‘cause you’re free
To do what you want to do
You’ve got to live your life
Do what you want to do
–Ultra Nate, “Free”
Milan, Italy. February 25, 2004, 7 p.m.
Pink rose petals, and teardrops. Both are falling, raining, cascading in vast abundance inside Theatre Diana, a former movie theatre located in Milan’s Piazza Oberdan. Tom Ford, the creative director of Gucci, dressed in a black tuxedo, a gardenia tucked into his lapel, takes a final, almost stoic, walk down a pale pink sheepskin-covered runway. He is presenting his last fashion show for the legendary Florentine fashion house, a collection comprised of updated versions of his hard-edged, sex-charged signature looks from seasons past (black suits, fan-seamed to accentuate the curves; decadent fox fur stoles; bomber jackets made of Python skin and leather; knee-length corset skirts; gowns made of slivers of satin in acid lime, chartreuse and cobalt blue; white column dresses with plunging necklines and subtle cut-outs disclosing hints of flesh). As the singer Ultra Nate’s 1996 house music classic Free thumps and blares from the sound system, there is hardly a dry eye in the room. The black clad crowd of editors, buyers, retailers, friends, and foes leaps to its feet to salute, clap, cheer, and bid a weepy farewell to the 42-year-old charismatic man with matinee idol looks. Tom Ford, a former model-slash-actor, who, in astutely attaching his fortunes and applying his acute creative design and business acumen to a fading company more than10 years prior (astoundingly upping that company’s cache and clout in the process) is now a legend, a star himself, his name, his persona, more famous and more seductive, than the Gucci brand itself.
The Gucci after-party. Midnight.
It’s raining rose petals (again) inside the Theatre Diana at the Gucci after show fete. More goodbyes. More tears. At the strike of Midnight, in a scene reminiscent of chic, decadent, boogie nights at Studio 54, the famed New York City discotheque of the Seventies (or at least a Tom Ford-produced simulacrum thereof) rose petals descend from the heavens of the Theatre Diana, pouring down over the guests (an edited down, more select list of the same crowd from the earlier Gucci show) who are partying like it’s 1979. Ford and his longtime romantic partner, Richard Buckley, a journalist and editor of Vogue Hommes International, the Paris-based men’s fashion magazine, observe the double G-rated bacchanalia from a distance, ensconced in a corner away from the throngs who are jostling for drinks at the bar. Shortly after midnight the couple disappear and board a private jet bound for Los Angeles and the runway of the west, the red carpet of Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre, site of the 76th Academy Awards ceremony.
Hollywood Boulevard. February 29, 2004, 5 p.m. PST
At the Kodak Theatre South African actress Charize Theron, one of the night’s Best Actress nominees for her career making role in the film “Monster,” slithers along the red carpet, the fashion world’s most important catwalk, towards the building’s entrance amid pops and flashes of paparazzi camera lenses. She pauses only briefly here and there to field the questions and demands of an international crew of news and celebrity reporters from E! Entertainment Television, Access Hollywood, and Entertainment Tonight. When her category winner is announced hours later, billions of eyes are on Theron as she gives her acceptance speech, clutching her Oscar. Her gown, a spaghetti strapped, crystal-encrusted, champagne colored number designed by Tom Ford for Gucci, glitters and shimmers under the house lights as brightly and insistently as her dazzling smile, an image that will be broadcast on television programs and shown in newspapers and magazines around the globe ad infinitum.
Paris, France. March 7, 2004, 8 p.m.
The gardens of The Musee Rodin, home to Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture The Thinker, are bathed in red light from the Chinese paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling as the sound of classical music and the aroma of Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium perfume waft through the air. The mood is Chinoiserie and déjà vu as East meets West, Orient Express-style in Tom Ford’s final show for Yves Saint Laurent, also owned by the Gucci Group. The show is an hommage to YSL’s famous 1977 Chinese-inspired Opium collection. There are fitted jackets with Chairman Mao collars in red, emerald green, and chocolate brown. Furs are shaved in the pattern of dragon scales, tight jet beaded jackets shine like lacquered cabinets. A model wearing a black crocodile anorak with a mink-lined hood floats down the runway. Cocktail dresses come with fan shaped beading; sequined sheath dresses come in yellow or red, slashed to the thigh. Then! A black sequined gown with a gold lotus blossom pattern. The crowd jumps to its feet in appreciation. Ford, dressed in a red velvet tuxedo jacket, walks down the red carpeted runway, and simply mouths the words “Thank you” as the appreciative crowd cheers and applauds from the sidelines, roaring their approval as if witnessing a final curtain call for Madame Butterfly at the Paris Opera House. Another image is forever seared into the collective pop culture consciousness.
“Always leave them wanting more,” as the old Hollywood saying goes, And Tom Ford, since making the decision to the leave Gucci amid rumors of salary disputes and issues of control had done just that. Leaving at a career pinnacle after showing his last collection for Gucci, dressing Best Actress Charlize Theron for the Oscars, and presenting his last runway show for Yves Saint Laurent; all in less than a fortnight. Now liberated from his contract with the Gucci Group, as Ultra Nate’s recorded voice had sung at that final Gucci show, Ford was free to live his life; free to do want he wanted to do. But what would it be? By 2004 Ford had become the leading man of the biggest cliffhanger in fashion history and in the weeks following his departure from Gucci, the company he helped rebuild, Tom Ford Minus Gucci became Topic A in conversations among the fashion cognoscenti. In fact it seemed that Tom Ford (and what he would do next) was all anyone could talk about.
To be continued…