Tom Ford Says Fashion Will Come Back
The famed designer talks spring 2021, partnering with the Brits, virtual fittings, live shows and fashion’s path back from COVID-19 devastation.
Tom Ford is out of his comfort zone these days, a card-carrying realist in an alternate-reality world of the most bizarre sort. As it does to most of us, the strangeness of life today unsettles him, and unsettled isn’t a neighbourhood in which he typically lingers. “It’s surreal,” Ford says. “Don’t you sometimes just wake up and think, ‘how is this actually happening?’”
Still, he shifts quickly from dream-sequence musing to practical assessment. “It makes you realise how fragile our world is. We’ve had this false sense of security as a global economy and structure, and we’ve seen it so easily completely upended and disrupted.”
That disruption hits home powerfully this morning. Shortly before our conversation, Ford had a call with his senior management team during which he told them of a salary cut, their second since the COVID-19 lockdown started. It was highly emotional yet the prevailing response was oddly positive. “We’re all like a family, and people know that to survive we all have to sacrifice,” he says. “Our number-one priority is to preserve our staff and prepare for the future.”
Ford, who is now the chair of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) believes firmly in that future, though he predicts that any sense of normalcy is a good year off at least. He’s determined to see his brand through the turmoil, at the end of which he envisions a happy comeback for fashion. No, he’s not being a Pollyanna, merely a pragmatist. “It’s human nature,” he says, “to want to adorn.”
B.F: You think this will go on for a year?
Tom Ford: If you listen to scientists, there’s no way not to conclude that it’s going to last another year. There are places where there’s no social distancing going on, and those people are going onto their communities and potentially spreading the virus. Then you realise that only 5 per cent of the American population has been infected and that to reach a herd immunity you’ve got to get to 60 to 70 per cent. And you imagine flu season rolling around, and a city like New York where if you’re going to work and you have to take the subway. I don’t see how it can not continue. I just don’t see it.
B.F: A lot of people want things to open up.
T.F.: We’re a hopeful creature, humans. When we’re born, we’re hopeful that somehow we’re not going to die, but we do. All sorts of bad things are going to happen to us, but we’re always hopeful.
B.F: New York is starting to open.
T.F.: Based on pressure from our political system. That’s unfortunate. That’s why for our business we’re planning on this lasting a year. I hope it’s only a year because, after this, I think it will take more time for luxury and fashion to recover. I think people will have become used to not dressing, and to not going out.
B.F: That’s for sure. We’re getting maybe a little too accustomed to pyjama pants.
T.F.: Some friends of mine are going to go grey who would never have gone grey. They can’t get to the colourist, and they’re deciding, “You know what? I kind of like this; I look great.” Increasingly, you see people on Zoom with no makeup. They look good; they’re starting to feel comfortable with that. So I think it will take time to recover.
B.F: But they will recover, and go back to makeup and dressing up?
T.F.: It will definitely recover. What happened after the Spanish flu? We had the Roaring Twenties. We had consumption and flappers and makeup and exuberance. It’s human nature to want to adorn; it’s human nature to want to have things other people don’t have, to show off, to express yourself. Pre-civilization people decorated themselves. I believe it ultimately will absolutely come back in full force, but I think it will take a little while.
B.F: A slow recovery.
T.F.: We’re finding in the places that we have been able to reopen in a very limited way that there is not the market right now, there is not the desire right now for fashion. I really feel fashion needs to hibernate.
B.F: And you have to stay fluid while adjusting, right?
T.F.: Look at New York. We were supposed to be able to open June 1, now it’s not till June 15. London, the same thing, June 15. We’ll see. But if there is a spike, will those stores be able to reopen? And our reopening plans — we can only have so many people in the store at the same time. Customers are not allowed to touch the merchandise; only the sales associates can touch things. You can try on a dress and if you [don’t buy it], it has to be quarantined for 48 hours. We steam it, we quarantine it for 48 hours, no one else can try it on. If you want to try on a watch, we wrap your arm in Saran Wrap and then we put the watch on.
