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Be still, my beating heart. It is only one more person to be escorted into the Oxford Union’s debating chambers, joining a long, impressive range of speakers, from former weapons inspector Hans Blix to the highly controversial Michael Jackson. But as Tom Ford walked his confident stroll and stopped to take center stage in front of his student audience, I could not help but revert to a giddy thirteen-year old. I leaned over and whispered to Tom’s publicist, Lisa, “He is so cute!” She nodded in unison. Dressed in a perfectly tailored black suit and white shirt, unbuttoned to reveal a generous eyeful of his tanned, manicured chest, he certainly portrayed the self-proscribed, quintessential “ Gucci Man.” His helm at Gucci Group may be over, but ten years of practice as a creative designer culled a signature aura of sex mixed with charisma which remains over the top.

At one point, an inquisitive student asked Tom why he always wears his shirts unbuttoned. The fashion visionary replied with a mischievous glint in his eye, “I like my chest”--he begins rubbing it as squeals of delight erupt from the students-- “And I believe you should always flaunt and accentuate the parts of yourself you like, while covering up the parts you don’t.”

The aggressively confident Gucci Man has his (seldom employed) limits. Never one to shy away from the spotlight, Tom showed surprising signs of humbleness throughout the evening. He began his speech by describing his initial reaction upon receiving an invitation to speak at the university: “I was honored and immediately said yes, and then became apprehensive because I did not know what I could offer to such an exceptional group of intellectuals.” Lisa had told me earlier that Tom had prepared a 90 second slide show introducing his career with Gucci and YSL rive gauche, afraid that “Tom Ford” was not a recognized name around here. His least favorite part of the job was working with haughty celebrities. (A claim Suzy Menkes, renowned writer for the International Herald Tribune, later scoffed at during an intimate drink reception upstairs, well out of Tom’s earshot.) The fashion guru also showed his perplexity with one of industry’s most inundated disputes surrounding ultra-thin models. Attempting to answer “Why do you only use pin-thin models?” his reply was far from his usual steady eloquence. He was elusive, apologizing because “this reasoning may not make sense to anyone but myself”, believing that hyper-thin was a rarity (especially in America where “men and women are as big as this table!”), that rarity is a much sought-after beauty, and therefore something “fascinating and attractive.”

The Gucci Man knows how to indulge; in fact, he writes the manual. In the words of Anna Wintour, women and men “woke up to the fact that a little glamour was missing from their lives--and Tom’s clothes, always sexually empowering, captured their imagination.” Tom would say that Gucci was not about the clothes so much as a lifestyle: to think big; walk big; do big. “Fashion is a fundamental, primary luxury like steak or caviar or champagne. Fur feels good. Drinking feels good. I like to drink.” A slow smile spread across his lips. “Sex feels good.” His aim had been to "take a feeling, the zeitgeist and turn it into a more tangible thing.” Some thing—a 5k purple embossed velvet Gucci flap bag with pink crocodile trim, a jeweled-enamel dragon ornament, and a double-strand gold bamboo-chain shoulder strap, perhaps? Speaking of money students seldom have, how did Tom answer the question about the outstanding price tags that hang on luxury clothing? Picking up a glass bottle of water, he slams it back down on the table, gestures at it and says, “It’s not like we just say to ourselves, ‘Let’s see how much we can charge for this!’” He believes that the hand-made details, the outstanding quality, the care and energy that goes into each piece is well worth its price. And honestly, the savvy business man side of him had me convinced.

Afterwards during the private reception, Tom stood to the side while a handful of students milled about, waiting for the right opportunity to approach him. My friend Alvin handed Tom a copy of his hefty compendium, and he signed it graciously, even blowing on the page to make sure the ink dried before shutting the book and carefully placing it back into the box. He was equally sweet and polite when I talked to him, mainly about a California friend who “is in love with you and Madonna.” He gave me a startled look, as if the two mixed just as well as stiletto heels and a frumpy windbreaker.

His parting advice for a successful life: “Do something you love.” He had stopped loving fashion--“You can only make the slit so much higher, the stiletto so much taller.” Just don’t dim those glamour and glitterati lights too quickly; Tom Ford may have left the runway, but he may not be far from the red carpet. He has recently purchased a Richard Neutra home high in the hills of Bel-Air and is considering a career in producing. He is weighing his film options with care, believing that "When you leave a film, it should challenge you, touch you - it needs to enrich you in some way.” And considering how influential he has been to the fashion industry in the past decade, you can bet he holds the same ideology for everything he chooses to do in life.




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