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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

After years as a top fashion designer, my guest, Tom Ford, has directed and co-written his first film, "A Single Man," based on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood. The movie is on Time magazine's list of the year's 10 best films, and Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote that Ford proves a born filmmaker with a rapturous eye.

Ford is the former creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, where he was known for his collections as well his provocative ad campaigns. His movie, "A Single Man," is set in L.A. in 1962 and stars Colin Firth as George, a college professor in his 50s whose younger, longtime partners has just been killed in a car crash. George is so heartbroken, he's buying bullets for his gun and preparing to kill himself. But as he prepares, he continues to teach and to confide in his old friend, played by Julianne Moore.

In this scene, from the beginning of "A Single Man," George is getting out of bed, dressing and preparing for the day. This is what he's thinking.

(Soundbite of film "A Single Man")

Mr. COLIN FIRTH (Actor): (As George) Waking up begins with saying um and now.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) Jennifer, I am not going to tell you again...

Mr. FIRTH: (As George) For the past eight months, waking up has actually hurt.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FIRTH: (As George) Cold realization that I'm still here slowly sets in. I was never terribly fond of waking up. I was never one to jump out of bed and greet the day with a smile like Jim was. I used to want to punch him sometimes in the morning, he was so happy. I always used to tell him that only fools would greet the day with a smile, that only fools could possibly escape the simple truth that now isn't simply now. It's a cold reminder, one day later than yesterday, one year later than last year and that sooner or later, it will come.

He used to laugh at me and then give me a kiss on the cheek. It takes time in the morning for me to become George, time to adjust to what is expected of George and how he is to behave. By the time I've dressed and put the final air of polish on the now slightly stiff but quite perfect George, I know, fully, what part I'm supposed to play.

GROSS: That's Colin Firth in the opening of "A Single Man." Tom Ford, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the film.

Mr. TOM FORD (Director, "A Single Man"): Thank you.

GROSS: I think one of the things that will surprise people seeing this opening scene is that we would likely think of you, since fashion is the world that you're from, as waking up in the morning and thinking oh boy, what fabulous clothes will I wear today?

Mr. FORD: Mmm, not at all.

GROSS: ...what fun I will have presenting myself to the outer world? - as opposed to the effort and pain that this character is feeling in putting himself together to be in the world and present himself to the world.

Mr. FORD: I think a lot of us do that. I think that our public face is often armor. And this character is held together - his inner world and his outer world are directly related. He's suffering inside. So what's going on inside this man is very, very different than what's going on on the outside. And he feels that if he can just stay in control of everything on the outside and construct a certain armor that is his public persona, that he will be safe inside and he'll be able to hold himself together.

And that comes literally from the book, where Christopher Isherwood talks about the fact that if someone called him early in the morning, they wouldn't know that it was, you know, that it was George. They wouldn't recognize his voice, that it took him a while to prepare to become the George that was expected of him.

And so I interpreted it slightly differently in the film, but very much, I believe, follows the story in the book.

GROSS: In your movie, "A Single Man," George, the main character, is bereft after his longtime companion dies. And at the beginning of the movie, we get the point that he's thinking of ending his life. He has a gun.

Mr. FORD: Yes.

GROSS: And he's thinking of suicide. And there's a scene where he takes his gun, he goes to his bed, fluffs a couple of pillows behind him, puts the gun in his mouth, realizes the pillows aren't arranged quite right, they're not quite comfortable, and he turns around, repositions them; still not quite right, puts the gun in his mouth again; not quite right. And we realize...

Mr. FORD: Well, the real intention of that is...

GROSS: Yes, go ahead.

Mr. FORD: You know, he doesn't want to make a mess.

GROSS: Well, I think he's also, you know, he wants to get comfortable. He wants to be in the right position, and finally, I think he's not quite ready to do the act. But I'd like you to talk about that scene and what it meant to you and how you shot it.

