In Appreciation of Tom Ford

Tom Ford has brought a lot of mainstream attention to tailored clothing thanks to outfitting the current James Bond, Daniel Craig, as well as being name dropped by musicians such as Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake, both of whom his brand have clothed as well. He also brought back classic details and high quality features that designer menswear hadn't seen in a long time. So why is he so controversial on the basis of men's tailored clothing alone? Whatever one thinks of his advertising aesthetic, off the cuff remarks, or fashionable five o'clock shadow, he has a lot to teach other designers in the industry who dabble in menswear.

Tom Ford in his personal uniform: Dark two button peak lapel suit and white pinned collar shirt. The jacket could use some letting out at the waist, but overall this is a tasteful outfit for a night out.

Gwyneth Paltrow in Ford-designed Gucci suit, 1996.
Ford, now 55, commands one of the biggest names in fashion. Prior to starting his own brand in 2006, he cut his teeth at Perry Ellis and later Gucci, becoming its chief women's wear designer and Creative Director a mere four years after. Ford pulled them out of bankruptcy and back into profitability by shifting the brand image from grunge-inspired to a sort of refined sexiness. Gucci later acquired Yves Saint Laurent, which he also became Creative Director of simultaneously. This was all without receiving a traditional fashion education. Despite that, his menswear designs remain tasteful and will not date quickly. Perhaps because he took more inspiration from British and Italian tailoring rather than what others were starting to do at the time -- shrink the American men's suit in imitation of another rapidly rising designer during the 2000s.

Two very different paths to reinvigorating menswear.
It's important to note that Thom Browne is not the same person as Tom Ford, even though they are sometimes conflated with each other. To be fair, Browne deserves some credit for the menswear industry's currently profitable state. A few years before Ford debuted his own brand, Browne was a big factor in tailored menswear becoming relevant again -- in idea if not execution. His signature shrunken look hasn't stood the test of time very well despite his initial accolades and awards. Aside from both designers taking inspiration from the past and creating tailored clothing with bespoke-level construction and detail, they could hardly be more different. They have a very different vision of what looks good on masculine bodies. Thom Browne takes inspiration from the '60s with details like narrow lapels and dartless three-roll-two button jackets, making them edgier by exposing the wrists and ankles with a short and tight fit. The benefits of this approach are debatable at best, since in my opinion it doesn't really flatter a masculine or feminine body. Ford, on the other hand, acknowledges that things will never truly be timeless but tries to make his clothing wearable for many years regardless. He has been candid about what he thinks of too-short suit jackets, maybe not to disparage Browne in particular but the look he popularized. Browne certainly saw success with celebrities (unlike Ford, however, he refuses to give product in exchange for publicity) and even made all the clothing worn by Ewan McGregor in the movie Stay. Ford seems to have made a definite impact on the red carpet, in particular bringing back classic black tie. Though the evening wear occasionally has lounge suit details like notch lapels, two button fronts, and high fastening waistcoats at the request of customers, overall it adheres to what is considered proper by menswear authorities. The suits are just as impeccable, featuring more traditional details like wide peak lapels and trousers with strap and buckle side adjusters instead of belt loops (they come with some ready to be sewn on if the customer prefers it, though). These little touches are likely influenced by his time in London. It would not surprise anyone if he had suits made on Savile Row (namely Chittleborough & Morgan or Edward Sexton, which Ford's suits carry a strong resemblance to) and later emulated this style through his titular brand.

Brad Pitt appears to be one of the earliest customers. At the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, he was spotted donning not only a medium grey Regency Base suit (three buttons with medium notch lapels rolled to the middle button, ticket pocket, double vents), but the brand's signature Windsor Base dinner jacket (one button, wide bellied peak lapels, double vents) with a rather stylish double breasted ten button waistcoat. The Windsor also comes in the form of a two button suit which Tom Ford himself wears almost exclusively, though he often has his made with a centre vent instead. Though the Regency is discontinued in their ready to wear line, a quick call to their flagship store assured me they could still make it to measure, for an upcharge of course and extra time getting the pattern right. (My friend Matt believes it's because they don't have a try-on garment available.)

A classically proportioned Regency Base suit. Pitt doesn't quite do it justice by going tie-less.

Look at the Tom Ford aesthetic and you'll see influences from the 1940s immediately, noted in product description for said Windsor Base suits. However, he's stated that there is definitely a 1970s influence in his designs.
I love the 70s. That was my coming of age and of first seeing things that were so beautiful. I was 17 in 78 and 18 in 79, so that’s the period where I first thought things like, ‘Oh my God, she’s so beautiful,’ ‘His body is so amazing,’ ‘This house is so incredible.’ (Source)
Both periods' tailored clothing had wide lapels, nipped waist jackets, and overall bold cuts. But where the '40s had wide legged trousers with deep pleats, the '70s had bell bottoms or a boot cut with a flat front. For the most part, Ford's trousers have done away with any flare whatsoever to appeal to modern sensibilities, opting instead for a trim straight leg. His brand has occasionally offered boot cut flat front or wide leg pleated trousers, but they don't appear to have caught on much. Regardless of what period influenced Ford, the silhouette will stand the test of time for a while. Even the slimmer, narrower lapel suits that have been offered more recently such as the O'Connor Base, originally made for the film Skyfall, or Buckley Base, named after his husband Richard (who is indeed quite thin), have a much more balanced appearance than many of the "slim fits" seen from other designers.

