Interview: Tom Ford with Kinvara Balfour (The Full Conversation)

By now, you have undoubtedly heard about the candid talk between Tom Ford and Kinvara Balfour that took place at the Regent Street Apple Store on Monday, April 7th. The big news that came out of that interview is that Mr. Ford shared that he and Richard Buckley, his partner of 27 years, had recently gotten married in the United States. Understandably, this is the item all of the recaps focusing on. In all of the excitement, a number of other fascinating tidbits from the interview have been missed, so I decided to share a full transcript of Mr. Ford’s responses. You can read them below but make sure you download the complimentary podcast from Apple as well!

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Tom Ford at the Regent Street Apple Store 

On his early days in New York City and Paris

I was born in Texas. Austin. Then I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I moved to New York when I was 17, in 1979, and I went to NYU. I dropped out because I was just going to nightclubs and not going to my classes, paying a guy down the hall to write my papers. I started acting. I made television commercials mostly, that was about all I managed.

Then I… decided to go back to school. I went to Parsons and studied architecture and then moved to Paris. Did a year at Parsons in Paris, and then had an internship at Chloé just after Karl Lagerfeld had left – there was a great guy there called Peter O’Brien – and worked [at  Chloé] and realized that actually fashion was what I loved and architecture was quite serious.

So I went back to New York, graduated with a degree in architecture from Parsons – they called it environmental design at the time – because I couldn’t change [degrees]. I would have had to go back [to school] and start all over. Went to 7th Avenue, knocked on doors, kind of lied because I could draw and I had a portfolio of fashion and said, “I just graduated from Parsons, here is my portfolio“, never bothered to say [my degree] was in architecture and not fashion and got my first job with a wonderful woman called Cathy Hardwick on Seventh Avenue New York.


On his early style and glamour influences

My grandmother was – you know, in Texas everything is big. Big hair, big jewelry, big cars, and my grandmother was probably, in real life, if I were to actually look back at her a bit, like a cartoon character. She was always very stylish but everything was big and overblown, very Texan, so for me she was my earliest memory of glamour. When she would come into our lives she was extravagant… she brought you a gift, she brought you 6 of them.  It was the opposite of my parents who were a bit more [pauses]. Toned down, maybe, is the word.

A lot of times people ask me about why I like Los Angeles. One of the reasons I love Los Angeles is that I think I’ve actually had a – and I think maybe many of you feel this way – some of the most important moments in my life for style, for how I wanted to live, even things that people have said to each other, have happened not in reality but in film. They are things that, you know, when you are a kid growing up –  you see a glamorous apartment, you see a beautiful woman or you see a handsome man or you see the way someone is living – and you project that “wow, that’s what I want” and so many of those things aren’t necessarily real but were images generated in film.


Sharing news of his marriage to Richard Buckley 

I was living in New York and so many of my friends had died. This was the 80s and for those of you who don’t remember what it was like, I mean, I lost so many friends in college – I would say more than half of my closest friends. And Richard and I, Richard had gone through something also quite tough in his life. [Kinvara clarifies  for the audience that Richard Buckley is Tom Ford’s partner]

Richard, yes, 27 years, and we’re now married, which is nice. I know that was just made legal in the UK which is great, we were married in the States.


On why everyone should be an intern

I think everyone should be an intern, by the way. I think this is a problem today. People come out of school and they think they should immediately be a star. And in today’s world, of course, you can make a sex video and you can become a star. You know, if you’re clever you can get yourself, you know, out in the world through social media and can become a star, but I think everyone should be an intern – you should sweep floors, you should pick up pins. If you are interested in being an architect, you know, you should run errands, you should do all those things because you learn so much.


On the business of fashion

I worked on 7th Avenue, which was also great, because 7th Avenue in the late 80s, you know, fashion in America was always so business-oriented. And if you had a bad collection you literally were escorted from the building the next day. Your collection would open, the reaction wasn’t good, someone would come and tell you “I’m sorry, we’re firing you” and you were let go and you were literally taken out of the building.

It never happened to me but I wanted to make sure that it didn’t happen. So you become quite aware of “this is selling – that’s selling – that’s this much per square” for fabrics you’re worried about the price, you’re thinking about that. You’re merchandising your collection as you’re building it, so it was very very useful, because at that time, in New York, to be a fashion designer, you had to have both a business head and a design sensibility.

I haven’t worked in New York in 30 years so I don’t know if that’s still the case, but I’m afraid it’s probably – actually, what am I saying? It’s the case more and more all over the world, although I think now there are teams of people that do this for you. I think designers design and often merchandising teams come in and in a sense de-personalize things and then sell them.


