Tom Ford tells Donald Clarke about the switch from fashion to film-making,
He directed it, co-wrote it and paid for it, but Tom Ford’s debut movie, A Single Man, is no vanity project. The top fashion designer tells Donald Clarke how he found his style
I USUALLY PUT on clean socks for an interview, but, when preparing to meet Tom Ford, I put on extra clean socks. And a nice shirt. And trousers without soup stains. In addition to being the director of the terrific new film A Single Man, Ford is, of course, one of the world’s most respected fashion designers. Arriving largely unheralded at the house of Gucci – which, at the time, was disappearing up its own leathery backside – he reintroduced oomph to the label and, by many accounts, saved it from bankruptcy.
“After the 1980s and Aids, sex had become dangerous and, as a result, fashion had become rather serious,” Ford explains. “I resurrected the idea of sensuality, sexuality of actually having fun. I hope I made fashion lighter and fresher. I hope it doesn’t sound immodest, but that really helped the company.”
Lurking in the airport on the way to the interview, I dally with the notion of splashing on some Tom Ford fragrance – he now runs his own label – but decide that would be overdoing it. Maybe, Tom doesn’t wear his own gear. How would it look if I arrived stinking of Eau de Ford and he was wearing Armani?
“Of course I wear my own clothes,” he gasps in mock outrage, while flashing the inside label of his jacket at me. “Look. If I wanted a piece of clothing that we didn’t make then there would be something wrong. I would have to design it. If I need something, I make it”
He does look rather smashing. Smooth and trim at an unlikely 48, he is wearing what, as a fashion imbecile, I can only describe as a black suit and white shirt. But it’s certainly a nice suit and it’s definitely a suave shirt. Does he really do all the design himself?
“Absolutely. If you go into a store and you see ‘Tom Ford’ on a pair of shoes, do you think that I’ve said to somebody else: ‘Oh put a heel on this’? No. When it has my name on it, that means I designed it. Similarly, when, now, you go and see a Tom Ford film you know that I made it all. It’s my work.”
He’s really not fibbing. Not only did Ford direct and co-write A Single Man, adapted from a key novel by Christopher Isherwood, but the money all came out of his own beautifully cut pocket. Now, nobody is pretending that Ford is short of a bob, but firing a few million dollars at an eccentric film project requires a fairly staggering degree of self-confidence.
Annoyingly for schadenfreude merchants everywhere, the gamble seems to have paid off. A Single Man has picked up deservedly rapturous reviews and, after its premiere last autumn, Colin Firth, the picture’s star, won best actor at the Venice Film Festival, and just this week, secured an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
Ford did initially have some investors on
“When it has my name on it, that means I designed it. When you go and see a Tom Ford film, you know that I made it all. It’s my work”
hand, but, following certain banking catastrophes in late 2008, their money suddenly became unavailable.
“Maybe for a minute, when the money vanished following the Lehman Brothers collapse, I did think about pulling out,” he says. “My agent certainly told me to. But a good friend said: ‘No. Invest in yourself.’ He was right. Now, I understand that not everybody can finance their own movie. But that remains good advice.”
In A Single Man, Firth plays George, a gay professor at a Los Angeles university who is coping badly with the recent death of his longterm lover. Taking place over one, melancholy day, the picture finds Firth contemplating suicide, frolicking with a boozy Julianne Moore and ultimately flirting with an intelligent student played by Nicholas Hoult. It should come as no surprise, given the director’s background, that the film looks absolutely gorgeous. But it looks gorgeous in a very particular way.
A Single Man is set in the early 1960s – before the “Sixties” began, in other words – and, like recent works such as Mad Men and Revolutionary Road, fetishes the neat suits, bold plastics and boozy habits of the era.
Where has this enthusiasm for Kennedyera America suddenly come from?
“I really don’t know. I love the long hair and the kaftans that came after as well,” Ford says. “The book is set in 1962 and, as a gay man in that era, George has an extra layer of isolation. So it was important to set it then.”
Ford has a personal connection to the material. Raised in Texas and New Mexico, he first tried to make it big as an actor.
“I learnt how to pretend to be a designer or a film director back then. I learned how to pretend to be handsome,” he laughs.
In the early 1980s, while performing in commercials and bad TV, he encountered a number of the gay English expatriates who had migrated to of LA during the grim (for homosexual Brits, at least) post-war years. In that period he met the poet Stephen Spender, the painter David Hockney and, author of brilliant quasi-fictions such as Goodbye to Berlin, Mr Isherwood himself.
“The guy who had been my very first boyfriend was living with David Hockney at the time. I spent a lot of time their house. That was an incredible Mecca for gay Englishmen.”
Among other things, A Single Man works as a visual paean to the hazy, often misunderstood beauties of Los Angeles. Isherwood would surely have appreciated that aspect of the picture. He would also have enjoyed the casual, matter-of-fact treatment of George’s sexuality.
Watching A Single Man, one develops a suspicion – just a suspicion, mind – that US cinema may finally be developing a grown-up attitude to homosexuality.
“I hope so,” Ford says. “I don’t think of this as a ‘gay film’. That is to say gayness is not the main theme. The main theme is loss and coping with that loss. I am not one of those gay men who likes to be in a ghetto. I ama gay man who enjoys working and going amongst all types of people.”
Yet there have been mutterings that the Weinstein Company – yes, Bob and Harvey snapped up the picture following that Venice triumph – has been a little cagey about acknowledging the protagonist’s sexuality.
The early posters featured an image of Moore and Firth in apparent imminent congress. When asked if he was worried about the promotion “de-gaying” A Single Man, Firth was admirably forthcoming. “I don’t think they should do that because there’s nothing to sanitise,” he said. “It’s a beautiful story of love between two men and I see no point in hiding that. People should see it for what it is.” Ford approaches the question cautiously. “I don’t know what Colin said exactly,” he says. “But we have discussed it, of course. Okay, the first poster may have looked a little bit too like that for a romantic comedy. But I fixed that. Look, to be fair, it’s Marketing 101. You put your two biggest stars on the poster, particularly when they give such good performances and they’re getting nominated for awards.”
Ford does, however, acknowledge that certain compromises did have to be made.
“You can’t release a trailer in the US with men kissing unless it plays with an R-rated movie. That’s ‘extreme sexual content’ apparently. We could show that in Britain and in France, but not America.”
He gives a resigned shrug. After a few minutes with Ford, you are left in little doubt that this is no naive ingenue. A Single Man may be his first film, but, after swimming in the shark-invested waters of Fashion Bay, he has no illusions about how to sell his product and how to realise his vision.
Tom Ford seems like a nice bloke, but he’s also pretty darn frightening. I’m glad I wore my nice socks.
Top: Designer turned film-maker Tom Ford. Above: Oscar-nominated Colin Firth in Ford’s directorial debut A Single Man