Tom Ford with husband Richard Buckley.
Besides the cut reminiscent of classic tailoring, the construction and details are top notch. No other off the rack brand offers as much inner structure and shape in the chest as Ford does on his coats. The only time one usually sees such a thing is on Savile Row bespoke such as Huntsman and Kilgour -- both known for their stiffer, nipped waist, military-like appearance which naturally uses a fully canvassed construction. One simply cannot achieve this look in what most designers typically sell, which is fused or half-canvas construction. (Half-canvas is something of a misnomer since only the lapels make use of floating canvas.) The jackets also feature a barchetta breast pocket which is not only curved around the welt but blunted at the edges. Attention is even paid at the lapel buttonhole with a hand sewn lucida asola. This type of glossy buttonhole requires hours to achieve. There are some MTM manufacturers who do it in much less time, but their results are not quite as spectacular. I also appreciate the attention paid to the width of pocket flaps which are always in proportion to the lapels and never appear too small.

Jay-Z in bold windowpane suit.
Though the jacket defines much of a suit's look, the trousers have a few little details that mark them apart from the ordinary. One being how the side seams are curved forward at the top. Besides offering the benefits of both an on-seam and slanted pocket, Ford claims that it makes for a better line around the hip when sitting. Additionally, they do away with belts for the most part and instead put strap and buckle side adjusters on the waistband. This makes for a cleaner look in front with no distracting belt buckle between the jacket cutaway. This also allows the back to fit more closely without a lump from a belt strap showing through. It is my preferred method of trouser suspension for those reasons and its minimalism. It's also one of the best ways to cut trousers for a three piece suit along with having a fishtail back for braces, which may be a little too traditional for most now. Belts are not a good idea with a waistcoat as they will only bulge out the bottom or distract from the otherwise clean, streamlined look. One can even opt to have a hidden button and buttonhole sewn into their trouser cuff to ease in dusting them out, as one customer noted in his experience.

Also noteworthy is that while most designers or clothiers have gone to the five button waistcoat, Tom Ford's still has six buttons much like in the decades that inspired him. The last button and buttonhole are slightly cut away so they cannot be fastened. Typically these sort of waistcoats have a larger cutaway to make it more obvious. He may simply like the aesthetic of always unfastening the last button on a regular six button waistcoat and wants to make it a permanent feature.

Tom Ford has helped bring credibility to traditional evening wear, no matter the age or fitness level of the wearer.

Naturally, they offer ties which compliment the wider-than-currently-fashionable lapels. Clocking in at 3.75", such wide ties are not often found off the rack anymore unless you pay a premium at Drake's, Turnbull & Asser, and of course Tom Ford. (Though Sam Hober, a tie maker who will make almost any blade width, is a great value.) Just a decade ago ties that width were easier to find, even as some less exclusive clothing brands experiment in offering wider lapels again. However, Ford now sells narrower ties for those who want them. The tie patterns are pretty tasteful for the most part with some exceptions. I'm not particularly fond of their wide, '70s inspired "elephant ear" bow ties myself but some people can pull them off. Thankfully the brand offers regular thistle shaped and diamond end bow ties for the more conventional folks like me.

Unique scalloped cuff design.
The shirts are similarly bold, with larger collars as their main selection. The "Classic" collar is more like a medium spread (4.5" point to point) with a slightly taller collar band and longer points. They also sell a more Italian inspired two button collar with a larger spread (5.5"), even higher collar band that reaches the trachea, and accordingly long points. Though Ford personally appears to wear a Classic collar with a gold safety pin-style collar bar thrust through the points, they sell a variation on it with eyelets and a gold screw-end collar bar. Recently the brand has, as with the slimmer fitting suits, caved to fashion a little and added some smaller collars to the lineup including tab, point, and scaled down spread collars. I own two of the shirts -- secondhand from eBay of course, as I could not afford them otherwise! They are not just available in slim fit as one would expect, there is also a regular fit for larger people. Despite Ford wearing french cuffs himself, a signature style of theirs is a scalloped two button cuff. The cuff is quite long, about 3.5", and differentiates itself from other rounded cuffs by being straight along the buttoning edges. Ford also introduced the "Dr No cuff" back in 2015, an homage to the turnback cuffs worn by Sean Connery as James Bond and seen in the movie Spectre.