Mr. FORD: Sure. Well, first of all, the idea of suicide is something that I invented because it's not part of the book. You know, the book is a beautiful, beautiful interior monologue, and there really is no plot, to speak of, in the book. It ambles along, and our interest is held because George's thoughts are so interesting. His insight holds us and his humor, an often dark humor. And when I set out to make this into a film, you know, when you decide you want to make a film, you start listening to everything that anyone has to say about filmmaking and reading everything, and there's a maxim about film being a visual medium, and so you need to make, in a sense, a silent movie and layer on dialogue.

So I had to create scenes that - well, I had to create a plot - and I felt that what better way to show the meaning of life and to show someone trying to move forward and live in the present than to think that this is your last day on the planet.

So George decides to kill himself. He decides that he does not want to live any longer. And because of this, of course, he starts to see the world in a very, very different way, and the beauty of the world starts to pull on him.

But the particular scene that you're talking about, George's character - this is somebody who is hyper-organized and, as I was saying, his inner world is directly related to his outer world, and he likes control.

So this is someone who is not going to leave the world until everything is taken care of, you know, his suit is laid out that he wants to be buried in, his bills are paid, everything's organized. And he also is thinking about where am I going to kill myself, how am I going to do it? I love my housekeeper. I don't want to make a mess. Should I do this on the bed? No, it's going to get -the sheets are going to get all covered in blood. The wall's going to be covered in blood. Maybe I should try it in the shower. So I go to the shower. No, that's not going to work because after I shoot myself, I'm going to fall, there's going to be blood all over everything. So, you know, I'll get out - and I don't know how much we want to give away, but he starts rehearsing and practicing, trying to figure out the most practical way to kill himself.

It's meant that he is not going to kill - I mean, and you know, maybe it didn't translate in the film, but he's just simply practicing at that point because he's really planning on going to dinner with his best friend after he's practiced and figured out what he's going to do later on in the evening, really in a sense to say goodbye to her.

GROSS: I want to play a scene with Julianne Moore, who in this scene, the character of George, who's played by Colin Firth, has gone to her house for dinner. And they've been close friends for decades. They both used to live in London and now both live in the L.A. area. And at one time they were lovers, probably a brief time, but he's been gay for many years, and they're still very close friends.

But in this scene, after dinner and some wine and dancing together, she is really expressing her wish that they could be more than friends again. And here's the scene.

(Soundbite of film "A Single Man")

Ms. JULIANNE MOORE (Actor): (As Charley) Don't you ever miss this, what we could have been to each other, having a real relationship and kids?

Mr. FIRTH: (As George) I had Jim.

Ms. MOORE: (As Charley) No, I mean a real relationship. Let's be honest. What you and Jim had together was wonderful, but wasn't it really just a substitute for something else?

Mr. FIRTH: (As George) Is that what you really think after all these years? You think Jim was just some kind of substitute for real love? Jim was not a substitute for anything. Do you understand? And there is no substitute for Jim - anywhere. And by the way, what is so real about your relationship with Richard? He left you after nine years. Jim and I were together for 16 years, and if he hadn't of died, we'd still be together. What the hell is not real about that?

Ms. MOORE: (As Charley) I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I know how much the two of you loved each other. I suppose I'm just jealous that you and I never had that kind of love. Actually, I've never had that kind of love with anybody.

GROSS: That's Julianne Moore and Colin Firth in a scene from my guest Tom Ford's new movie, "A Single Man." I think there are so many people who have really close - so many people who are straight who have really close relationships with a gay friend and sometimes wish, as Julianne Moore did, that the friend wasn't gay and that their relationship could be, you know, more sexual, and...

Mr. FORD: Absolutely, and you know, I think there's nothing more painful for anyone than unrequited love. One of the things that makes this so painful for her character is that they were once lovers. If you've ever had that kind of physical access to someone and then, all of a sudden, that is denied, and yet you're still in love with that person, it's very, very, very painful to be around that person in a certain way.

