From his bed in Los Angeles, Tom Ford – fashion powerhouse, film mogul and old school romantic – gives Jefferson Hack an intimate masterclass in how to be a modern gentleman.
London. 9pm. “Hello? Tom? Are you there?” After a hellish cacophony of bleeps, a fractured and digitised voice eventually echoes back from Los Angeles: “Are… you… under... water… Jefferson?” This Skype connection isn’t working. We agree to abort – I think – and start again. The dial tone sounds promising this time. “Aaah, that’s perfect!” says Ford, finally, in his soft Texan twang. “I’d normally give you a visual but I haven’t been able to get dressed yet. I’m sitting here naked in bed.” With that, he cracks open a can of Diet Coke and takes a loud swig. He’s ready…
JEFFERSON HACK: So, let’s see, what do you think being a gentleman means today?
TOM FORD: It’s interesting – and I really don’t mean this in an egotistical way – but I’m often complemented on my manners. I grew up in the American South, where manners are very important. As a child I was not allowed to call any adult, even at the supermarket, anything other than Mister or Miss. And I still do that. I ran into James Galanos the other night – he was an American fashion designer who is now in his 80s – I know him quite well but I still call him Mr Galanos. I’m quite formal I suppose, which some people would call un-modern. But I think the most important thing about being a modern gentleman – and having good manners – is actually knowing when things are appropriate. It’s appropriate to use different language to different people at different times. And I think a lot of people have forgotten any sense of measuring the situation and weighing up how to treat someone.
JH: Who is the most mannered man you’ve met? What impression did they leave on you?
TF: I would have to say I am! (Laughs) You know, I treat women very differently from how I treat men and maybe this isn’t very modern but I always open doors for women, I carry their coat, I make sure that they’re walking on the inside of the street. And that comes from the fact that traditionally women were more physically fragile than we are as men. But this is my recommendation to all straight men. If you want to shag more girls open the doors for them, stand up when they come to the table, stand up when they leave the table. You will be able to get anybody because no one ever does that anymore. I do it at the dinner table and girls just flip-out; they kick their husbands, “Get up! Look at him, why haven’t you got up? Look at him, look at his manners. Why don’t you do that for me?” It’s so seductive.
JH: This is brilliant; I need tips.
TF: But I’m also an equal opportunity stander-upper: so, if a male friend of mine comes to the table I’ll stand up and, while I do it half-way as a joke, it’s also definitely an acknowledgment.
JH: I need more seduction tips from you because I’m single now. I’m out of practice.
TF: Well, I can give you a lot of seduction tips. No problem. Although – hello! – I'm kind of married and monogamous...
JH: But that can often give you very clear vision.
TF: I guess. It’s funny that people always think that I lead this alternate life that I really don’t lead. I suppose it’s projected in my work and in my imagery.
JH: I don’t think it is. For those that read about you in the press, your 24-year relationship with Richard Buckley is a strong part of your personality. And I think that comes out in your work because of the confidence that gives you to be strong in the ideas and the imagery and the risks that you take… I don’t want to put words in your mouth.
TF: No, no. I am relatively fearless in a lot ways. It doesn’t mean I don’t have fear but I don’t believe in fear stopping me from doing anything. So I’m sure having a very solid home life adds to that, and I also have a very close network of friends. I’m quite balanced really.
JH: What else do you think makes a modern gentleman?
TF: Today a gentleman has to work and traditionally, of course, he didn’t. People who do not work are so boring and are usually bored. And I don’t think that they’re fully formed people because they don’t have any sense of contributing to society. They’re not engaged. I think to have something that you work at – whether it’s a job at a bank or writing a novel – is so important. You have to have a passion, you have to be passionate, you have to be engaged and you have to be contributing to the world.
TF: And in addition to manners, which are a show of respect to people around you, I think that dressing is an important part of being a gentleman. What I mean by that is, if your style is a mohawk and a lot of piercings, that’s fine. I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to be traditionally dressed. But what I do think is that if you’re a gentleman – whatever your style – you should put on the best version of yourself when you go out in the world because that is a show of respect to the other people around you. And putting people ahead of yourself is a mark of a modern gentleman.
JH: That also crosses into certain spiritual thought. Sometimes you can go to the poorest countries in the world and you can see cultures where people have very little compared to what we have, but they put themselves together in such a way that it shows they have respect for the people around them.
TF: Absolutely, absolutely. Having good manners and taking care of the way you look has nothing to do with money. I was raised with that sort of beaten into me. Not literally beaten into me, but when I was seven years old and lying on the floor watching television, if my mother walked into the room and I didn’t stand up and say, “Good morning”, I got into trouble. She would say, “Look, get up off the floor now and say hello to me.” It made me aware that I wasn’t the only person on the planet.
