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Objects of Envy

Only 35, Tom Ford has made Gucci the label that the cool covet. Tonight, APLA honors the designer, who credits 'luck and hard work'


The important thing, ladies and gentlemen and students of style, is not who you are, but who you want to be. In your fantasies, are you sophisticated and international, sexy, wealthy and cocksure? Wear Gucci and you will be.

So compelling is that message, transmitted from the company's widely photographed runways, visible in its 270 stores and distinctive advertising campaigns, that eager shoppers become convinced that exciting clothes possess transformative powers.

Details matter--a skinny whip of a belt slung low on hips encased in black leather, a tiny skirt slit high, a sparkling, sinuous minidress exposing long, shapely legs balancing on wicked stilettos. But the parts always contribute to the whole, to an image of divine decadence made to seem as attainable as credit.

Ask Tom Ford, the 35-year-old American designer who as creative director has catapulted the once moribund Italian leather goods company to worldwide success, how to work a miracle in only three years and he says, "Luck and hard work."

If the broth of Gucci's current boom consists of such old-fashioned virtues, then dreams spike the brew. "Things have to be real, but fashion needs to be aspirational," Ford says. "It needs to be more beautiful than beautiful and slightly exaggerated, more than you find in real life."

A handsome former actor, Ford revived Gucci by designing for imaginary characters whose dramas he understands and whose needs he anticipates. The Gucci man and woman are ideal composites of Ford, people he knows, or people whom he would like to be. "What I try to do is live these people's lives six months ahead of them, to keep my eyes open and become bored with things before they do, then think, now what do I want?"

Ford has come to Los Angeles for tonight's AIDS Project Los Angeles dinner and fashion show, an annual fund-raiser benefiting people living with AIDS and HIV. Gucci is such a draw, organizers say, that more than $1 million has been raised; 1,100 will attend, and the celebrity-packed waiting list for tickets has swelled to more than 400. Earlier this week, Ford sat in an empty Beverly Hills restaurant and talked about his Gucci coup.

He was born in Texas and lived there and in New Mexico before taking off to study architecture in Los Angeles, New York and Paris. He had worked a few fashion jobs in New York when he joined the Gucci design studio in Italy in 1990.

In the previous decade, the company had sunk under the weight of financial troubles and a Gucci family feud. The once luxe brand had been overdistributed and counterfeited; it was as likely to be sold on a Tijuana street corner as in an elegant department store.

"In the '70s and '80s the designs hit a lull, about the time the preppy look was popular in America," Ford says. "Gucci just stopped then."

Investcorp, a Bahrain-based investment bank, bought a 50% stake in the business in 1988, and began restructuring. By 1994, when Ford became the creative director responsible for 11 product categories (bags, shoes, etc.) as well as store and package design and advertising, he had the kind of control he had always hoped for, albeit at an ailing label. "I figured I'd stay about six months," he says.

Investcorp's preoccupation with finances left Ford free to do what he wanted. "But it was a very tumultuous time," he recalls, "so a friend encouraged me to consult a psychic in New York that several other fashion designers had seen. The woman said to me, 'Leave Gucci. It's a sinking ship. It's never going to happen for you there.' "

Instead, worldwide sales nearly quadrupled, soaring from $263 million in 1994 to $846 million in 1996. The projection for '97 tops $1 billion. The stock price has quadrupled since the initial public offering in 1995. Outside the company-owned boutiques in Milan, London and Hong Kong, rabid fashion hounds line up to buy such prizes as shiny cranberry loafers decorated with silver horsebits before the coveted styles sell out.

As Gucci began to regain its popularity, quaint stories circulated about how Ford and the American executive who hired him, Dawn Mello, discovered treasures like a classic bamboo-handled handbag in the company archives and reissued them. "The Gucci archives are a bit of a myth," Ford says. "I find more old Gucci things in flea markets in New York or Los Angeles than we have in Florence. A lot of what we once made doesn't exist anymore, so we're in the process of assembling an archive."

As popular as some of the revived designs were, Ford insisted that every product fit into the big picture. "Gucci had always been a little bit flashy, and had really become famous for dressing movie stars, in the '50s and '60s. What I tried to do is figure out who is the Grace Kelly of today? Who is the Twiggy of the '90s? Who are today's film stars, today's hip people, and what do they want? That's a wonderful point to start from."

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