When interviewing for jobs after graduation, Ford said that he had attended The New School’s Parsons Division, but concealed that he graduated in architecture and that his work at Chloé was a low-level public relations position.
Despite his lack of experience in fashion, Ford called American designer Cathy Hardwick every day for a month in hopes of securing a job at her sportswear company. Hardwick eventually agreed to interview him. She later recalled the incident: “I had every intention of giving him no hope. I asked him who his favorite European designers were. He said, ‘Armani and Chanel.’ Months later I asked him why he said that, and he said, ‘Because you were wearing something Armani’. Is it any wonder he got the job?”
Ford worked as a design assistant for Hardwick for two years. In 1988, Ford moved to Perry Ellis, where he knew both Robert McDonald, the company’s president, and Marc Jacobs, its designer, socially. He worked at the company for two years, but grew tired of working in American fashion.
In a later interview with The New York Times, he commented, “If I was ever going to become a good designer, I had to leave America. My own culture was inhibiting me. Too much style in America is tacky. It’s looked down upon to be too stylish. Europeans, however, appreciate style.”
At the time, Italian fashion house Gucci was struggling financially and was seeking to strengthen its women’s ready-to-wear presence as a part of a brand overhaul. The company’s creative director, Dawn Mello said, “no one would dream of wearing Gucci”. In 1990, Mello hired Ford as the brand’s chief women’s ready-to-wear designer and Ford moved to Milan. “I was talking to a lot of people, and most didn’t want the job,” Mello said. “For an American designer to move to Italy to join a company that was far from being a brand would have been pretty risky.”
Ford and his longtime partner, fashion journalist Richard Buckley, relocated to Milan that September. Ford’s role at Gucci rapidly expanded. He was designing menswear within six months, and shoes soon after that. When Richard Lambertson left as design director in 1992, Ford took over his position, heading the brand’s ready-to-wear, fragrances, image, advertising, and store design.
In 1993, when he was in charge of designing eleven product lines, Ford worked eighteen-hour days. During these years, there were creative tensions between Ford and Maurizio Gucci, the company’s chairman and 50% owner. According to Mello, “Maurizio always wanted everything to be round and brown, and Tom wanted to make it square and black.”
Though Maurizio Gucci wanted to fire Ford, Domenico De Sole insisted that he remain. Nonetheless, Ford’s work during the early 1990s was primarily behind the scenes. His contributions to Gucci were overshadowed by those of Mello, who was the company’s public face. The Creative Director of Gucci and Saint Laurent Evening dress by Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche which was selected as Dress of the Year for 2004.
In 1994, Ford was promoted to Creative Director of Gucci. In his first year at the helm, he introduced Halston-style velvet hipsters, skinny satin shirts, and car-finish metallic patent boots.
In 1995, he brought in French stylist Carine Roitfeld and photographer Mario Testino to create a series of new ad campaigns for the company. Between 1995 and 1996, sales at Gucci increased by 90%. At one point, Ford was the largest individual shareholder of Gucci stock and options.
By 1999, the house, which had been almost bankrupt when Ford joined, was valued at more than $4 billion. When Gucci acquired the house of Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) in 1999, Ford was named Creative Director of that label as well. Saint Laurent did not hide his displeasure with Ford’s designs, stating “The poor man does what he can.” During his time as creative director for YSL, Ford nonetheless won numerous Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards.
Like his work at Gucci, which included shaving the letter G in a model’s pubic hair, Ford was able to pull the classic fashion house back into the mainstream. His advertising campaigns for the YSL fragrances Opium (with a red-haired Sophie Dahl naked wearing only a necklace and stiletto heels in a sexually suggestive pose) and YSL M7 (with martial arts champion Samuel de Cubber in complete full-frontal nudity) was controversial and provocative.
In April 2004, Ford parted ways with the Gucci group after he and CEO Domenico de Sole, who is credited as Ford’s partner in Gucci’s success, failed to agree with Pinault Printemps Redoute’s boss over control of the Group. He has since referred to this experience as “devastating” and as a “midlife crisis” because he had “put everything into that for fifteen years.”
When Ford left in 2004, Gucci Group was valued at $10 billion. Four people were hired to split the work Ford had done. Tom Ford began the label Tom Ford Eyewear. A Tom Ford boutique in Toronto.
After leaving Gucci, Ford launched a line of menswear, beauty, eyewear, and accessories in 2006, named after himself, “Tom Ford”. De Sole became chairman of the label. Ford has described “the Tom Ford customer” as international, cultured, well-traveled, and possessing disposable income. For women, he added “strong women, … intelligent women who know their own style”.
First Lady Michelle Obama wore an ivory floor-length evening gown designed by Ford to Buckingham Palace in 2011. He has also dressed Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Hathaway, Daniel Craig, Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Ryan Gosling, Will Smith, Julianne Moore, Hugh Jackman, Jon Hamm, and Henry Cavill.
Ford designed Daniel Craig’s suits for his last three James Bond films: Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and Spectre.
In 2013, Ford was mentioned in Justin Timberlake’s song “Suit & Tie”, which was a collaboration with Jay Z. Ford created the suits, shirts, and accessories for the Grammy-winning “Suit & Tie” music video. He went on to dress Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience World Tour, designing over 600 pieces for the tour.
The same year, Jay Z released a song titled “Tom Ford” with “Tom Ford” rapped numerous times within the song. Ford responded that he was flattered and “it means that one has really penetrated and made an impact on popular culture.” Following the song’s release, Ford received a huge spike in online search engine queries. The song would go on to sell over a million copies and become certified platinum.