GROSS: Your movie "A Single Man" is based on Christopher Isherwood's novel of the same name, and Isherwood for many years was, for decades, was lovers with a man named Don Bacardi, who was 30 years younger than Isherwood. And Bacardi is still alive, and a documentary about their relationship was made within, I don't know, the past year or two called "Chris and Don." So did you talk to Don Bacardi about Christopher Isherwood, about Isherwood's life? Did he offer anything that helped you get into the novel or into Isherwood's mind in a way that was helpful to the movie; or did he even, like, give you objects of Isherwood's that you could use on the set to bring some of Isherwood to the movie in a very physical way?

Mr. FORD: Oh, absolutely. Don was an incredible help in so many ways. Actually, when you mention bringing objects, Don has a small cameo in the film, and he's wearing Chris' red socks. Chris always wore red socks, and so he wore a pair of Chris' socks as good luck for his cameo appearance in the film.

But Don was incredibly helpful. I asked him about the book, about that moment in their life. And as I understand it, and I'd have to - you know, Don could give us the details - but the book was written at a time when Christopher felt that Don might leave him. And they split up temporarily, and Christopher was devastated and imagined his life without Don and imagined his life as a single man.

You know, and Don was there for me to talk to, you know, at many different points throughout the process. In fact, he was his most helpful, I think, when I was really struggling, trying to stay quite literal and true to the novel because I loved it so much.

And I was having dinner with Don in Santa Monica. And I don't know that he really knew how much I was struggling. I was beginning to wonder if I was ever going to be able to turn this novel into a film. And he said to me out of the blue: Make it your own. And, you know, make it your own. The novel is the novel. Make this film your own.

And it gave me the license, I suppose, to really look at the novel and adapt it in a way that was different than the novel but I hope was very true to the intention.

So Don was there in so many, so many ways, and I think it's - well, I know he loves the film and is very, very happy.

(Break)

GROSS: In an interview recently with The Advocate, you said that you always struggled with depression. And I was wondering, I mean, that's certainly an issue in your movie, but I was wondering if that's something that you felt previously that you should hide in the fashion industry because fashion is so much about giving the right image and also about projecting confidence.

Mr. FORD: Yes, you certainly don't dwell on depression in the fashion industry, but I think in our culture, you don't necessarily dwell on it. And when I say that I've struggled with depression, it's not something that - you know, well, maybe at certain periods of my life it has inhibited me from doing something; but generally, it's something that, you know, I've gone on about my life. And it's not something that's been there all the time. It comes and goes, as I think it does for most people.

I think that we all question why we're here. What is the point of all this? You know, what happens at the end of it all? And I think that, you know, depression comes to a lot of people.

GROSS: Let's talk about the look that you wanted for your film. It's set in 1962. Talk about how you wanted to dress Colin Firth's character and Julianne Moore's.

Mr. FORD: Well, I wanted to dress Colin Firth's character in a way that would be appropriate to who he was as a personality. So I thought, okay, this is a guy who is not dependent on his salary as a teacher. This is a guy who comes from a fairly wealthy background. In England, he went to, you know, private schools - or public schools they're called in England - and he's teaching at a public college because he feels this is the right thing to do.

So this guy probably has his clothes made, you know, when he's home in London, and he probably gets them from Saville Row, from the same tailor that his father went to. He is a professor, so what's he wearing? He's going to be wearing brown tweed. He's not going to be wearing gray. He's not going to be wearing, you know, navy blue wool serge. He's a professor.

So I also tried to calculate when would he have had these suits made? You know, the English are quite - even still to this day - I think thrifty with their clothing, at least the old-school English. And so I thought okay, when did he have this suit made? I calculated he probably had it made, maybe, let's say, 1957, blah, blah, blah. In fact, I ever sewed a label inside Colin's suit, as one would get at a Saville Row tailor with his name and the date that the suit was made.

And so I really gave a lot of thought to who this guy is. This is a guy who, as I said, really holds himself together by his outer appearance. It holds -inside he's this deeply romantic, and at this particular moment, you know, terribly, terribly sorrowful, man - but on the surface, you wouldn't know that.