JH: That sounds like a strict upbringing. Was that part of why you felt a need to be in New York and at Studio 54 with a whole scene of people that were completely free from rules and regulations?
TF: No, it wasn’t strict. My parents were very liberal and they always supported anything that I wanted to do. They never spanked me or beat me. But, you know, as far back as I can remember we sat down at the dinner table every night at eight o’clock.
JH: When did you leave home? What age were you?
TF: I was 17 but when I left home it had nothing whatsoever to do with escape. If anything my good manners and a conscientious upbringing by my parents helped me in New York.
JH: It allowed you to adapt to different situations?
TF: Totally – and people. When I was 18, I had a boyfriend who was 35 and I spent a lot of time with people at dinner parties who were in their 40s and 50s. Even then I knew how to behave so I was very easily accepted. If anything it gave me great freedom to have experiences I wouldn’t have been able to have at 18… I’m listening to myself talk and I hope I’m not sounding pretentious. That’s another key to being a modern gentleman: not to be pretentious or racist or sexist or judge people by their background. I believe in a meritocracy. That’s why I was so supportive of President Obama because he really did come from a very poor background, as did his wife, and they educated themselves and went to great schools and now this man speaks English like most Americans have forgotten to speak English. He has a terrific vocabulary. He has perfect grammar and when he was running for president so much of the press called him elitist and I was thinking, “How can he be elitist?” Through determination he has lifted himself to a different plane and now he’s being called elitist because he chooses to speak properly when the rest of the country has lost any sense of manners and language and nuance and subtlety.
JH: Does it make you angry living in America?
TF: It does. I am an American and I love America but, right now, I find America very upsetting and fragile and frustrating. When I’m here I can’t wait to get back to my home in London.
JH: You have bases in Los Angeles, London and Santa Fe…
TF: Yeah. Well, we have two places in Santa Fe: a townhouse and a ranch an hour away. And we have a little ski place in Sun Valley, Idaho, which we rarely go to. But mostly I’m between Los Angeles and London.
JH: How does your headspace change between those places?
TF: Well, I prefer London in a lot of ways because of the people. I have great friends in England; I love the sense of humour. They’re the best group of people on the planet. Los Angeles has the same thing but a much lower percentage. Meaning, I have good friends here but the mass population of Los Angeles is much less sophisticated than the mass population of London. But there is a negative for me to London, and that’s because it’s a city and the older I get the more and more claustrophobic I get in cities – I think it’s because I grew up in the West. That’s what’s appealing to me about Los Angeles. Right now I’m looking out of my window at the Pacific Ocean and I can look across the whole of Los Angeles and I can see all of the mountains in the background. I’m surrounded by green and I can’t see another house, and yet in an hour, when I finally get dressed, I’ll drive down the road to Sunset Boulevard and I’ll be in a city. The expanse, the sun, the air – that’s what I love about Los Angeles.
JH: Do you feel creative there, in a different way?
TF: I feel very creative here. I feel more creative when I’m isolated than when I’m in a city and surrounded by people. I need to be in the city to gather information – books, films, exhibitions, shop windows, people-watching – and hear everyone’s opinions but, then, I need to leave the city to process it and work out what I believe in. I need to be isolated to do that, whether it’s working on ideas for a collection or a screenplay.
JH: Is there such a thing as an off-duty Tom Ford?
TF: Yeah, I suppose it’s always to do with sports. I’m off-duty when I’m on my horse or skiing or I’m playing tennis. I like those sports because when you’re skiing you can’t think about anything except not dying. I grew up skiing and probably ski way too fast, but it clears my head because you can’t think about anything apart from making this corner or getting out of the way of that tree. It’s the same thing when you’re on a horse.
JH: You have to be totally present, is that it?
TF: You have to be totally there, even if everything seems calm. The horse might see a reflection off a tin can and might spook, and the next thing you know the horse is up. It’s the same with tennis: you’ve got to watch that little ball, hit that ball, watch that ball, hit that ball. All your worries go out of your head.
JH: If a man’s wearing shorts, should he have his socks pulled up or should they be rolled down?
TF: (Gasps) Shorts?
JH: (Laughs) OK... well, should a man ever wear shorts off the tennis court?
TF: No. Absolutely not. But if I’m on holiday, occasionally I’ll put on a pair of shorts with my t-shirt and go barefoot with my towel down to the beach and then take off my top and lie in my shorts, or slip off my shorts and underneath have a bathing suit on – but in the city? Never. That’s an American thing, which I just don’t get. They walk around in shorts, even the fancy Americans.
