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Is Tom Ford Saying Farewell to Fashion With His Surprise ‘Final Collection’?

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Well, that was anticlimactic.

Almost 30 years after he transformed Gucci, seemingly overnight, from a bourgeois leather brand to the hottest thing in fashion, ultimately making it into the cornerstone of the luxury group PPR (now Kering); about 20 years after he shocked the industry by walking away from that job, as well as from his post at the top of Yves Saint Laurent, and announced he was going to make movies (and then made a critical hit); 13 years after he returned to fashion, this time under his own name; and about five months after he and his business partner, Domenico De Sole, sold that brand to Estée Lauder for almost $3 billion, Tom Ford may be finally saying farewell to fashion. This time, most likely, for real.

Wednesday, he dropped a surprise “final collection” (according to a news release) in the form of three short videos by photographer Steven Klein. They feature a bevy of supermodels (Amber Valletta, Karlie Kloss, Karen Elson, Joan Smalls) wearing archive designs from Ford’s last 13 years and variously writhing, strutting and otherwise emoting while trapped in a series of glass boxes. Outside, the designer himself, in signature dark suit, white shirt and dark glasses, walks by alone, barely visible in the dimness, occasionally pausing to lift a hand and direct.

The videos came unaccompanied by any statement, and Ford declined requests for comment. Neither Estée Lauder nor Zegna, which has the licence for Tom Ford fashion, could be reached for comment.

Still, the collection answered the question that had been hanging over the brand since its sale in November: Would Ford stay or go? And it cleared the way for a new designer. Rumour has it that Peter Hawkings, Ford’s longtime menswear designer, is getting the job.

But the final collection reveal also offered a marked contrast to Ford’s last grand goodbye, when he left Gucci in 2004. That one took place before a live audience, some of its members in tears, as Ford took a bow, rose petals fell from the sky (OK, the ceiling) and a standing ovation filled the room.

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And it made for an oddly subdued exit for a man who once stood astride fashion like a stubbled colossus, and who did more than anyone else to mothball the old idea of a designer and shepherd in the era of the creative director — who really created the whole concept of creative director in the first place.

To a certain extent, it makes sense that Ford would want to stage-manage his own leaving imagery. Why not, when you can control every detail? Why let others have the final word (or look) on your career? He has nothing left to prove in fashion — building a billion-dollar brand in just over a decade on the strength of a name is an unprecedented feat. He doesn’t have to feed the beast anymore. And he is a film-maker, after all, who now lives in Los Angeles.

Still, as a closing statement on style, the final collection seemed less like a collection than a metaphor.

The clothes themselves were the least of the matter. They were a tour through Ford’s favourite Tom Fordisms: the white, jersey goddess gown; the leopard, sequined lounge suit; the lace-and-velvet LBD; the smoking; the crystal pasties. There was fringe and snakeskin and the occasional breastplate — the potent mix of sex and power and self-aware shtick that emerged from Halston and Saint Laurent antecedents and defined his aesthetic.

That’s OK, given that the clothes themselves (at least the womenswear) often seemed the least of the matter when it came to Tom Ford-the-brand. They were more like an epilogue to his Gucci-YSL years, cycling through some of the greatest hits, hitting them with a dose of Botox to iron out the wrinkles and then juicing them with glitz and athleisure — and glitzy athleisure — to make them relevant to a social media, pandemic world. TF-the-brand was powered more by beauty and fragrance than fashion (that’s why Lauder bought it, as opposed to, say, Kering) and the strength of Ford’s ability to sell the vaporous promise contained within.

From the vantage point of now, it looks as if Ford were Don Quixote, tilting at those windmills. That’s the message the final videos seem to convey, anyway: a cri de coeur about the changing fashion world and the status of women, with the designer at a remove, looking in at a scene playing out in a cage of its own making, no longer interested in the fight. The women behind the glass don’t look happy; they look pent-up and addled and upset.

Karen Elson sings an aria; Amber Valletta is in tears. The requiem seems not for Ford but for the end of the world as he knew it. Or dreamed it. He leaves it fading not into the sunset, but into the darkness. — NYT

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