Julianne Moore's character is a woman who has lived her life as a beautiful woman in our culture. And you know, we objectify women, and of course I, as a fashion designer, could - you could say that I've been a part of that, but our entire culture treats beautiful women a certain way.

A beautiful woman in our culture, and I would like to say, you know, this was different in 1962, but it still exists today - I know a lot of these women -treats different in a different way; meaning that if you're a beautiful woman, you're incredibly powerful within our culture. The world operates differently for you. Then, at a moment in time, and it has nothing to do with you, it's like the carpet is just ripped out from under you, and the way that you've operated in the world no longer works.

So Julianne's character is struggling.

GROSS: Because you're older.

Mr. FORD: Well, yes, and it's terrible. And you know, a woman who has lived her life that way can often find herself in a moment where she cannot see her future. Now, she will have a future, but she's got to alter the way she moves through the world.

So Julianne's character is at that moment in time, and she's still clinging to what she knows, to what's gotten her to where she is. She's thinking if she has the most beautiful house and the latest car and the most perfect eye makeup, and she's up on top of everything, and she's playing Serge Gainsbourg way before anyone else is because she spends the summers in the south of France and so she's listening to this music, she's brought it back.

Her clothes, for example her dress, and we're in 1962, is really more 1963 or four. It's very graphic. It's really pop art before pop art - or when pop art was just starting to happen. And I rationalized this by thinking, all right, she lives in Los Angeles. Who is she going to know in L.A. at that period of time? Rudi Gernreich was living in Los Angeles, and he was about to explode on the scene with these very graphic clothes. And I thought okay, maybe she's his muse, or maybe she's spending a lot of time with him, and she's ahead of the curve.

But everything in her house, everything about her, is in support of her character. It's not simply - it is a layer of veneer, but it is something that's there to support her character. When we see her making up her face, we see her unmade eye on one side of the screen - she's looking in a magnifying mirror, and we have a shot looking at that - and then we see, you know, a fully drawn eye on the other side. And it's her art, and it's her artifice, and it's who she really is on one side, and it's the face she puts on to the outer world on the other side of our screen.

And that's the same with George. They're both putting on layers, veneers, armor to get through their day, as I think many of us do.

GROSS: One of the things that really astonished me in your movie is that early on, the character of George gets a phone call. We don't see the actor who's playing the part. We just hear the voice.

Mr. FORD: Right.

GROSS: And I heard the voice, and I go on no, it's Don Draper. It's Jon Hamm from "Mad Men." So why did you choose to use him for that? I mean, people with think, as I did, oh, well, it's the same era, it's the early '60s. He has such a recognizable voice.

Mr. FORD: You know, he does, but I'm not sure that's who that was. I'm actually not allowed to say who that was because I was sitting next to this person - and we can tell this. I was sitting next to this person at dinner, and I was listening to him and chatting with him, and believe it or not, I was having a really completely foolish moment because I was not even thinking about the connection - and by the way, at that period of time, that show was not nearly as popular as it is now. But I was sitting next to this actor, and we were having a nice chat, and the next day, I was looping this scene, and I had had one of our production department be the voice on the other end of the phone, and I needed to finally put in a real voice, and I thought, you know, who's got a great voice? I know, the man that I was having dinner with last night.

So I emailed him. I picked up the phone, called him, and I said, would you come in and do this? He said sure. He came by the studio, did it, you know, in 15 minutes. He added an enormous amount to the scene. His agent called me about a half an hour later and ripped me apart.

You need to call the agent. Don't you ever do this again. You cannot credit this man, blah, blah, blah. It was really intense. So I don't know who that was on the other end of the phone.

GROSS: Well, you learned a lesson.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: Not really. I still do it all the time. I contacted Julianne directly, I contacted Colin directly. You know, that's one of the advantages of having -and by the way, I had every advantage, and it took me five years to make a film. I have such tremendous respect for anybody who gets a film made because it is an enormous undertaking, even when you have every advantage.

