly beautiful things make me sad because I know they are going to fade. When I see a beautiful 20-year-old boy or girl—and they are breathtaking—I am filled with a kind of sadness. But maybe they are beautiful because we know they are not permanent and they are in a kind of transition.”
He pauses and remembers his posture. He straightens his spine. “I know what I am as a fashion designer, and when I started out to make my first movie I asked myself, ‘Who wants to see a Tom Ford film? What am I about? What do I stand for? What do I have to say?’ You have to be true to yourself, and I am not a person who is about reality. I am about enhanced reality. If I were working in a different period, I would have been working at MGM. By the way, Mr. Hitchcock—who is my favorite director—never made anything realistic in his life. Everything by him is so stylized. Another of my favorite directors is Wong Kar Wai. And Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is one of my favorite films. Part of the image of those two directors is the look of things. I’ll always be that way also.”
Ford, however, bristles at the Mad Men comparison. “It’s pure coincidence—even though I do use Jon Hamm from Mad Men in a voice-over role. There is nothing about Mad Men and A Single Man that are similar except that they are both set in 1962.”
Ford’s spine becomes even straighter. He fidgets with one of the several unbuttoned buttons on his gray shirt. He buttons it—then unbuttons it once more. “When you come down to it,” he says, “style without substance isn’t worth anything. I didn’t want to make a stylish film that wasn’t about anything. The substance was what was important to me, and the style was a part of telling that story—nothing more, nothing less.” With that, his spine seems to unspool and he slides back down into the sofa.
Ford has been with Buckley for more than 20 years. Their relationship continues to be the anchor in Ford’s life. “One might think on the surface that I’m the boss, but really Richard is driving and running the relationship,” he says. “That’s because I want more than anything in the world for Richard to be happy. I sometimes think he doesn’t still believe that. But it’s true. Sometimes I think he forgets how much I still love him and how much his happiness means to me.”
No amount of Botox or Restylane can disguise the emotion in Ford’s face when he talks about Buckley. His whole countenance softens. All world-weariness disappears and is replaced by a look of devotion and even delight. He said in the past that it was love at first sight. What was it about Buckley that made him fall so?
“His soul,” Ford says without hesitation. “Something clearly spoke to me. It wasn’t his beautiful blue eyes and his silvery hair and his slender handsomeness. It was something that reached out to me through his false self—his true self connecting with my true self—and it was instant. On our first date he took me to a Southwestern restaurant in New York because he knew I was from New Mexico, and we were poor and could eat for about five bucks each. At the time one of Richard’s best friends was dying of AIDS and one of my best friends was dying of AIDS too, so we talked a lot about that, as I’m sure a lot of guys did on first dates back then. We were both just so emotionally exhausted. So there was no sex on that first date. I think it took about three dates before we had sex. He knew I had a fondness for sugary breakfast cereals, so he had put a box of Froot Loops under the bed, hoping I would come home with him that night of our third date. I did. And the next morning he pulled out that box of Froot Loops from under the bed. It was so cute. We moved in together a month after we met.”
Would they marry each other after all these years together? “Yes, when it becomes a federal law. Right now it doesn’t do any good in the states. A few weeks ago Richard had to go into the hospital for something, and I had to carry around all these legal documents saying I could make medical decisions for him. It was insane. The fact that we are not married in the federal sense means that if I were to die, he’d have to pay all these taxes on my estate and receive but a fraction of it and he’d have to alter his life —whereas if we were married, he wouldn’t have to face that burden. That’s disgusting. It’s wrong. But that said, I think I am in favor of terming what I’m talking about as a civil partnership. We all get so caught up with this word marriage. For me, the word marriage is something that a religion should decide. Just give me all the same rights. A civil partnership is what I’d like for everyone—heterosexual as well as homosexual. Call it what you like—it’s the rights that are important. Getting hung up with the semantics derails the cause we’re all fighting for.”
Ford has said in the past that he wanted to have children but Richard did not. “I think Richard was right,” he says now. “I’m not so sure I would have wanted to create a child and inflict the world we live in on him or her.” What if his parents had felt the same way? “I’m not so sure I wouldn’t have been happier never existing,” he says quietly. “I’m not so sure at all. Of course, if I had never existed, I wouldn’t know.” Those frown lines he is still able to summon crease his brow at such a thought. But then he wanly smiles. “I’m not so sure I’m glad I was born,” he whispers. “I’m not so sure.”
But he is careful to add, “I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life. After I left Gucci I was in that deep depression. And now I can truthfully say that I’m happy. But that said, life is hard and can be so isolating. That is the theme of A Single Man that struck me so, and I exaggerated that theme in the film—the isolation one can feel in one’s life. But the most important thing that George says—and the thing that has proved the most valuable to me in my life, as I get older—is that ability to connect. That is the one thing I live for, to connect.”
With homes around the world, Ford says, with more certainty than he’s said anything today, he is happiest “anywhere Richard and my dogs are. If I knew it were the last day of my life, one of the things I’d miss the most would be burying my face in the neck of my dog. Maybe it’s worth being alive just to be able to do that one simple thing. But I guess if you pin me down to a location, I’d have to say on my ranch. New Mexico. Santa Fe.”
Ford was quoted as saying he never feared death until he began work on this film and that he was afraid of dying before it was complete. “That’s completely true,” he says. “Because this film is so important to me—not only the message of this movie, but because I was putting so much of my soul into it. When I die no one will look at any of my fashion collections and get any true sense of me. But they can watch this movie and know what I was about.”
By Kevin Sessums
From The Advocate December-January 2009