Tom Ford has a lot of past to make peace with. He conceded as much following a showroom walk-through of his Fall collection during London fashion week. Perhaps the concession was due to his awareness that the strength of the clothes derived in large part from their echoes of former triumphs. Intense color, erotic edge, sensuous silhouette, sculptural hardware…ah, those good old Gucci glory days. But they're long gone, and the real success of this collection was that, for all the echoes, it didn't dwell. Instead, it was Ford's sharpest elucidation yet of his cinematic vision for women. "Russian spy," he laughed about the second-skin black leather looks accessorized with knee-length boots and huge shades. A black velvet column with a metal corset belt reminded him of Metropolis. There was some Bond girl in a leather jacket bonded with sheared beaver or a stretch tulle and feather column with sheer detailing, and a hint of noir heroine in a gray flannel suit with a tweed coat thrown over it, the whole outfit actually cut from cashmere. Gwyneth's Oscar cape and gown, Ford's own favorite from his collection, was Golden Age of Hollywood artifice at its most glamorously precise.

It was a reminder that Ford's speciality is the grand, almost theatrical gesture, in fashion at least. (His directorial debut was, by comparison, a delicate chamber piece.) Forget shrinking violet; this time you got chrome yellow and fire engine red, in fuzzy alpaca fur layered over black leather. Snake and crocodile were broken down to their component scales, which were painstakingly applied by hand to stretch jersey to make serpentine tops, dresses, and full-length sheaths. Effortful? Absolutely. But where that effort has been distancing up to this point—making the clothes easy to admire but difficult to like—it felt that, with this collection, Ford managed a critical switcheroo. His clothes used to wear his women. Now he's got it the right way round.