Back in 2009, Tom Ford asked me to write the cover story on him for The Advocate to coincide with the opening of his first film, A Single Man, which was based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name. The story is not available online. I wish it were because it was one of my best – not because of me but because of Tom. He has always been stunningly honest, steadfastly so. We have known each other since we were in our early 20s and he will always be that Tom to me, a sweet boy whose beauty and intelligence were so magnetic even then they served as his compass as he began to navigate his life toward manhood.
There is a timeless quality to Tom’s sense of style and sense of honor – and his sense of duty which has been in evidence with his having led the American fashion industry through the COVID pandemic as the Chairman of the CFDA. He even imbued this interview with that timelessness – which is why I am with his approval reconfiguring it for my FIVE QUESTIONS FOR … column during NYFW which culminates with his show on September 12th.
We have known each other for more than 40 years, Tom. You have always been openly gay. In fact, I think we met the week you basically came out of the closet when my friend Ian Falconer introduced you to me as his new boyfriend. You had just arrived in Manhattan. You now have had a loving relationship with Richard [Buckley] for decades. You and Richard have a son together. The main seam in all your work whether on the runway or on the screen is an ethically sensual one, if that makes sense to you. I think you know what I mean by that. You chose Christopher Isherwood’s novel A Single Man to adapt and direct as your first film. So do you consider yourself a gay man today when considering yourself?
I don’t think of myself as gay. That doesn’t mean that I’m not gay. I just don’t define myself by my sexuality. The gay aspect of A Single Man certainly wasn’t what drew me to make a film of the Christopher Isherwood book. It was its human aspect, that unifying quality. If you said name ten things that define me, being gay wouldn’t make the list. I think Christopher Isherwood was like that too. There are many gay characters in his works because his work is so autobiographical but their gayness isn’t the focus. The one thing I liked about Isherwood’s work – especially when I was younger and grappling with my sexuality – is that there was no issue about it in his writing. That was quite a modern concept back during the time when he was writing. Quite honestly, I just don’t think about my sexuality. Do you? But maybe this has to do with you and I being a part of the first generation to benefit from all the struggles of the gay men and lesbians that came before us.
You gave the character of George in the film version of A Single Man Ian’s last name You named him George Falconer. I was touched by that. It spoke to the sweetness in you which is what I’ve always liked – way before your talents spurred your worldwide fame. You are 60 now but I was also touched by how you used the film of A Single Man to speak to your own sense of your own mid-life crisis you went through back when you were around 40. Was I right to sense the connection there?
I was going through, yes, a very similar thing to what George went through in the book – a very serious midlife crisis. I think back during that part of my life I wasn’t in touch with my spiritual side. I had neglected that and had become absorbed really in materialism. I had a wealth – both figuratively and literally – of every kind of material success. Fame. A great boyfriend. Plenty of houses. Tons of money. I could indulge in anything I wanted – which included a lot of cigarettes and vodka which I have now stopped. But then I hit a point when I turned 40 – even though I was still at Gucci until I was around 43 – when I had a very severe midlife crisis. I have always struggled throughout my life with depression. I’ve never made any of this public because … well …. You know me. I’m not one to wear any of this on my sleeve. When someone would come into my office in the morning and ask me how I was I’d always go, I’m great! Great! But I wasn’t great. Yet I’m not alone. Lots of people struggle with this. We are all suffering to some extent. But my own emotional suffering led me to realize I had neglected this spiritual side of my life. I had always depended on this inner voice to lead me along in life and I had shut it out. I had silenced it. I was raised a Presbyterian and went to a private Catholic school in Santa Fe but I guess I’d describe myself now as perhaps closer to a Daoist.
Isherwood was a dedicated disciple of Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood and Prabhavananda even translated the Bhagavad Gita. There is a simple but staunchly unfrayed thread of such spirituality in so much of Isherwood’s work. Is that why he speaks to you?