B.F: A delightful shopping experience.
T.F.: But If you can’t go to a restaurant, why do you need a new dress and a pair of heels? If you can’t go to an office, why do you need a suit and a tie? Maybe you need some new sneakers. Luckily we make sneakers, we make T-shirts, we make underwear, we make fragrance and cosmetics. But even fragrance and cosmetics have seen a downturn because so much of that business is duty-free, in airport shops all over the world, and no one is travelling. And people are in masks, so do they need as much lipstick? Everyone’s getting used to not adorning themselves.
I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom because, as I said, I believe that ultimately it is human nature to adorn one’s self and express your personality through clothes. So once things really reopen safely, all of this will come back. It will come back fully once it’s really safe to go to a restaurant, a nightclub, an event, a party, a wedding. But to fool ourselves into thinking it’s going to happen [soon] is a mistake in terms of business. The goal is to survive. Maintain your image, survive with the perception of your brand intact, with your key people in place, with as much of your real estate as you can maintain, and just survive. To me, that’s the goal.… I mean, everything is going to shift. It’s all going to have to shift.
B.F: Let’s move onto the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) -British Fashion Council (BFC) joint statement about shows. How did that come about?
T.F.: We have been talking also with the French and the Italians. We’ve had quite a few Zoom calls, all four of us. The businesses are different. The French needed to make their own announcement, which I don’t believe they’ve done yet. The Italians did — Carlo [Capasa] spoke yesterday, or the day before. I understood where Carlo was coming from with the men’s and women’s. Men’s wear is a major industry in Italy, so I understand why he wanted to emphasise the importance of men’s fashion shows. It is a totally different industry, different buyers, different journalists. For America that industry is not as developed. Here, in recommending two shows a year, I think combining men’s and women’s in America makes sense. And America doesn’t have a strongly developed men’s fashion week. So that was a difference.
The British Fashion Council and the CFDA agreed really on almost everything, so we felt we should put out a joint statement, to be as unified as possible. Again, I understand why France and Italy are a bit different because they are also both powerful manufacturing centres and have different needs. But we all agreed on cutting back the number of collections and all of that.
B.F: In the CFDA-BFC statement, you seemed to be really targeting the concept of that globe-trotting, mega-itinerant show. Were you?
T.F.: Yes. I’m just reflecting what I hear from people. I hear from buyers, I hear from journalists, I certainly know what a stress it is from a design standpoint to be creating a show. And they are often cruise shows, preshows.
B.F: The points you made that resonated most were two primary seasons, with finite fashion weeks, and within the four cities?
Increasingly, a fashion show has become the creation of an Instagrammable moment. In order to have that moment, you need the people in the room that other people following you want to see. You need that, if we’re talking physical shows. I hope we will return to physical shows. I think a filmed play doesn’t carry the same weight as sitting in the audience and watching the play. The same is true of a fashion show. I still believe a fashion show is the best way to show clothes. But there should be less of them, and they need to be concentrated. It’d more useful if everyone is doing it at or near the same time and in the same cities and on the same cycle.
B.F: Everyone has been talking sustainability for some time, and now, slower, more thoughtful fashion. Do you think that suddenly the optics will look bad if the legacy brands go back to the itinerant shows?
T.F.: I definitely think the optics look bad…sometimes now optics are almost more important than reality. I think yes, the optics don’t look good. You can’t be talking about sustainability and then be asking everyone to fly somewhere [for a single show].
B.F: Over the past month first we heard from Francesca Bellettini and Anthony Vaccarello at Saint Laurent, and then earlier this week, from Alessandro Michele at Gucci. What is your take on what they had to say about their show plans?
T.F.: I understood where Alessandro was coming from. It was very much what we’ve all been talking about, which is fewer shows and more creativity. But I found his comments a little vague in terms of what he’s actually going to do. I agree with everything he was saying [generally], but he didn’t announce how or what that actually meant. But certainly the sentiment behind it is exactly what our announcement said and what everyone has been saying. Giorgio Armani wrote an open letter about this and expressed the same thing. So it is an industry-wide feeling. What did Anthony Vaccarello say? Was he more concrete?