But no, I didn't learn a lesson. I believe in going right directly to, you know, whoever you want to talk to. And I have that ability, which helped me, you know, get this film made.

(Break)

GROSS: Now, one of the things that you're famous for is some of the ads that you've done with very provocative, naked or barely clothed people. So, let me just describe a couple of the more famous ones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. FORD: Go ahead.

GROSS: So, there's the Gucci ad where there is a woman with a, like a kimono that's open, revealing her naked body underneath. She is wearing brief underwear, but it's pulled down revealing a shaved - that her pubic hair is shaved in a G for the Gucci logo.

Mr. FORD: I'm so happy you brought this up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. FORD: May I tell you about it?

GROSS: Yeah - and wait, wait...

Mr. FORD: Go ahead.

GROSS: ...let me finish the picture that...

Mr. FORD: All right. Finish the picture.

GROSS: ...a young, very attractive man is kneeling very provocatively right in front of her with his hand on her right leg.

Mr. FORD: Yes.

GROSS: So, you were saying?

Mr. FORD: I'm really glad you asked me about that because, first of all in fashion as in life, the right thing at the right time is the right thing. The right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing. I wouldn't necessarily do that ad today because we're in a different world and we're in a different time. And it isn't necessarily something that needs to be said culturally at this particular moment in time. However, at that moment in time, that was meant as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek take on where we were with branding in our culture. And, of course, you know, I was at Gucci and branding everything, everything had a G on it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FORD: At Vuitton, everything had an LV on it. And we had come to a point in our culture, you know, globalization had really kicked in with the Internet in the early '90s. And we were at a point where all of a sudden, everyone all over the world was consuming exactly the same thing at the same time. And branding, branding, branding, everything became a brand. And you know, there was nothing left to brand. So, the idea is that this young man is branding his girlfriend. And she is wearing a brand.

"Sex And The City" picked up on this and there was actually an episode where Samantha is dating a guy and he shaves her pubic hair into a kind of lighting bolt, I believe, and branded her. And she then later goes to the gym and she is in the steam room and she sees all these other women with the same brand and she realizes they've slept with...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: ...the same guy. So, it was really - you know, the first thing about advertising is it needs to be arresting. It needs to make you stop and look. And sometimes challenge you and make you think.

GROSS: Okay. Another famous ad of yours, this is for Opium Perfume - Yves Saint Laurent Opium perfume. And Sophie Dahl is naked on her back with - she is like, lying on a drape of some - like a velvet drape or satin drape of some sort.

Mr. FORD: Yeah, satin actually.

GROSS: Satin, okay.

And her head is kind of thrown back in ecstasy, as she touches her breast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: You're funny. The touching the breast, I don't even remember, but I do remember why I did that ad and how we thought of it. And she probably is touching her breast because you probably have the picture right in front of you.

GROSS: I have it right here.

Mr. FORD: You have it right there. You know, for me...

GROSS: Oh, I didn't mention the high heels that she is wearing. Go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: Wow, yeah, they're beautiful high heels, too, and she looked great. She is a very beautiful girl. Yes, at that moment in time, I was working for Yves Saint Laurent and designing the collection there and we were re-launching a fragrance. Yves was the very first fashion designer to send transparent clothes down the runway in the '60s. And he was - you know, sex and sensuality were a very big part of what Yves Saint Laurent did. So, this seemed a natural extension.

And by the way, I find that picture classically beautiful. I don't find it upsetting, obscene. But, you know, that's - I find the human body really beautiful. I do not find sex or depictions of sex, if they're not done in a violent way, at all upsetting. I couldn't sometimes understand, you know, the big deal. That particular image you have of Sophie Dahl was banned in certain countries. And for me, you know, her skin is alabaster. It's absolutely beautiful. It is not a sexual picture, it is an elegant, you know, beautiful picture for me of a very, very beautiful woman.

GROSS: You know what gets to me sometimes about, like, the naked, sexual fashion ads is that sometimes the people in it look so vain and self-absorbed, it's kind of like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...I'm so in love, I'm so passionate about myself.

