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A designer ready for a change

Tom Ford has made a career of imagining the future. Imagine his future in Hollywood.

March 27, 2004|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

Saint Laurent has never been dear to him. The French did not welcome him, and indeed, neither did Saint Laurent the man, and the label has yet to turn a profit. But clearly, Ford is still working through the sense of ownership he feels for Gucci, and what the loss will mean. After all, it was his Richard Neutra house in Bel-Air that inspired the clean, horizontal lines of the Gucci stores. And Lisa Eisner, an L.A. style maven, co-founder of Greybull Press and a friend of 15 years, has been a constant source of design inspiration. Her book "Rodeo Girl" and her trove of vintage Nudie western suits inspired the spring 1998 Gucci collection, which included the much-imitated feathered jeans and the Jackie bags, revived from the 1960s, in multicolored hibiscus prints. "When he thinks about the American woman, he thinks about L.A.," says Eisner.

Though Ford is a popular guest on the champagne and canape circuit, his close friends say he's down to earth, at home in a multiplex at the mall or at the Vanity Fair Oscar party. "In the chaos and the demands of his life and work and responsibilities, he's able to be present when you are with him at dinner or on a horse," says Rita Wilson, who has been rafting in Idaho with Ford and riding with him in Santa Fe.

Producer Mitch Glaser ("Lost in Translation"), another of the designer's friends here, believes that much of Ford's and Gucci's style can be traced to the duality of Los Angeles. Diaghilev, the Russian restaurant at the Bel Age Hotel, is one of Ford's favorites. "We've been there with him a couple of times," Glaser says, "and the place is a weird combination of Hollywood elegance and the new. There will be a harpist and caviar and some young actress ... the maitre d' in the tuxedo and a hip-hop band. I think it's what he likes about being out here -- the combination of Old Hollywood glamour and the street."

It's L.A.'s blend of class and crass that no doubt inspired Ford to design $10,000 fur coats alongside logo print condom cases.

Ford was born in Austin, Texas, and grew up in Santa Fe, N.M., before studying art history at NYU. He took acting classes in New York, and appeared in TV commercials for Clearasil, McDonald's, Old Spice, LifeSavers and M&Ms, with 12 national spots in rotation at one time. In 1982 he moved to L.A., but discovered he didn't fit the "blond, L.A. beach" profile that casting agents were looking for. "I was always East Coast preppy," he says. So he enrolled at Otis Parsons School of Art to study architecture, later taking classes in New York and in Paris before realizing the subject was "too serious" for him. Fashion, it turned out, was his passion. He had a few jobs in New York before signing on with Gucci in 1990. Ford points out that he was an unknown then.

The idea that there was an archive to work with is a myth, Ford says. Most of what is iconic about the brand today -- the horse bit belts, the bamboo stilettos -- he conceived. Leaving behind these signatures is "not necessarily something I wanted to do," he says. "But as a fashion designer, you can't get too hung up on what you've done in the past, because each season you leave what you did. Each season, no matter how much you love something, you have to push it away and then find something new.".

What he will miss most, he says, is the process -- not the red carpet gowns or the lavish runway shows, like his Gucci swan song, where he was showered in pink rose petals as he took his bow. "I was thinking today, 'This would make a great jacket.' And I'm not going to have an outlet for that anymore. Before now, I would just draw a sketch and hand it in and make this great jacket, and I would do it daily, and not just this great jacket, this lighter, this cigarette holder, this box, this chair," he says. "It's a sort of constant which I won't have anymore, and that I think I will really miss. So I have to find a new outlet for it."

When asked to sum up his legacy, Ford answers, "Hedonism." But that's too easy. He is a designer and a businessman with a knack for translating the zeitgeist into wait-listed products, be it the purple lace-front peasant blouses at YSL or the iridescent patent-leather go-go boots at Gucci.

"A fashion designer's job is to filter everything in popular culture now and get bored before the customer is bored," he says, his voice quickening. "I flip through a magazine and say, 'I'm sick of stilettos, I don't want to see another stiletto,' then I say to myself, 'What do I want to see?' You're hoping that if you're right it will look good to everyone else's eye, because you're consuming the same thing they're consuming but you're working like a sleuth to figure out what's next. I do that every season. That's how I start, with what I'm sick of." Notice that he's talking in the present tense.

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