B.F: The big takeaway was that Saint Laurent will separate from the Paris calendar and do its own thing. That sounds extreme, but I think he was talking about the rest of this year only.
T.F.: Through this year, you have to do your own thing. What else is there to do?
B.F: More generally, if every house were to go its own way, how could that work for retailers, and for anyone who travels to the shows, if we ever go back to physical shows?
T.F.: I don’t think it could work.
B.F: I think you’re right about the fashion weeks. When this is over, they should still exist.
T.F.: Right now, you have to do your own thing. And if something’s virtual, it doesn’t really matter when you release it because no one has to go anywhere. You just open your computer and see what they did.
B.F: That’s now. But it’s not just opening your computer. If long-term people show any time, on a whim, how do retailers plan their orders?
T.F.: They’re not going to, they can’t. And if you wait too long you miss their open-to-buy.
B.F: Do you think people should just skip spring 2021?
T.F.: I thought about it. Then you have to realise that spring ’21 is going to be delivered in spring, and hopefully, things will be better by then. We talked to some retailers, we looked at our own open-to-buy and decided to present a capsule collection, dramatically edited. It will be skewed toward online because online is what’s selling for us. Our numbers have gone way up. We have to be practical. What do people need who are either still in quarantine or just coming out of quarantine? Do they need an exaggerated, Seventies, rhinestone pair of heels? I don’t think so.
B.F: So you’ve committed to spring 2021?
T.F.: I’m having my first fitting this Friday. Everything is arriving. The way we’re doing it is ridiculous. Luckily, I have a very beautiful design assistant and all the clothes are going to her house. All of my design studio is on Zoom. She is going to put on everything, walk for us, blah, blah, blah. Then, 48 hours later, all that stuff is coming to my house so that I can go over every garment in real life and look at every shoe and every bag and then write it all up and send all of my comments back.
We’ve had everyone making things at home. Now, our ateliers are challenged in being able to reopen. Creatively, we can’t get together in a room and say, “let’s see you walk, what if we pull it in here and grab the back of the dress.” It’s very limiting.
Then, doing a look book for it will be challenging. You can’t have hair and makeup touching a model’s face, and people pinning the clothes and dressing her in a normal way for photography. How is that going to happen? And you’ve got the buyers who can’t really see the real clothes. They get to see a virtual representation and a swatch book in their hands. And then, they’re broke, and they’re wondering who’s going to really be shopping for this?
B.F: You said it — the stores are broke. There are so many independent brands that remain almost fully dependent on the wholesale model, and a major shift to direct-to-consumer isn’t realistic. What is the way forward for them?
T.F.: If I were a young designer completely dependent on stores that are going to have no money to buy my collection, I wouldn’t spend the money to make a collection that may not even recoup the cost of the samples. And by the time you produce it, those stores may be in worse shape and unable to pay you, and then you’re sitting on a bunch of merchandise.
I would try to preserve my key people and hang onto my space. Again, I would just sit tight and try to maintain my brand image through posting images of — you’d have to be creative about how to do that, and remain vocal and visible somehow. But suspend production of collections until this is over. Does that sound dramatic?
B.F: What is the official CFDA position on spring 2021 for women and men?
T.F.: We’re sticking to our fashion calendar. Again, we have to talk about this with the board. Everything is virtual so we can release it all at once, like Netflix, and you can binge-watch the shows boom, boom, boom. Or we can try to space it out. But we’re going to try to stick to our usual slot of presenting.
B.F: Men’s spring 2021?
T.F: Men’s works on a different calendar. My men’s collection is completely developed. Producing the samples was delayed because of the shutdown in Italy, even though we were already on our second or third fittings and our fabrics were already done. Again, it will be a virtual thing. I believe that we’re uploading and selling it in July, through swatches and through a virtual presentation.