Mr. FORD: It's true, it's true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know...

Mr. FORD: And that's tired and I think we're finished with that, I hope.

GROSS: Uh-huh, uh-huh. All right. And there is this one more ad. This one, I think, never ran in the United States because it has a man full frontal, complete...

Mr. FORD: Yeah, I'm glad you're asking about that, too.

GROSS: Complete full frontal. Yves Saint Laurent fragrance M7.

Mr. FORD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So, this is - it's unimaginable that this would run in a mainstream magazine in the United States right now. So...

Mr. FORD: It is.

GROSS: Yeah. Where did you get this published and why did you do it?

Mr. FORD: Well, why did I do it? Again, you know, I'm an equal opportunity objectifier.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: No, really. I mean, you know - you know, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. By the way, I've posed nude, you know, quite a few times. So, we do objectify women in our culture. We're starting to objectify men a little bit more. And there is nothing wrong with that. Objectify maybe is the wrong word. Celebrate their bodies and use beautiful men, beautiful women as a tool to get your attention and to sell things. But no-one - we're very, very uncomfortable in our culture with looking at a naked man. You know, naked women are everywhere, selling everything.

And again, this is quite sexist. But naked men make us nervous. And Yves Saint Laurent posed nude for his first men's fragrance. And it was groundbreaking at the time. So, I thought, all right, we're launching a new Yves Saint Laurent men's fragrance. What perfect way than to continue the tradition and vocabulary of the house of Yves Saint Laurent by, you know, publishing the first full frontal male nude. And by the way, this is not a sexual picture. He is a very beautiful man, shot in a very simple, classic way and it's really about his beauty. Perfume by the way, too, is about smell and skin. And so, nudity and perfume, I think, makes perfect sense, you know.

GROSS: Hold on. I just want to say that it is very sexually provocative, whether he is...

Mr. FORD: Do you think?

GROSS: Oh, it's so obvious that it's meant to be...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Let's be honest.

Mr. FORD: But why? Why is it more provocative than a sculpture in marble of a nude man? There's nothing sexual about what he is doing. He just happens to -are you sure you're not just thinking that because you're not used to looking at a full-frontal male nude in...

GROSS: No. It's - it's shot and lit in a very romantic way and...

Mr. FORD: Romantic, yes. But romantic, is that provocative?

GROSS: Well, romantic and naked usually - I'm not saying - provocative is a -I'm just saying it seems to be very sexual, like...

Mr. FORD: (Laughing) See, I don't see that. I see that as a...

GROSS: ...knowingly sexual, yeah.

Mr. FORD: I mean, I certainly...

GROSS: Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm not saying that...

Mr. FORD: ...like to look at the picture.

GROSS: ...as an objection.

Mr. FORD: I enjoy looking at it. He is a beautiful man.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FORD: But I enjoy looking at Sophie Dahl. She is a beautiful woman. And by the way, she is also not model-thin or what we normally think of as model-thin.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FORD: You know, she is much more full-figured than most models are.

(Break)

GROSS: How did you realize you were interested in fashion, in working in the fashion world?

Mr. FORD: Well, I think it took me a while to feel comfortable admitting to myself that I cared about fashion. You know, I think as a...

GROSS: Why - why was it hard?

Mr. FORD: Well, as a tiny kid, when I look back at pictures of myself, I was so into fashion. I mean, I can remember being seven or eight years old and looking at a brand new pair of shoes that I had just - my mother just brought for me, they were on my feet. And I can actually remember thinking that the toe shape was off by just a little...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: ...kind of like a millimeter in today's - you know, now that I think in millimeters, at the time, whatever. It's just off a little bit and it really disturbed me. So - and I have nieces and nephews who are, some not at all into fashion and some, they just come out and my niece's first word was shoe. And, you know, so, I think you're born this way. You're either born in a very visual way and that's what's important to you or if you're born, if you're a musician, an aural way and that's what's important to you. Or - you know, so I think a lot of this has to do it with our personalities. And I fought it for a while maybe, or maybe I didn't fight it, maybe I just wasn't thinking about it.

