One thing I didn’t understand until I started researching this piece is what an instrumental role you played in essentially creating the modern fashion system, which is dominated by [French luxury conglomerates] LVMH and Kering. So in 1999, Bernard Arnault and LVMH attempted a hostile takeover of Gucci when you and [Gucci Group CEO] Domenico De Sole were at the height of your powers.
It played out in the papers every fucking day back when it was happening. It was in the Financial Times, in the Wall Street Journal. It was everywhere.
The LVMH takeover was ultimately thwarted through an alliance you and Domenico formed with François Pinault, who had not previously been in the luxury business. He became majority shareholder in Gucci. And that’s when the Gucci Group really transformed into this multi-brand luxury group. Which is now called Kering.
We created Kering. There was a name change, but we created Kering.
Why build a group?
We had $3 billion to invest, courtesy of our deal with François, and we needed to grow. So the first acquisition was Saint Laurent, and it was a billion dollars. And it was done only if I would design it. Because at that time, everything I touched, worked. Not always the case, but it was definitely the case then. We had to deploy this cash, but my criteria in figuring out who to invest in was: I’m the only creative person here. In case something happens, you can’t have a company that big with one creative. Who do I admire? Whoever those people are that I admire and I’m jealous of, we need to get. And so I went after Lee McQueen.
Can you say more about what you responded to about Alexander McQueen as a designer?
I was a commercial fashion designer. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t an artistic element to what I did. But I was a commercial fashion designer. Lee was an artist who happened to use the medium of clothing and fashion shows to express himself. At that moment in time, [current Louis Vuitton artistic director of womenswear] Nicolas Ghesquière was hot. Absolutely hot. And he did something totally different than what I did. I wanted him to start his own collection. He didn’t want to do that. So we bought Balenciaga and he was at Balenciaga. Stella [McCartney] addressed a totally different customer that we did not have. She was onto all of this environmental stuff, way ahead of everybody else. And so that made sense. With Bottega [Veneta], I went after Tomas Maier. He and Richard were best friends back in the 80s, and he had the best taste. In assembling it, you needed brands that didn’t compete so that you could have a very well-rounded portfolio. And people that I admired. So that’s what we did.
Given all your complex history with the Arnaults and the Pinaults, how are you on good terms with them still?
I mean, why not? It’s business. I have tremendous respect for Bernard Arnault. I mean, my God, how do you build what he has built? And his kids, they work, so that has to come from the parents. And the same with François Pinault and François-Henri Pinault. François-Henri and Salma [Hayek] and I are very friendly when we see each other. You know, I like him.
But how? Because you obviously cared so much about Gucci—and it was very hard on you personally when you left.
Business. It’s business.
Does business success get you off the way creative success does?
Oh, I am half businessman. Half designer. I always was. I have a gift. My greatest gift is, you can lay five pairs of shoes down in front of me, and the one that I pick will be the commercial one. I have commercial taste. Maybe, hopefully, at a high level. But if you’re not making money, you can’t do what you want. There’s an intuition that comes with the kind of business brain I have. I have a certain feeling about it, and I know that it’s the right business decision, even though it makes no sense to someone who’s just looking at the spreadsheets. You know what’s coming next. You feel it.
So as you step away from luxury fashion, where do you think it’s all headed?
I have no idea. And that’s one reason I’m stepping away.
I don’t really believe you. You don’t have that same intuitive feeling?
It’s gotten so far away from why I got into the business, which was to make a beautiful garment that made a person stunning and incredible-looking when they walked into a room. That was why I became a fashion designer. So this new—what it has become is something that maybe I understand, but I don’t necessarily like.
You sent me a text the other day about your successor at Tom Ford, Peter Hawkings, who worked for you for years. You mentioned how displeased you are by some of the things he’s been saying as he gets started.
I have, since, calmed down a little bit. But I read in a GQ blog or something where Peter said he was given a blank page to start Tom Ford menswear.
It really upset me because starting Tom Ford menswear [in 2007] was one of the things I’m probably the most proud of in my entire career. I was used to being at Gucci and when I wanted something, I just had it made. And all of a sudden I couldn’t—I didn’t have any clothes. So I brought in all the clothes from my wardrobe. I had everything made in my size. Luckily, I’m a 48 regular, which is the fitting size. So I fit all the suits on myself. Peter wasn’t able to start for a while. He was still John Ray’s assistant at Gucci. So those first few years, that collection was built on me. It was enormously personal. I literally sent my sofas out to be copied for the stores. I loaned art from my house to the stores. It was one of the things I’m the most proud about because it was the foundation of the company. So I got in touch with him [recently]. I said, Pete, I don’t want to say these things publicly and contradict you, but it wasn’t exactly a blank page. I was very worked up about it. I’m a lot less worked up about it now. You know, when you sell your company you’re prepared for anything. And I really am prepared for anything. Whatever direction they go, Peter’s blank page starts now. But, you know, that’s my fashion legacy. The Tom Ford company, the Tom at Gucci, the Tom at Saint Laurent—that’s mine. It’s tied up in two neat volumes with a bow.
How did you feel after talking directly to Peter?
We didn’t talk. We exchanged emails because what I had to say, I wanted to say carefully, and I wanted to take away the emotion. And then I sat on the email for a day, which I think is always the best. I wasn’t upset about anything he sent down the runway. I thought it was beautiful. I thought it was very well-made. He was certainly in the spirit of the brand. I think women’s fashion is very hard. I think now he’s going to need to do something somewhat revolutionary in the way that Alessandro Michele did with Gucci. Anyway, it’s easy to sound petty—I’m self-conscious in a way even admitting that I feel this way. Because I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a great career.
Between Peter Hawking’s debut at Tom Ford and Sabato De Sarno’s debut at Gucci, all anyone seemed to be talking about at Fashion Week in Milan was the influence of Tom Ford at Gucci.
Well, it’s very nice, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought. Fashion is cyclical. That was, God, 20 years ago. I’m glad that what I did has come back again.
Of all the famous men that you dressed over the years, who embodied the Tom Ford man the most?
Oh, God. Who embodied the Tom Ford man? I mean, me. I built it for myself. Brad [Pitt] was the very first one [to wear the brand]. And at the beginning I had an exclusive thing with Brad. I would only dress Brad. Brad only wore me, or he wore me to his big events. At Gucci we were sending clothes to everybody, and it lost its cachet. So when I launched Tom Ford, I went to Brad and that was who I dressed.
Did you pay him?
No. I’ve never paid a single celebrity to wear my clothes or come to a show, ever. Ever, ever, ever. And now everyone does.