New York — IF Tom Ford's much-anticipated sequel had been the movie he said it would be instead of a menswear collection, it might well have been titled "Ford Almighty."
Three years after his high-profile departure as creative director of Gucci and YSL, the designer is using the irresistible force of his personality to launch one of the most hotly anticipated menswear lines in years at a new flagship store, Tom Ford, on Madison Avenue.
As Ford bounds down the spiral staircase, the first indication that there has been some subtle shift in the universe as we know it is the shirt. Instead of unbuttoned to somewhere south of the sternum as it has seemingly been for the last decade, it is neatly buttoned and hidden behind a vest. And though the two-day's scruff remains on the designer's cheeks, the perpetual man tan seems to have faded.
We're about to meet the latest incarnation — call him Tom Ford 2.0.
"Before I had to graft my personality onto something that already existed," he said before Thursday's opening. "Here I had to think, 'What am I about? What do I like? What are the things that make my sense of style different?' "
That answer will be readily apparent to anyone who sets foot in the three-story, 8,680-square-foot Temple of Tom. From the pair of pink metallic crocodiles in the windows (jaws locked on supple leather bags) and the jaggedly suggestive sculpture by Lucio Fontana (from Ford's own collection) mounted in the foyer, to the beaver pelt rugs and ebony-lined spiral staircase, the décor is over the top in a Burt Reynolds-meets-Versace kind of way.
The level of custom detail in Ford's new ready-to-wear and made-to-measure collections is infinitely more subtle. His men's suits, dress shirts, sportswear and accessories manage to plant one well-shod foot in the realm of old-school tailoring and the other in contemporary menswear — without coming off as cheesy or excessive.
Even something as straightforward as a $165 tie can be customized from among seven widths and matched to just the right collar spread (chosen from another drawerful of choices) to allow the perfect Sir Michael of Kent knot.
The ground floor of the store, at 845 Madison, is dedicated to ready-to-wear suits (starting at $3,200), shirts (340 color and 40 fabric choices), footwear, sweaters, leather bags, fragrances and walking sticks.
The made-to-measure program, which occupies the entire second floor, is a romanticized response to Ford's own post-Gucci suit-buying experiences on Savile Row. "When I went to get a suit, I found it was quite dry. You're in this little room with a stool and a curtain and you feel like you're in boarding school and you're about to get a spanking. It is not what I think a lot of people would fantasize about."
Ford's suit-buying fantasy apparently includes dressing rooms with perforated suede panels, light fixtures cast at the same foundry as the artwork of Alberto Giacometti, and a glassed-in atelier that is home to two master tailors and five seamstresses who work in concert with a factory in Padua, Italy. A made-to-measure suit starts at $5,000, and can be turned out in seven weeks based on an anatomically inconceivable 256 measurements. The suits are made under license by Italian menswear giant Ermenegildo Zegna and the collection, save a few hats, is made in Italy.
It's hard to pin down a single Tom Ford look when so much can be customized (six- or eight-button double-breasted? Peak or notch lapel? Double- or single-vent jacket? BlackBerry or Treo pocket?). But models walking the floor during the press preview Monday generally wore jackets of a slimmer silhouette with higher armholes and flat-front trousers.
The color palette skewed heavily toward gray; more notable was the variety in fabrics (200 choices of wool, wool-silk and wool-cashmere) and patterns ranging from pinstripes and chalk stripes to houndstooth velvet.
Ford, 45, expects it to take a while for men to catch on to the made-to-measure side of the business.
"When I was a kid growing up in Texas, we didn't know what arugula was. Now everyone is eating it. A lot of men don't realize they can have functioning buttonholes. Now they're learning that they can."
Still the total showman, he maintained a press blackout on the collection and boutique until the last possible minute — leading a breathless press tour, where he pingponged from room to room like a well-dressed Willy Wonka sans top hat and cane. He held forth on the store's retinue of honest-to-goodness butlers and the replica of his London living room that serves as the ready-to-wear sales floor, and his muse for the line ("You're looking at him"), and why he's chosen to forgo the runway and the women's wear business, which helped catapult him into the realm of celebrity designer — and may have ultimately priced him out of the job. Not that he's had any income shortage over the past few years, with new fragrance lines for Estée Lauder and a sunglasses collection under his own name.
"I didn't want to come back to fashion if I did it the same way," he said. "It wouldn't be exciting. Men's is a different thing for me right now. When I find a way to add a different dimension to women's, I'll do it."
As for those stalled Hollywood aspirations, he declined to talk about them beyond noting that he had a movie "ready to go."
For at least a year, the Madison Avenue boutique will be the exclusive retailer — that means no online sales either. He plans Milan and London stores in 2008 and a Los Angeles outpost the next year. "Probably on Rodeo Drive, but it takes a long time to find a great location there."
As far as the location in New York, it's in between — and not far from — the Gucci and YSL boutiques that opened during his tenure with those labels.
"I don't think that's a bad thing," he said with a grin. "Do you?"