Yes, that is why that book spoke to me so much – this renewed need for spirituality in my life. I had originally read the book in my 20s when you and Ian (Falconer) and I were visiting David Hockney and he introduced us to Christopher Isherwood. I think I developed a taste for vodka and cigarettes because my first kiss with a guy was with Ian and he tasted like vodka and cigarettes back then. I never knew I liked men sexually until Ian came into my life.
In the movie when George talks about shaving off his eyebrow after taking some mescaline – that happened to Ian and me on that trip when we all were visiting David. One night Ian and I took some mescaline to go to Studio One – remember that? – and I ended up shaving my own eyebrow off. Back when I read that book in my 20s, I loved it and kind of had a crush on George as I read it. I’ve always had a thing for older smart guys. And then I read everything I could find by Isherwood after we all met him. I was in awe of him and became a bit obsessed with him really. I found out that he was a Virgo – his birthday was one day earlier than mine. And in his diaries he was trying to quit smoking and drinking vodka tonics – something else I could certainly identify with. When I picked up the book again in my 40s it affected me on a much deeper level. I realized this is a book about the false self. The first line kind of stopped me in my tracks: Waking up begins with saying am and now. To me the underlying theme of the book is letting go of the past and being able to live in the present – which was what I was struggling to do at that point in my life. I no longer had a crush on George but felt as if I had become George myself – both mentally and spiritually. Though I certainly love the book, through the process of making the film I grafted much of myself onto it. It was cathartic.
Let’s keep the catharsis going. I was living in Paris back in 2000 and was there for your first show at Yves Saint Laurent at the Rodin Museum. I remember the undisguised look of displeasure on Pierre Berge’s face across the runway from me. I was appalled by a kind of performative rudeness on his part during that show which so poetically began at twilight and held such promise. I was so excited for you that night. So: Yves Saint Laurent?
I don’t even remember much about my time at Yves Saint Laurent though I do think some of my best collections were at Yves Saint Laurent – other than that black-and-white initial one. That one wasn’t very successful and wasn’t very good. But being at Yves Saint Laurent was such a negative experience for me even though the business boomed while I was there. Yves and his partner Pierre Berge were so difficult and so evil and made my life such misery. I’d lived in France off and on and had always loved it. I went to college in France. It wasn’t until I started working in France that I began to dislike it. They would call the fiscal police and they would show up at our offices. You are not able to work an employee more than 35 hours a week. They’d come marching in and you had to let them in and they’d interview my secretary. And they can fine you and shut you down. Pierre was the one calling them. I’ve never talked about this on the record before but it was an awful time for me. Pierre and Yves were just evil. So Yves Saint Laurent doesn’t exist for me. I have letters from Yves Saint Laurent that are so mean you cannot even believe such vitriol is possible. I don’t think he was high when he wrote them either. I just think he was jealous. And Yves and I were friends before I took over the company. But then we began to move the company forward and were very successful. And Betty Catroux, his muse, was sitting in my front row wearing my clothes and he just became so insanely jealous. As I said, I’ve never talked about this before but you brought up Yves. That phase in my life just doesn’t exist anymore.
You want to talk about Richard instead? Much nicer subject. You’ve told me in the past that it was love at first sight. What was it about him that made you fall so instantly?
His soul. Something clearly spoke to me. It wasn’t his beautiful blue eyes and his silvery hair and his slender handsomenesss. It was something that reached out to me through his false self – his true self connecting with my true self – and it was instant. On our first date he took me to a southwestern restaurant in New York because he knew I was from New Mexico and we were poor and could eat for about five bucks each. At the time one of Richard’s best friends was dying of AIDS and one of my best friends was dying of AIDS too so we talked a lot about that as I’m sure a lot of guys did on first dates back then. We were both just so emotionally exhausted. So there was no sex on that first date. I think it took about three dates before we had sex. He knew I had a fondness for sugary breakfast cereals so he had put a box of Fruit Loops under the bed hoping I would come home with him that night of our third date. I did. And the next morning he pulled out that box of Fruit Loops from under the bed. It was so cute. We moved in together a month after we met.