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The Man Who Helped Save Gucci

Designer Tom Ford's sense of irony has in part pulled the Italian fashion house up by the bootstraps and kept it from going bankrupt.

May 28, 1999|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

Gucci designer Tom Ford spends a lot of time in Los Angeles these days. One week a month, he visits to absorb the city's look and feel, which he says mirror Gucci's image.

"It's a little bit flashy. It's a little bit tacky. It's part of our corporate persona, it's part of what we do. It's a little in your face," says the American designer.

Los Angeles also is rich in the kind of contrasts that help Ford maintain his famous design balance between the tacky and the terrific. His methods?

"I was working with someone the other day. I told them, you know what, go to Target. Push the cart up and down the aisle. Put in it every single thing that makes you laugh. Then let's look at it as a category. Then reinterpret it, redesign it for the Gucci customer," he says. "It sounds silly, but you need that irony."

Such irony infuses Gucci today. The Italian luxury goods maker is offering tropical print in-line skate backpacks, tampon cases, condom holders, cell phone holders, sunglasses cases, cat collars and, of course, purses.

Gucci allows the 38-year-old Ford such latitude because his flights of fancy have helped to restore Gucci's luster worldwide and most important, transform the near-bankrupt company into a fashion powerhouse.

Indeed, Ford has become a much-discussed element in Gucci's attempt to fend off an unwanted takeover by the French firm of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. This year the luxury goods conglomerate purchased 34.4% of Gucci and was seeking an equivalent measure of control.

To escape LVMH's clutches, Gucci's president and chief executive, Domenico De Sole, enlisted the aid of Pinault-Printemps-Redoute through a complicated deal. The French company, which owns the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house, now has a 40% interest in Gucci. That reduced LVMH's share to only 22%, prompting the company to challenge Gucci's new alliance in court. On Thursday in Amsterdam, a court ruled in favor of Gucci's defensive measures, freeing Gucci to pursue ambitious growth plans. LVMH immediately announced it would appeal.

The outcome has been watched nervously by investors and fans alike because De Sole and Ford have said they would rather leave Gucci than hand it over to a rival. But that's about all Ford could say about business during an interview a week before the court decision. He did add that he's in no hurry to leave Gucci.

Having survived a string of crises at Gucci worthy of a soap opera, not much can fluster Ford. When he joined the company nine years ago, Gucci was nearly bankrupt. As other members of the design staff bailed out, Ford stayed on, earning more responsibility as turmoil roiled the company--the 1995 murder of Gucci heir Maurizio Gucci; the complex machinations to take the company public; and now, a takeover attempt by LVMH.

Through it all, Ford's sexy collections sizzled down runways, stoked shoppers' desires for more accessible shoes, bags, belts and fragrances and built Gucci's sales up to $1 billion. As one of the first Americans to revive a flagging European design house, Ford's success prompted raids on other American talent.

Now, as a wealthy man with a jet-setter lifestyle, Ford has emerged as more than another hot-for-now trend maker.

The former actor has become the prototype of fashion's new telegenic designers.

"I get asked, 'Do you think that your ability to look good in a picture and talk to the press has affected your career?' Of course it has. We're selling image," he says. "It's the fashion business."

As Ford discussed his life and work at the remodeled flagship Gucci store on Rodeo Drive, the designer outlined a future that could take him and Gucci into diverse new roles.

"On the personal side, I love what I am doing now. But it's less exciting than three years ago when it was all new and we were just creating this. But the stores are done. There is a very clear image now to Gucci. As a designer, that's the real exciting part. I'm dying to do that again with another company," he said.

Ford says the alliance with Pinault-Printemps-Redoute will allow Gucci to accelerate what was always the Italian firm's plan--expanding Gucci's presence and acquiring other companies. That scenario could allow him to act as creative director for the other companies, showing young designers how to translate an image into all aspects of the business.

"More and more, I would rather be in the background making other kinds of decisions," he says. "I don't want to be 50 years old and struggling to keep up with 25-year-olds. Fashion has this window. Right now, I am right in the middle of my mean customer age. That's not always going to be the case. Maybe I will be one the lucky ones who will be able to maintain a fresh eye, but I don't know."

"But at some point I will back myself out of the designing side of the business," he says.

Until then, Ford says he has more work to do at Gucci, which he says is now almost perfect.

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