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“It has to be renamed the Midlife Achievement Award”

As he gets ready to accept the CFDA's biggest honor, Tom Ford discusses his career highs and lows, the influence of Instagram, and why he's just getting started

Published May 27, 2014
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If the CFDA Awards are the Oscars of the fashion world, Tom Ford is the dream recipient. Trained as an actor, for two decades he's been giving a flawless performance as "Tom Ford," providing his audience with everything they could wish for from a marquee name: a meteoric rise, a dramatic fall, a triumphant comeback, all swathed in the requisite lashings of ambition, glamour, sex, celebrity, substance abuse, and sleepless nights. It's proved very convincing, so much so that Ford finds himself quoting the legendary self-creation Cary Grant: "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." That's the Hollywood dream. The reality for Ford lies elsewhere these days, maybe at home with husband Richard and son Jack. He is even hanging up his signature razor-sharp suits. He arrives for lunch at Café Colbert in a T-shirt, with two hours' sleep under his belt. Insomnia is one old habit that's as hard to shake as Ford's acute self-consciousness. Always the most self-aware of designers, he has a very clear notion of how he looks his best, so he knows which seat at our table highlights his "good" side. Unfortunately, I got there first.

Lifetime Achievement? So now the end is near.

When Diane von Furstenberg whispered it into my ear at the Oscars, I was almost offended. "What do you mean, Lifetime Achievement Award? Does that mean I'm not going to do anything anymore, that it's all behind me?" At first I didn't like it, but actually what it caused me to do was look back on my work, not only in my mind but literally, and I have to say that was cathartic, and a pleasant surprise. I actually liked some things and felt proud of them, and that ultimately made me feel more comfortable with myself. And here I am, maybe a little bit more relaxed and a little less desperate to achieve more. Sometimes high achievers are never satisfied, and you rarely stop to look back and say, "OK, maybe I can calm down, maybe I can enjoy the feeling that I have accomplished something, maybe I don't need to drive myself so hard."

Catharsis? That must have been an interesting sensation for you.

No, I've had it a few times before. When I was making A Single Man, that was with the drinking, the suicidal depression and all that, and I wrote what I was feeling—it's not at all like the book—and put it on the screen.

Like an exorcism.

It was. But the last ten years for me have been cathartic and transformative. After leaving Gucci Group, there was a dramatic sense of loss and of not being worthy, so rebuilding my life professionally and personally was an enormous struggle. I've probably not cut myself any slack. And that's still going on. But it was ten years in April since I left Gucci, five years today since I quit drinking, and this award has made me think the last ten years have actually been quite amazing, even if they didn't seem so because I was busy putting out fires and I never stopped and said, "OK, I really did a lot of things: I made a movie, I built a business, had a child, stopped drinking…" And the award has given me a chance to pause and reflect on all of that. However, it has to be renamed the Midlife Achievement Award, and I'm not joking. I mean, if my life was over and I was content to say Lifetime Achievement Award, maybe…but c'mon, this is ridiculous.

Does it make it more meaningful that it has Geoffrey Beene's name attached to it?

I ended up at Gucci via Geoffrey Beene. I had wanted to work for Mr. Beene—as he was always called—when I was on Seventh Avenue and Richard Lambertson was creative director. I interviewed with him and drew a bunch of sketches for Mr. Beene, but Richard couldn't hire me at that moment. Then when he went to Gucci as design director with Dawn Mello, I was the first person he called, to be women's ready-to-wear designer. The football jerseys I did this year that are a knockoff of a knockoff of the Jay Z sweaters that say "Tom Ford 61" are also an obvious homage to Mr. Beene in the late sixties, when he did three floor-length sequined football jerseys with numbers and stripes.

Geoffrey Beene was born Sammy Bozeman in backwoods Louisiana and he went on to become an iconoclastic arbiter of international style. It seems to me you might identify with such a transformative act of self-creation. Is this what working in fashion does?

I don't know what working in fashion today does to people, but it's not the same business I started in and it's certainly not the same business Mr. Beene was in. I don't think he would survive today. And I've probably only recently begun really adjusting to today's world. It's horrible. What is expected of fashion designers today is unsustainable.

Surely the rewards are enormous.

But they're financial, not creative. No one is anything except exhausted and pressured in the fashion world. You don't have a moment to reflect, with four collections a year for men, four for women, all these mini collections all the time. And the fact that Cruise is now shown with these giant productions means it's no longer what it was supposed to be, which was clothes that were maybe not strong enough to show but were your real bread and butter, the clothes that women wanted to wear. But now that they're being shown, they'll have to be amped up, and women won't want to wear them anymore. When no one showed these half-collections, no one expected them to alter the direction of fashion or to be reviewed, so you could really create something for your customer. This is why I tried not to be reviewed in the beginning. I wanted to focus on the customer, not the reviews.

Photo: Courtesy of Tom Ford

The customer reads reviews.

Something new is happening that I'm just clueing into now—this probably won't go down well—but customers don't care any more about reviews or hard-copy publications. They care what picture Rihanna just Instagrammed while she's naked in bed, what new shoes she has on, how she's talking about them. That's what they respond to.

And how do you respond to that?

I'm starting to. Maybe I'm late to the party, but for my age, I'm becoming much more connected in that way. I hope that didn't sound too abrupt. It doesn't mean I don't care about reviews, but today a lot of people who are reviewing are bloggers. There's no longer the hierarchy of an editor in chief on top who hires people with a knowledge and a history and an ability to write and disseminate that information to the rest of the population. Everyone has a voice now, so the person with the loudest voice is the one people listen to.

Now that you've come through the fire, what have you learned to value most?

A lot of things, but what I'm still not good at achieving is appreciating the moment, because in fashion we don't live in the moment, we live in 2015. We're always designing something for the future, so it's very hard to appreciate that it may never get better than this…that's the thing I've learned over the years, I guess, and I'm still not the best at practicing it. And I use that word because it's meditation, and of course in Buddhism when you're meditating, you're practicing, because you never really achieve that stillness of the mind.

But you don't sleep, so how could you ever possibly achieve stillness of the mind?

Oh, it doesn't happen in your sleep, it happens when you're conscious—it's literally feeling completely alive in the moment. When I look back on all the things that have happened to me, for most of it, I wasn't there. I don't mean I was drunk, but I wasn't in the moment. I said this to Karl Lagerfeld once over dinner. "I don't feel it." He said, "You will when you look back at it."

Which is where the CFDA Award comes in.

This is my sixth. They're the only ones I keep out—they're lined up in my office, because they're beautiful. I remember the first one vividly. It was the middle of the night in Paris, in the nineties obviously, and Dawn Mello called and left a message on my machine: "Oh, my God, have you heard?" I remember how much it meant to me. Richard was sleeping and I almost woke him up. And one never does that. But what it really is, is this: No matter how much people tell me I'm great or I'm good, I never actually believe it. Flattery makes me really nervous. So it's another example of me being my cynical self when I wonder if they just ran out of other people to give it to.

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