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The De Sole-Ford friendship

One half of fashion’s most powerful and enduring partnerships on building the billion-dollar Tom Ford fashion empire.

As a rule, it’s easier to get by in life when someone else has your back. This is particularly true in the fickle world of fashion, where personalities, brands and trends can come and go in the time it takes to fasten a cufflink. Some of the most enduring stars in the industry have been part of a power pair: designer Marc Jacobs and business partner Robert Duffy; design legend Valentino Garavani and former Valentino chairman Giancarlo Giammetti. And, of course, there is debonair designer Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole, the president and co-founder of luxury fashion brand Tom Ford International.

“I really do believe that Tom is the greatest designer of his generation,” says De Sole, in an interview with The Peak. In town to speak at a luxury conference, he took time out to share more about Tom Ford – the designer and the brand – before its first store here opens at Marina Bay Sands next month. It is part of a collaboration with local fashion and lifestyle group FJ Benjamin that will see the eventual opening of two Tom Ford boutiques in Singapore, with more planned for Indonesia.

Currently, there are some 80 Tom Ford boutiques and shop-in-shops worldwide.

Tough yet sensual dresses at Tom Ford's Spring/Summer 2014 collection at London Fashion Week.
Tough yet sensual dresses at Tom Ford’s Spring/Summer 2014 collection at London Fashion Week.

The De Sole-Ford friendship began in the early 1990s, when De Sole was the CEO of Gucci America, and Ford was a 29-year-old designer who had just been hired at Gucci Milan. It was not a good time for the Italian fashion house, which was on the edge of bankruptcy. Impressed by Ford’s creative talent and business acumen from the get-go, De Sole would be the designer’s strongest ally throughout those tumultuous early years at Gucci – even thwarting an attempt by then chairman Maurizio Gucci to fire Ford.

Together, De Sole – who went on to become CEO of the Gucci Group – and Ford would effect one of the industry’s most dramatic turnarounds. The designer’s unapologetically glamorous, sexy aesthetic quickly found favour with fashion fans at a time when dressed-down androgyny had become commonplace. When both men left Gucci in 2004, the company had gone from near bankruptcy to a luxury conglomerate, with brands like Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta under its snakeskin belt, and a valuation of US$10 billion (S$12.6 billion).

70s-inspired suits in vivid hues at Tom Ford's Spring/Summer 2014 collection at London Fashion Week.
70s-inspired suits in vivid hues at Tom Ford’s Spring/Summer 2014 collection at London Fashion Week.

Reflecting on the success of their partnership, De Sole replies with a smile: “We are both very driven people – we like everything to be done a week ago. And we don’t really fight because we know each other very well.”

It made perfect sense, then, for the two men to join forces to create Tom Ford International, a privately held company which got its start in April 2005. “We are the first true luxury brand of the 21st century,” notes De Sole, who turns 70 this year. This translates into men’s and women’s ready-to-wear collections made from luxurious materials such as cashmere, silk and exotic skins, a range of premium beauty products and fragrances, and fine jewellery. Not for Tom Ford any lower-priced diffusion lines or collaborations with fast-fashion retailers – which have become money-spinning musts for many brands.

According to De Sole, menswear currently forms “a larger part of the business” as compared to womenswear – unsurprising, considering that the former, launched in 2007, had a four-year head start. Another important aspect of the business: its made-to-measure service, which is offered at Tom Ford flagship boutiques worldwide. Plans to offer the service at the Singapore store are in the pipeline. He elaborates: “People enjoy the process of choosing their own fabrics and having a suit that fits them perfectly in four to five weeks.”

In less than a decade, Tom Ford is on track to becoming a billion-dollar business but, for its founders, it’s still early days yet. Says De Sole: “It’s a very luxurious brand, and we have to limit the number of stores we open in any given market. But we still have to open in a lot of markets; we are not there yet. Our goal is to be the No. 1 luxury brand in the world.”