B.F: You talked about women not needing a dress or a heel if they can’t go to a restaurant. Are you concerned about men’s tailored clothing?
T.F.: We’ve definitely done less of that. The lucky thing is we’ve made casual clothing for a long time. People have just identified us with suits and with tailoring and with evening clothes because it’s a big part of our collection. We’ve made sweatpants for years, and beautiful knitwear and suede jackets and jeans. Underwear is selling very well from us because it’s one of those great online things, and gifts.
T.F.: People still need gifts. Everyone has to give a Mother’s Day present, and no one wants to put a lot of thought into it. So I put together three Mother’s Day boxes and put them online on the landing page. One had a satin hat, a bottle of perfume and a pair of sunglasses. There was box number one, box number two and box number three. One was [the fragrance] Rose Pr–k and one was F–king Fabulous or whatever. You picked one, two or three and just like that, it was boxed, wrapped and sent to your mother. It sold out. The same for graduation. You still have to buy a graduation gift, you’ve got to buy a Father’s Day gift, you’re going to have to buy Christmas gifts.
B.F: Let’s go back to fashion shows. You don’t think the live fashion show is dead?
T.F.: Not at all. No. [I loved] my last one. It completely got me excited about shows again because it just worked, I was so happy.
The vibe in the room, the excitement, it worked as a performance and as a way to convey the clothes and to see the clothes move. It made me excited. As I’ve told you before, one of the reasons it worked was that nobody had their phone. I had their attention and you could feel it. It’s distracting when you’re on your phone trying to photograph yourself at a show and not looking at the clothes.
B.F: It used to be an immersive experience. You got lost in a great show.
T.F.: Yes! Nobody goes to a play and pulls out their phone, I mean, it’s almost like a matter of respect. You’re missing the experience.
B.F: Everyone seems in agreement about shifting deliveries to be more in line with the seasons. There’s a bit of conversation as well about giving buy-now-wear-now shows another go. You’ve been there and done that. What are your thoughts about it now?
T.F.: That did not work at all for me. It’s very hard to produce in advance, and to estimate what’s going to be a hit and what’s not going to be a hit so you risk ending up with a lot of merchandise that doesn’t sell. Also, the customer needs time to get used to something. Often you’ll see a show and go, “I don’t think I want that.” And then as time goes by and you see it on Instagram and editorially and on a celebrity, your eye starts to adjust, and you realise you want it. So for many reasons, it didn’t work for me.
B.F: Even in this new world order you don’t think it will work?
T.F.: I don’t think so. I think it hinders creativity.
B.F: Do you ever feel a conflict between Tom Ford, designer principal of the Tom Ford brand, and Tom Ford, chairman of the CFDA?
T.F.: No. I don’t at all. No, no.
B.F: Looking ahead to end of May two years from now, do you have any sense of the health of the American fashion industry and the global industry?
T.F.: It will come back, absolutely. Maybe it will look a little different. Maybe it will be two principal collections a year, and things will stay on the floor longer. I think it will be quieter, I think it will be calmer.
But the thing is, the customer is going to drive this. We can all say we want about two collections a year, but as soon as the customers get to a point where they’re coming back in saying, “you had this two months ago,” and, “don’t you have anything new?” and we start hearing from the stores and the buyers, if one brand does it, it’s all going to come back again. The customer drives it. We can try, but in the end we are at the service of the customer.
B.F: But fashion will be back.
T.F.: It may look different; it will look different. It should look different, it’s a reflection of where we are culturally. Culturally we’re going to be different. Will it be back to the level it was right before? I don’t know, that may take two or three years. It will take an economy that starts to recover, and people starting to have jobs, and a [fading of] the PTSD that everyone is going to have from this. And you’ll have to start feeling comfortable enough again that the world is safe. But as I said at the beginning, the desire to dress and to adorn and to express ourselves through things that we put on our bodies is innate, and part of who we are as humans, as animals. That is not going to go away. It’s a desire to show off.