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Fri 20 Nov 2009 04:00 AM

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Fashion fortune

CEO Middle East speaks to Tom Ford, who turned Gucci into one of the most coveted brands in the world.

Fashion fortune
Fashion fortune
Tom Ford’s film has received rave reviews.
Fashion fortune
One of Tom Ford’s many stockists in the Middle East region is Kuwait-based Villa Moda, the designer department store that was founded by Sheikh Majed Al Sabah in 1992.
Fashion fortune

Tom Ford turned Gucci into one of the most coveted brands in the world. Now running his own label he talks to Claire Ferris-Lay about working back to front and turning his hand to directing.

The door to Tom Ford's suite is flanked by two very glamorous public relations women. With perfectly blown hair and impossibly high Christian Louboutins, they are the most groomed bodyguards CEO Middle East has ever laid eyes on.

Their appearance is hardly surprising. Both work for one of the biggest names in fashion, Tom Ford, the former Gucci designer who managed to turn one of fashion's biggest loss making empires into one of the most coveted labels in the world. Tellingly both women, like many of the designer's staff, have worked for Ford for years, upping sticks at Gucci and moving with him when he launched his namesake label two years ago.

It's easy to see why. Ford, who is today dressed in his signature black suit and white shirt - four buttons undone - perfectly accessorised with a can of Diet Coke, which remains in his hands throughout the interview, seems like a decent guy, not at all like the fashion starlet one would expect.

Inside his suite, which is not filled with media relations staff monitoring his every word but instead neatly stacked rows of Tom Ford aftershave, he wants to know the ins and outs of Dubai. He's in no rush to begin our interview, instead getting comfortable on the couch. When we do begin and I mention we need to talk facts and figures rather than seams and stitching, he crosses his legs and laughs. "God, I hope I have the answers."

Of course he has the answers. He was a virtual unknown in the fashion industry when he was first hired by Gucci's creative director, Dawn Mello, back in 1990. Following a series of promotions, he took over as the brand's creative director in 1994. In between 1995-1996, sales at Gucci increased by 90 percent, by 1999 the firm, which was almost bankrupt when he first joined, was valued at around $4.3bn and when he left, the luxury conglomerate was valued at well over $8bn. His own fashion label, which he launched with Gucci's former CEO, Domenico De Sole, is already on its way to becoming a $1bn company.

Some may say he is just a good designer. Others might say he is a shrewd businessman. Ford's first decision when he launched his own label was a rather unconventional one. Having already made his name at Gucci the Texas-born designer was able to sign lucrative deals with Marcolin SPA and Estée Lauder for his own range of sunglasses and cosmetics rather than concentrating on fashion, which is what many designers are forced to do until they've made their name.

Ford says the decision to work backwards was the right one.

"From a business standpoint it was absolutely the right decision," he explains. "It was also [successful] in areas where my name was not as strong because it's been strong always in urban areas. Fragrance and eyewear can penetrate a market that $5,000 suits can't penetrate so brand recognition went up, we had an instant revenue stream and I was also able to let the company grow organically."

As a privately owned company, Ford is reluctant to discuss figures for the brand - "we're not discussing that," he mock gasps - but just to offer an insight into how big his brand has become; his one perfume counter at the department store, Selfridges, in London made £1.5m ($2.5m) alone during 2008.

De Sole and Ford have also estimated that Tom Ford will be worth $1bn in the next five years.

Today the Tom Ford range includes a full range of luxury men's clothing from luggage - which he tells me is handcrafted by Gucci's former Italian leather factories - to shoes and suits. On his decision to aim at the very top end of the men's market (suits are priced from $5,000) he says simply: "It's because it's what I like, it's what I understand and it is the customer I most relate to." Daniel Craig is just one of the celebrities who relate to Ford's designs. The costume department for the James Bond star had more than 350 of the designer suits made for the filming of the Quantum of Solace last year.

