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Tom Comes to Town

With a life in London, Hollywood waiting in the wings and a new Oak Street flagship, American design monarch Tom Ford storms Chicago.

Any narrative about American fashion designer Tom Ford must start with his looks, and why not? Movie-star handsome, the 52-year-old former model turned venerated tastemaker appears in his own advertising, and his uniform—think crisp white, chest-exposing shirt (unbuttoned, of course)—is as iconic as Chanel’s pearls. (“I feel like my chest is still good,” he says. “It’s the last thing to go on a man, so I say show off the things that work.”) Equally revealing are stories about Ford’s incredibly fabulous life: While residing in London with his longtime partner, Richard Buckley, and their 1-year-old son, Jack, he makes regular red-carpet arrivals alongside A-list actresses wearing his gowns. This particular tale, however, starts with Ford’s favorite tune—the not-so-surprising “Tom Ford” by Jay Z, who the designer also dresses. “Seriously,” he asks, “who wouldn’t love a song that is written about them?”

Fabulousness, glitz and hip-hop endorsement aside, Ford came to fame the old-fashioned way: hard work. After revamping Gucci and, in the process, bringing sex back into fashion, during the ’90s, he launched his eponymous company in 2005. And the designer just opened a gleaming, 4,700-square-foot emporium on Oak Street, his fourth U.S. store, which he considers a nice addition to the neighborhood. “I try to ensure that all my stores stay true to not only my own design aesthetic, but to that of the city or surrounding area [in which] they are located,” offers Ford, whose flirtation with details is known to include obsessing over the inside of a shoe box. “The exterior of the Oak Street store reflects the local design vernacular with Renaissance Grey limestone on the façade, and Blue de Savoie marble visible on the floors and around the display windows and entry.”

Gracing our city with his chic presence is one thing, but a happy-to-be-here Ford endorses it, too. “Chicago is a city of impeccable style and taste,” he says. And, like any designer, Ford takes cues from his surroundings and regularly records inspiration. Like for his latest women’s collection, which, he says, “certainly engages with the notion of street style. Whenever I am working on a collection, everything has to be very real. I think of the woman I am designing for, and ask myself, ‘Who is this, and where is she going?’” This season that woman is Rihanna. “I love her style,” Ford adds. “In fact, she inspired parts of my fall-winter 2013 collection.”

This relationship is a natural extension of the one Ford has with Hollywood—another big source of inspiration for the designer. True, he creates glamorous gowns and looks posh at parties, but his direction of 2009’s A Single Man earned him the respect of the cinematic community. Not only was the sumptuous-looking 1960s-set film (based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood) a critical success, it also garnered Academy Award nominations for its two leads, Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. Ford also finds Hollywood to be nicer, if not more forgiving, than fashion. “People are much more polite to each other out there, oddly enough,” he confesses. “If you give a screenplay to someone to read, they never say: ‘This sucks. This is terrible. This whole act is awful.’ They’ll say: ‘It’s really great, just not what we are looking for right now.’” Consider this admission high praise coming from someone who grew up with silver-screen dreams. “I always kind of wanted to be a movie star,” Ford continues. “But I learned very quickly that I was very insecure. Ultimately, that helped me realize I would be a better designer and a better director than an actor or a model.”

Yet the rewarding experience of directing A Single Man did get Ford thinking: “… because I related to the story on such a personal level, it really reminded me of the importance of personal fulfillment. The film reinforced the importance of spending time with my family and doing the things that bring me the most joy.”

These days “joy” is spending time with his son, Jack, whose natural aroma he loves even more than his own Tom Ford fragrance Tobacco Vanille, and welcome presence has preempted production plans for a follow-up film—at least for a while. “Well,” Ford says, “my production this past year was my son, and, of course, my other production was my women’s runway collection that showed in London.” Still, he teases, “… my second film will not be too far behind.” And just like that, the show goes on.