I studied architecture at Parson's and I finally realized that while I loved architecture and it was very useful to me as a tool to learn how to think, that it was little too serious for me at that moment in time. And that fashion - I was better suited for fashion. I also liked the speed of fashion. You know, fashion and film-making, to me, were two very, very different things in terms of satisfying a certain kind of creative need. And I hope to be able to make films and produce fashion for the rest of my life. But they're very, very different. Fashion is very quick. It's very disposable. It's immediately - it tells you exactly where we are in our culture, especially women's fashion.

If we're having a glitzy over-the-top moment, fashion is very glitzy and over-the-top, you know, over-the-top. If we're having a moment where things are, you know, we're in a recession, fashion becomes quiet. So, in terms of popular culture, fashion and especially women's fashion is incredibly interesting, aside from satisfying just a particular need to create and arrange things in a way that one sees as beautiful. And so, in a certain way, it's fulfilling. In another way, it's very fleeting because it doesn't last very long. You know, a beautiful moment in fashion goes away very quickly.

GROSS: Of all the things that you've designed, do you have any favorites that you really hope will endure because you think they were wonderful?

Mr. FORD: I do. I have to say, I think my last few collections for Gucci and for Yves Saint Laurent in 2003-2004, in terms of complexity and construction, were some of the most interesting things I ever designed because I had learned at that point how to make more complex clothes, both cerebrally as well as technically. And I had worked with a great atelier in Italy for Gucci and in Paris for Saint Laurent. So, I had learned a lot. However, the collections that I feel influenced popular culture the most were early on in 1995, 1996.

And I think that those were the collections that I'll be remembered for because at that particular moment in time, fashion was in one place. It was very subdued, very sedated and in a sense, I brought back sensuality and sexuality to clothes. And the things I did at that time were simpler in construction, but maybe more powerful in content.

GROSS: Just describe some of the clothes in that collection.

Mr. FORD: Oh, the first collection I did that really, you know, brought me a lot of attention and brought Gucci a lot of attention and a lot of business were hiphuggers in velvet, satin shirts, simple coats, but what was new about them at that time was that they were very, very sensual. They were very colorful, as well. There was an enormous amount of color. And they were a throwback to a period in the 1970s when fashion was more touchable. Today, you know, fashion is not - our beauty standard today is harder. It's beautiful but it's off-putting. It's like, don't touch me, I'm hard.

It's so interesting how female form, less male form, mirrors where we are culturally, aesthetically, as well as - for example, right now everything is pumped up. Cars look like someone took an air pump and pumped them up. They look engorged. Lips pumped up, breasts pumped up, everything is pumped up. And it's also kind of off-putting. It's sexual but in such a hard way that it's, for me, not sexual at all. Whereas the 1970s, breasts were smaller. People were not wearing bras. Farrah Fawcett's sexuality and sensuality was a very touchable sexuality. She was kissable. She was friendly.

And that was what I brought back in the '90s with some of my early collections for Gucci that we hadn't seen in a while. And I think that right now we're in a very hard moment and off-putting. I mean, look at shoes today - women's shoes. They couldn't possibly get any higher and meaner and sharper. But then again, you go and watch most films today, they're violent and we're living in a world that is, at the moment, quite hard.

GROSS: I love when you say breasts were smaller in the '70s. I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: They were.

GROSS: But...

Mr. FORD: I don't understand all these breasts right now, and they don't look like breasts. They look like someone's taken a grapefruit half and inserted it under your skin. I mean it's - it doesn't even bear any resemblance to what a natural breast looks like. But we're starting to think that this is what women should like. And young girls are looking at these breasts and thinking, oh, I need to go have my breasts done because they've lost touch with what a real breast actually looks like. I find it fascinating, I find it disturbing. I mean, you could consider it more fascinating because we're becoming post-human.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: We are actually - we are! We are actually starting to manipulate our bodies, because we can, into a shape. We are becoming our own art. But what happens for me is that it desexualizes everything. You know, you start to look more and more polished, more and more lacquered and you look like a beautiful car. Does anyone want to sleep with you? Does anyone want to touch you? Does anyone want to kiss you? Maybe not, because you're too scary.