Despite the hefty price tag that comes with the purchase of a Tom Ford designed suit, Ford, who has 18 standalone stores and is stocked in more than 65 shops across the world, says his brand has managed to withstand the economic downturn better than its other more fashion conscious competitors. "We are doing very well. Of course we have suffered and I don't mean overall as a company because we've continued to open stores and increase our business overall but in terms of stores, our stores in key locations are off not nearly as much as other brands."I think that's for several reasons. One, people perceive the quality in what we do; I think the brands that were hurting the most were the brands that people perceived as disposable, they were fashion, they were trendy but there wasn't necessarily inherent quality in the product.

"Two, our customers are somewhat insulated. They might not be buying a new Warhol, they might not be buying a new apartment...[but] they are buying suits, they are still dressing so we are a little bit insulated."

Former loyal female fans are also rejoicing at the recent news that Ford is currently on the hunt for financing for a women's wear line, the first under his own name. According to recent reports the designer and De Sole are seeking $50m to fund a collection, which Ford says will complete the brand's collection. "Other than women's wear I think we are nearly there," he says. "We are thinking about women's wear and when the time is right, I will do it," he adds, smiling.

Until that time comes, Ford says he will continue to expand the brand, the Middle East as an important focus as any other emerging market. The designer, who is only in Dubai for six hours to officially launch his first Middle East store, a 3,000 sq ft space at the heart of Dubai Mall, also has stores planned for Beirut, Qatar and Kuwait, and eventually Saudi Arabia.

"I think people here really appreciate quality, understand quality and want the very best things; there are quite a few people who can afford it here so it is a very important market for us," he explains, before going off on a tangent discussing the merits of the region, Abu Dhabi's drive towards renewable energy and how America's attitude towards the region is changing.

"At some point in the future we will be opening more but at this moment in time, it's Kuwait, Qatar and Dubai. Riyadh has been mentioned but its less concrete," he adds.

Surprisingly, given Ford's tight grip on the brand's identity, he doesn't mind having franchises with people in this region but credits this on the firm's core centralised office. "It's wonderful if you have a great partner and all of our partners are great," he gushes. "We are very, organised centrally. We had franchise partners at Gucci and YSL so it's something we are very good at; everything is done centrally so our franchise partners have the same floral arrangements that we have."

One of Ford's many stockists in the region is Kuwait-based Villa Moda, the designer department store that was founded by Sheikh Majed Al Sabah in 1992.  Ford, who has launched a fragrance specifically for the Dubai store, designs dishdashas for the Villa Moda stores in Kuwait and Qatar. Although he says as a design process the dishdashas were somewhat limited, he notes that it has raised the profile of the brand in the region. "I think that most men here wear traditional and western clothing and so it's one more aspect of what a man who lives here needs."

But Ford, who initially studied architecture at New York's Parsons School of Design before switching to fashion, isn't just a designer and CEO. Most recently he has turned his hand to the world of film directing. His film, an adaptation of a Christopher Isherwood novel called A Single Man, has received rave reviews. There are also whispers circulating of nominations for BAFTAs and Oscars.

Ford co-wrote, co-produced and directed the film, which stars Colin Firth and his good friend, Julianne Moore. "Film is forever," he says. "You can watch a film from the 1930s, you put it on... and very fast you are sucked into the emotion, you are listening to what she's saying, you are laughing when she speaks, you are crying when she's sad... you are living in absolute real time."

He becomes very animated when he talks about A Single Man, his love of film more than apparent. He says he didn't expect the response it has generated.  "I didn't expect, or not expect, I just knew I had to make it." He adds that he plans to make a movie every "two, three, four years".

"I believe any time you put an enormous amount of passion and love into something you can feel that in the end product. As I got deeper and deeper into it I had so much passion for it, I said ‘this is going to the ultimate test as to whether or not my theory works because either this is going to be great or it's going to be a disaster.'"

A Tom Ford disaster? I think not.

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