On commercial vs. artistic endeavors

Fashion for me is a commercial endeavor. It is an artistic endeavor, but I do not consider myself as a fashion designer an artist. Now, there are some fashion designers who are pure artists. Alexander McQueen, for me, was an artist and that’s how he expressed himself. My – the most artistic thing I have ever done [was] to make the film that I made called A Single Man. That was a purely artistic endeavor for me because I am fortunate enough to be able to make a living doing something else.


On A Single Man and moments of self-clarity

I hope you cried [when you watched it]. Well, so many people tell me – and many of you probably have not seen this film – but so many people tell me that they find it such a depressing film, and for me, this man comes to peace with the world and understands his place in the world and really has that great epiphany that I think that some of us have sometimes – for just a second – where you feel really that you understand everything and that you’re connected to the world.

And when he has this… he leaves the world. He dies. He actually doesnt need to live any longer, he’s learned the lesson of life. I mean, he could have another 20 or 30 years, but he doesnt actually need them. Nothing will ever equal that moment, so he dies at a moment of absolute self-understanding and realization, and so for me that is quite an uplifting thought.


On personal moments of self-realization

It’s fleeting. I have moments where, you know, just moments, where you think “yes” and then you lose them. We lose them because of all the things that are happening in our lives and we lose them because of all the clutter and the chatter and the “oh my god, its time to go do this” and “I’ve gotta do that, and I’ve gotta do that”… I think for me, for someone who grew up in the American West – when I think “oh god, what do I want to be doing the last few years of my life” I’d really literally like to be watching ants crawl across the desert floor, looking at the stars and remembering and feeling connected to the universe – because I think for me it’s very hard, in a city, to feel that with all the distractions of culture, and of course with the speed at which we are living today, thanks to all of this culture, we are living so quickly, that I don’t know that we always feel connected (and I don’t mean connected in a media way).


On technology

Like everyone, I get up every morning and turn on my computer. It’s just about the first thing. I sleep with it, it’s next to my bed. So immediately [I turn it on] and see what happened overnight,and, like everyone, I’m constantly on my computer.

I do not carry – normally – a cell phone except that there is a great app that I have downloaded on my phone where I can watch my son sleep at night and so, if I’m out to dinner I can make sure, “yes, he’s sleeping fine”. That’s the only reason I carry a phone.

I rarely look at print because if I were to look at print I’d get on a plane with a big, giant bag full of magazines that I need to get through that have been piling up on my desk. So no, actually, I do look at most magazines online. And on my iPad.


On shooting his own ad campaigns

I think that today, with what one can do in photoshop, almost anyone can be a great photographer if you have the “eye” to know what you want to turn that image into, and the ability to sit there with a digitech and say “yes” / “no” / “do that” / “do that” / “lets try that” / “do that” … although some of it I like to do myself, and… I’ve been fortunate enough to work with really so many great photographers, I mean, [even] photographers that are no longer with us, and I think probably most of the greats, and so you learn so much being on the set for 30 years and watching how these people see, what they do, what the lighting – it’s all about the lighting, which… we’ll know when we see it.


On being called “the ultimate controller”

I think when someone comes and buys a product with your name on it, you should have done the product. It shouldn’t be that somebody else did it and you say “yeah, that’s great.”

It should be “no, that’s not right. Change that. Do that. Put that there, that there.”

“OK, that can have my name on it.”

So, of course there is control to it. You know, design – to create a brand with character and personality – it’s a dictatorship, it’s not a committee decision. It doesn’t mean you don’t listen to everyone and take everything in, but then ultimately you have to weigh it and make the decision and say “OK, that’s the way. That. That.” and then say “Yeah.”


On running all the facets of TOM FORD (fashion/eyewear/beauty, etc.)

I don’t sleep very much, no. But I did that at Gucci, and I also at one time for 4 years designed both Gucci and Saint Laurent and went back and forth between Paris and London and Milan, and Paris and London and Milan, Paris and London and Milan, so I’m used to that sort of scale. Actually, probably don’t know how to do anything small… [at one time he was] absolutely burned out.


On appreciating and enjoying his successes

I think I am in a period of both [acceleration and consolidation]. As one gets to a certain age, you’re very aware of time and mortality and of taking moments in your life to enjoy things. And yet I’m in the middle of building a new business, which I am very excited about, so my life is accelerating in that way, but I think I am also maybe appreciating it and understanding it and enjoying it more than I did the first time around.

I was having dinner with Karl Lagerfeld in my mid-30s and things had gone quite well, very rapidly, for me at Gucci and everything was really on it’s way up and I said “Karl, I don’t feel anything, I don’t feel any of this. I just – I don’t feel it.”

He said, “You will. You’ll feel it later when you look back at it.” And it’s true, now I look back at that time and think “god, I didn’t really feel it, I should have felt it more.” So I’m very aware of that today and I’m trying to feel everything that I do. It’s very hard.


On Jay-Z’s “TOM FORD”

First of all, the universe throws things at you, and sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad.