But you're beautiful, you're glossy, you're shiny, but you're not human. Very interesting. And I say that in a very detached way, I'm not making a judgment about it. I'm just saying it's fascinating culturally.

GROSS: So, are you trying to do something about that now?

Mr. FORD: I don't know. At the moment I'm not designing women's clothes. So, I don't have an outlet to express my thoughts for women, I'm mostly observing. On that same subject - and you probably want to take this out, I don't know - but if you look at the 1950s, quite fascinating, tailfins, sharp, going to Mars, going to the moon, breasts pointed in a way that, when we look at them today, so bizarre. Women's lips, the beauty standard then was thin, pointy, long lines of lip, eyes the same thing.

So, culturally, graphically where we were in the 1950s was reflected in the female form. Where we are in 2009 is reflected in the female form. It's very interesting, again cerebrally, how women's fashion and how we objectify women is very reflective of where we are culturally and in our society.

GROSS: Now, what do you typically wear? You're in a studio in New York. I'm in a studio in Philadelphia. I've no idea what you're wearing now.

Mr. FORD: I'm in a black suit, a white shirt, a white pocket square, black shoes, boots actually I usually wear. I think that's probably the Texan in me. And I had on a tie earlier but I took it off. So, I usually wear kind of a uniform: dark suit, white shirt, French cuffs, cufflinks, simple watch. I'm pretty - I don't wear a lot of color. In fact, I don't actually like color on myself. I love color but it's very challenging, it's very powerful, it can overpower you. I think if my eyes were closed and someone put a red jacket on me, I would be able to feel that it was red. I don't feel great in color.

GROSS: When you're depressed...

Mr. FORD: Mn-hmm.

GROSS: ...do you wear what you always wear or do you feel like sometimes you're not just - you're not feeling fabulous enough to wear wonderful clothes? You just have to wear...

Mr. FORD: No.

GROSS: ...something schlumpy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: No. It's the opposite for me, which is one reason in the opening scene of our film - well, I mean, it's in the book, as I said. But George puts on a coat of armor. No, if I'm having a bad day I put on the very best thing I have. I polish my shoes, I shine everything up, because that helps me get though the day. It helps me, you know, it's in a sense armor. It says, okay, I'm a mess inside but you know what, on the outside I'm going to be pulled together, everything is okay.

GROSS: Just one more thing, I wonder what you'd say to people, men and women, but I think particularly women, who shop in, you know, in just regular stores, you know, and buy stuff off the rack and find like nothing fits, nothing is flattering, nothing is made for their body, that things are made for these perfect sizes that they're not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And - 'cause sometimes like you shop for clothes and you just have to grit your teeth because there's nothing for you.

Mr. FORD: Well, and this may sound very spoiled, but I think that something that people in general forget to do - and it's true, not everyone has the financial means to do this - whatever clothes you buy if you really want them to fit well, you need to have them altered or tailored. And whether you're doing that yourself, whether you're taking it to your drycleaner that has a tailor, you need to alter and tailor everything, whether it's expensive, whether it's, you know, whether it's inexpensive. If you want it to really fit your body, even the best clothes have to be tailored.

GROSS: I think that's good advice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: It's true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: You know, you watch television and you see these actors and they've got a t-shirt on and, wow, it's like, that looks amazing. Well, it's been tailored. You know, somebody took it in a little bit here, pulled it in over the arms so that their biceps showed. It's a t-shirt but, you know, get a sewing machine and run a few simple stitches, even I can alter my own t-shirt, not that I do, but I could.

GROSS: Well, Tom Ford, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FORD: Thank you.

GROSS: Tom Ford is a fashion designer and the director and co-writer of the new film "A Single Man," adapted from the 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel, starring Colin Firth.

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