Undersized fit on Craig's O'Connor suit.
On that subject, many people judge him rather unfairly for the tight fitting suits in Skyfall and Spectre. The simple fact is he had a deal with EON Productions to provide clothing for Daniel Craig in exchange for publicity. In this role, he merely followed costume designer Jany Temime's direction and produced a new pattern called the O'Connor Base. He's also gone on record before to say that he doesn't like narrow lapels himself, claiming that they look "a little sad" in his eyes. (Source)

That being said, 2.75" notch lapels on the average body won't date as badly as some of the micro-lapels that have come and gone in fashion since the 1960s. The suits would have looked fine had Craig's physique actually moved with them instead fighting against the fit. Sure enough, wearing one's proper size in the O'Connor Base yields much more attractive results. Temime generally credits most of the idea to Daniel Craig himself. In his personal life, he likes to wear tight fitting suits from brand Brunello Cucinelli, who provided a couple pieces of clothing for Spectre as well. (Source) Though I understand the reasoning -- to make him look like he's muscular and bursting out of them -- I do not personally agree with it. In reality this makes him appear ill at ease and smaller than he actually is. Ford's own preference for fit and style was seen one movie earlier in Quantum of Solace with the Regency Base. It was close fitting, not too tight, with wider lapels. If there's one thing the last two movies got right fit-wise, it was in the sleeve length. For unknown reasons, considering the brand's usual attention to it, QoS features jacket sleeves that are too long for the shirt cuffs to peek out.

O'Connor worn properly sized as it should be.
Tom Ford is not perfect of course. One thing I personally criticize is the lack of darts on the front of the trousers, which gives a little more comfort without taking away the clean lines of a true flat front. This is something many bespoke tailors opt for when their customers request a "flat front" and even Brioni uses a darted front for their modern cut suits.Then of course there are the prices, starting at $4000 for two piece and $5000 for three piece. While the high level of construction and details must certainly incur high costs, I suspect much of the markup comes from his name and marketing budget alone. One could get a comparable Savile Row bespoke suit for the same price as his off the rack suits. The same goes for his off the rack shirts, which start at a whopping $570 -- a few bones more than world-class shirtmaker Charvet asks for made-to-measure! The clothes are generally made in Switzerland under Zegna but occasionally in Italy depending on the fabric. Contrary to what some may tell you, they are not simply Zegna garments marked up in price. The construction and cuts are entirely exclusive to Ford's line.

In short, Tom Ford should not be disregarded as yet another trashy designer. He has much to offer and inspire others with, even if the prices are hardly democratic and the fit doesn't suit your style.

Comments

  1. OK, I guess you have some good points. Still, a lot bugs me! His magazine ads are dreadfully oversexed and for being a gay man he comes off like a straight "pickup artist". He also really needs to shave. Can't imagine his smooth faced hubby likes that scruff every time they kiss. Also he's had the same haircut forever. Would growing it out into a sidepart hurt? Another is how often he wears a suit without a tie instead of just a sport coat. Because after all if he's trying to sell classic, he should sell classic. Starting with his own image and especially if he's in his 50s. Just my thoughts. The clothes upon second look are better than I originally thought. I don't see anything too offensive on the website either except the asking price. You're right that you might as well get a copy from a tailor. I know of some in New York who could do all those details at half the price.

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    1. I understand where you're coming from, but one could argue because he's had the fashion stubble and short hair so long he wouldn't really be Tom Ford without them!

      I wouldn't mind getting a Ford suit, but it would have to be on deep, deep discount. Much like the shirts I got.

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  2. You probably didn't want to get into this, hence your vagueness early on, but my bigger issue with Ford is the novelty in which he talks about fat women (and uses them in his movies) while not making any clothes that will fit them. He doesn't make a very wide range of sizes for men either, but it seems like there are still more than the women get.

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    1. I agree with you. It's always unfortunate when designers limit clientele based on arbitrary standards of beauty. It's not as if wealthy celebrities are all thin/athletic. For example, Leslie Jones had trouble finding a designer who would make a dress for her. I don't know if Ford was among those who turned her down. She may not have even gone to him for all we know.

      Former Project Runway contestant Christian Siriano happily made a dress for her, and it looked great! Perhaps because he, like the other designers on that show, had to work with plus sized models at least once. This season they have a variety of models in different shapes/sizes that rotate around which I think is great not only for body positivity but diversifying the skills of the competitors.

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  3. Cool stuff. Sadly I'd need MTM for my body, as I'm bigger than the average TF customer. I'm not especially portly, but it's heartening to see Tom Hanks looking as good as he does in the clothing when he has a more average body type.

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    1. This is why I feel the more structured type of English cut suits pretty much anyone. The waist suppression is just enough on Hanks' body. Trouser and sleeve fullness may vary depending on the decade, designer/tailor, and customer preferences, but that overall jacket shape has remained relatively untouched for decades. For a good reason, in my opinion.

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