Jay-Z is someone I know. I think he’s a great guy. We’re friends, and he has been wearing my clothes for years. He emailed me one day and said, “you know, I’m writing a song called Tom Ford.” I thought, “oh, ok. Great. Wow” [and didn’t necessarily believe it would come out].

And then it came out [and] I was quite surprised. The song came out and it wasn’t what I expected. It was… I had to go online and see what it really meant. And the beat took me a little while. But it’s one of those things, it’s just so lucky. I’m mean it’s so lucky. How did it happen? Where did it come from? Why did he do it? But, boom, there it is, and you have these – the thing that really freaks me out is when you’re in a giant stadium and he performs it and there’s 60,000 people screaming your name. It’s really just… but it’s one of those things. I have no idea why it happened, how it happened, but yeah, of course, if you are in the business of a brand, it’s one of the best things that could possibly happen to you. And the universe just sort of threw that out there for me. It’s amazing.


On how he feels when 60,000 Jay-Z fans are screaming his name at a concert

I want to crawl under a rock because I’m actually very, very, very shy and no one ever believes this! I can perform – and this [interview] isn’t necessarily a performance because I can do it fairly honestly – but I really am very shy.


On what he wears to sleep and when he’s off the clock

I’m probably in this same suit, which I will have picked up off the floor… On the weekend? Yeah, just pick up my clothes from where I left [them]. I just pick up dirty whatever it was from the night before.

I used to spend most of my time at home naked, I’m not saying that’s anything cool or great or whatever, but now that I have a child that means we have a nanny and that means I can’t go downstairs naked and have a bowl of cereal in the mornings, so I get dressed…

Someone told me the other day… someone asked in our office, “oh, do you sleep in pajamas?” and almost everyone said “Yes.”

I said, “That’s so weird, I don’t sleep in any clothes.” 

They said “Oh, that’s very American. You know, the English sleep with clothes on.”

What are you talking about, the English sleep with clothes on?! Maybe it’s because I am in the business of clothes and fashion, I come home and before, as I said, before I had a child I literally took off all my clothes the moment I walked in the door and that was that. I don’t know.”


On being an international designer

I consider myself an international designer. I think to function in the world today you have to think globally, and you know, global culture is more and more united. There is still differences, but that used to drive me crazy living in France, because everyone would always say, “oh, how does it feel to be designing for Yves Saint Laurent, one of the great French brands, and you’re Texan?” They didn’t even call me American. You’re Texan. And I used to find that sort of nationalism odd in today’s world. I think I design for an international customer. Our customers can be Russians shopping in New York, Japanese shopping in LA, can be English shopping in Las Vegas, can be American shopping in London. I mean, we’re a global brand and I live that sort of life and I think increasingly that I am an international designer.


On creating his own brand

I never thought I would do it, but being pragmatic it was always in the back of my mind and I realized even when I was at Gucci that one day I could not be there and that I better build a little equity in all the things I was doing. And so I made sure that my name was out there, associated with the brand, so that was a very conscious thing.

When I left Gucci and Saint Laurent I thought, you know, “I need to claim this, so I need to come out with a book,” which was really the very first branded thing I did. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, I was just aware of the fact that I needed to put it over here in case I ever needed to fall back on it – and I don’t mean literally the book – I mean, you know, claiming things I was very proud that I had worked very hard at, so…

I’ve always been very practical, but no. I never thought [I would launch my own brand]. I was very satisfied doing what I was doing at Gucci, so I never intended to have my own company. Then, after I retired for three months, I got so bored that I realized, “yeah, ok. I need to do this again.”


On what is next for TOM FORD the brand

First of all, we need to take a little bit of a breather and really consolidate because I think we’re doing very well, but I think we can do better in all of the things that we do, and things are never quite good enough for me, and we’re never quite there. That’s the very next step. Although 100 stores is still not enough…


On what he considers to be “good enough”

I think good enough in anything is where you feel that you’ve given your best and you’ve said everything you have to say, and I don’t feel there – that I am at that point yet.


On what drives him

Compulsion. I don’t have any choice. Everyone has to live their destiny… you have to be what you’re going to be. You have to fulfill your destiny. For whatever reason, this is just the way I am. I jump up and I start doing these things, and I like building things, and as a kid I liked building things, and what I’m building now is a brand. But it is still building and it is a compulsion. I can not help it. It is what I do, and I’ve realized over time that it’s also what makes me happy. That if I can’t do it I don’t feel fulfilled. So… it’s a compulsion.


On what he has yet to do

I would love to make another movie. That was the most fulfilling thing I have ever done in my life, and I had intended to make one every 2 or 3 years, hopefully the rest of my life. But my fashion company is growing so well – I’m not complaining, I’m not complaining, I can’t complain – [but] I would love to make more films.