JH: Flip-flops and shorts in the city, what is that?
TF: I know, I hate that! I don’t understand it. I don’t think that’s ever appropriate.
JH: Describe a typical night-in with Richard...
TF: (Laughs) A night in with the two of us? Well, we cook dinner – Richard is actually a very good cook. Then we might get into bed and watch an episode of Glee, then we take the dogs out and I usually take a bath while Richard works on his computer – and we go to sleep.
JH: Do you need much sleep these days?
TF: I’m probably sleeping a lot more. One of the reasons I didn't sleep well before was because I drank so much. When you drink a lot you go to sleep right away but wake up three hours later and can’t go back to sleep. Maybe it’s just getting older and becoming more comfortable with yourself, but I spend less time worrying about things. I still don’t sleep more than five hours a night, but I don’t sleep two or three like I did. So, I sleep well now and I get up very early. I’m usually awake by five.
JH: It’s all about the mornings! TF: A lot of people say how wonderful you feel in the morning when you quit drinking, but one of the things I love the most is the night. It’s great to come home and actually feel sharp and clear. I mean, listen, I’m not telling everyone to quit drinking – I’m all for drinking and whatever anyone wants to do – but personally, at this point in my life, I’m happy not drinking. Maybe one day I’ll start again.
JH: What’s your morning ritual nowadays, then?
TF: Well, right now it’s 11.10am here in Los Angeles and I’m still naked in bed, which is pretty much my morning ritual. I wake up very early; this morning I was awake at 4.35am and was online and on the phone to London. And when I’m in London I get up early because I can still speak to LA before they go to bed. So, usually I’m up early on my computer and unfortunately get caught up in everything and don’t get out of the house until noon.
JH: Please don’t tell me the first thing you see in the morning is a computer screen...
TF: Yes, I sleep with it. It’s next to my bed. When the alarm bell goes off, I lift the computer on to my lap.
JH: That’s so sad.
TF: (Laughs) And it’s the last thing I see before I go to sleep.
JH: Well, I hope you have a really nice screen saver that makes you happy when you flip the lid.
TF: It’s a picture of my ranch with my horses.
JH: Beautiful. That’s very telling because, I guess, that’s where you dream about escaping to.
TF: (Laughs) Actually, I have perfect WiFi at my ranch so I’m usually on my computer when I’m there as well.
JH: I was hoping your morning ritual would be an elaborate and lengthy affair similar to George’s in A Single Man.
TF: Well, when I get dressed it is! That process takes me an hour. I go through the ritual of lying in the bathtub, washing my hair, trimming my beard… How long do you take to get dressed?
JH: About half an hour.
TF: Okay, and do you shave your body hair?
JH: No. What’s that like?
TF: I don’t do that. I hate it. But every straight man I know in England does. I had dinner with an English friend last night: he’s 46 years old, married with three kids and he shaves his testicles and trims his pubic hair! This is a new trend amongst straight men that I just do not understand.
JH: Is he athletic?
TF: I don’t know, but just look at straight porn: they’ve all got their pubic hair trimmed and their testicles shaved. It’s the most bizarre thing.
JH: Do you think pubic trimming for men is a good thing? Because for women I think it’s essential. I just don’t like a wild bush.
TF: Well, personally, I prefer a woman who is closer to natural than closer to waxed.
JH: I don’t mean waxed. Natural is okay but trimmed.
TF: I don’t like seeing stubble. So, if a man has pubic hair that’s five inches long, clip it back to an inch-and-a-half long.
JH: What’s the longest you’ve been without sex?
TF: Years! I don’t mean right now, but there have been periods in my life when I have.
JH: Really? How did that make you feel? Frustrated? Angry?
TF: Oh, no – nothing like that. Because I only like having sex with people that I care about. Richard’s always teasing me about being like a girl because I have to like someone to have sex with them. I mean, Richard can’t be mean to me all day and then expect that we’re going to have sex. It’s like...
JH: That seems to work fine for some people.
TF: Well, it doesn’t work with me. He has to have been nice and we have to have had a nice day – you can’t be an asshole and then all of a sudden...
JH: That means that you’re just a big romantic.
TF: Yeah, I’m very romantic. And I have no interest in having sex with someone that I don’t know. I have no interest in having sex with someone that I don’t like. And it doesn’t have to be a beauty thing. A lot of the time I’m attracted to people who are not necessarily considered beautiful in a traditional way, but they have something. There’s something in their eyes – a kindness or a sweetness or something interesting about them. Nothing to do with how they look, but, you know, that’s why I go to bed with my laptop… (Laughs) There are a lot of good porn sites.