On growing TOM FORD in the Asian market

We will [launch an e-commerce site in China]. You have to start and make sure everything is working before you start to broaden your base with e-commerce, so we just launched that [in the U.S.]. And yes, of course, China is incredibly important to us in the future. We have 5 stores in China at the moment. Actually, we might have more – if we don’t, we’re about to – and so it’s an incredibly important market.


On multi-brand e-tailers versus mono-brand stores

Now that mono-brands are developing their business online so much, [the multi-brand e-tailor] is thinking about what [they’re] going to do to make people want to go to [their] site when they can go to all the individual [brand stores]. It’ll be interesting to see if multi-brand e-tailers go the way of of American department stores which of course – there are less of them now than there was once because people go to mono-brand stores, bricks and mortar, so I wonder if it will happen online.


On the look of black designs online

It’s interesting because our #1 sales color in every single product we make is black. Most brands are. If you are making an investment and you are spending a lot of money on a beautiful handbag or a beautiful pair of shoes often you’ll buy them in black. But design is changing so much because things are viewed online, and a black dress, even though it’s beautiful in real life, doesn’t necessarily read online, even for a shopper. So it pushes you as a designer to design things that you’re even almost thinking, “How is this going to look online? How will this photograph?” And it’s interesting because it is also altering fashion because we are buying things that look good online. Now, when we get them home, you know, when they arrive, do they look good on us? I don’t know. It’s just interesting. Because I love black. I could design in black, because black for me is about sculpture. Scultpture, texture, fabric, shape. You lose color, so you just have the shape or the body of the fabric or the difference between satin and velvet or those textures, and so for me that is very pure. It’s Very sculptural. But its true, it doesn’t photograph online as well as color, pattern, print, other things. I find it very interesting.


On being comfortable in what you wear

Never, ever, ever – man or woman – wear anything that you are remotely uncomfortable in. Doesnt matter if everyone is saying “it’s all about this. It’s all about that. It’s all about this kind of shoe, it’s all about that shoulder, it’s all about -“, doesn’t matter. If you put it on and it suits you and you feel good in it, that’s one thing. Never ever be uncomfortable in your clothes. Because that’s what you will project. You’ll just project “I look like a fool” even if you don’t – because you think, “oh, I don’t feel good in this” and you’ll project that.  You’ll be tentative. You’ll be not your best. So never, ever wear anything you’re not comfortable in. And I don’t mean physical comfort, I don’t mind suffering a little bit. High, high heels. A corset maybe. My pants are pretty tight today because I’ve been eating too many Percy Pigs. Yes.


On showing the men’s collection in London

I live here. My design studio is here. I have a child I don’t necessarily want to leave and go to Italy for a few days for. However, something bigger than that, which is that men’s style – today – is derived from a traditionally Anglophile style. It was different in the late 70s, early 80s. Armani had such a pull for menswear that things became softer, drapier, and were less Anglophile. But today’s fashion, for men, is really all about a certain shoulder and certain things that were developed throughout history in this country – mostly as uniforms – and so there is a certain link between English classical style and contemporary men’s fashion. The workmanship too, here, and the eccentricity. You know, one of the things that I love about being here – the main reason I live here – the people. And the fact that eccentricity in fashion, in everything, is celebrated. And it isn’t necessarily celebrated in some places, and here [in London] it is, and men have been peacocks for so long – you have a history of that – you go back to Beau Brummell – you have a history of men loving style and feeling confident and holding themselves up and really wearing fashion. Wearing clothes. I love that.


On whether there are more films in his future

I have a few [movies] that I could do if I had the time to shoot them, but yes, definitely. I will be very sad if I don’t make more films… One reason that I loved working on [A Single Man] so much was that it was quite a singular expression. I didn’t have to listen to someone say, “you know, I think if you change the ending, and we cut that…”  I didn’t have to have someone say, “well, you’re running out of time, you’re editing too long, we’re gonna pull the budget.”  I was able to just do what I felt was right, so that is the thing that comes with [being the producer/co-writer/director]. But, you still work with a great group of people. I had wonderful collaborators around me for that film.


On his homes

The guy who did our sets [on A Single Man] had been doing the Mad Men sets. [My home is] not at all [like that set]. I also believe each house – sorry, that made me really sound spoiled, “each house”. When I’m in New Mexico, I want to feel like I’m in New Mexico, so my house there is made of adobe and the furniture is classical – there is a feeling to it. And my house in Los Angeles is very LA. My house in London is very English. Seriously.


On his son’s organizational skills (specifically the way he lays his toys out)

He lays them out, it’s so genius. He’s so organized. I don’t know where it came from… it’s so great… I wouldn’t tell him off [for being disorganized] anyway. It’s his life, his thing.


On his greatest luxury

Sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep. Just a great bed and sleeping. And you know what would be great? Not a single email. No emails. Sleep.



Fascinating, no?  Did you listen to (or watch) the interview?


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