The 'Tom and Dom' dream team

Tom Ford International chairman Domenico De Sole (left) wants everyone to copy the brand he started with designer Tom Ford (right).

With his elegant salt-and- pepper coif and dapper Italian air, Tom Ford International chairman Domenico De Sole looks like he was born into the fashion industry. But that is far from the case, he says.

The 69-year-old considered working in journalism and law before settling on the business side of fashion, where an encounter with a young design talent by the name of Tom Ford during his time at Gucci irrevocably shaped his career.

In an interview with Life!, he describes the now famous Ford, 52, as "the best designer of his generation" and recounts an episode in London a few years ago.

"One day, somebody came to my office out of the blue to take my measurements.

"When I asked what he was doing, he said Tom was preparing a suit for me," says Mr De Sole, a father of two, who was in Singapore to speak at the International New York Times' luxury conference. "Tom has an amazing eye and knows exactly what suits me and what I would be comfortable wearing."

The Tom Ford brand will open its first South-east Asian store in April at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands.

Mr De Sole's trust in Ford's vision has served him well since their paths first crossed in 1994. He even saved Ford from being fired by brand co-owner Maurizio Gucci during a cost-cutting measure.

Ford, Gucci's creative designer then, and Mr De Sole, its chief executive - dubbed the "Tom and Dom" dream team - went on to turn the Italian house's fortunes around.

After teetering on the brink of bankruptcy in 1993, Gucci went public in 1995 and reported more than US$1 billion in sales by 1998. This was thanks largely to Ford's sexy gowns, updated accessories and fashion shows.

Gucci's success, however, brought with it new challenges. In 1998, luxury conglomerate LVMH came nipping at the brand's heels and its head, Mr Bernard Arnault, amassed more than a third of Gucci shares.

Mr De Sole and Ford fought the move, which they described as a hostile takeover without a full and fair bid to shareholders. Mr De Sole recalls the legal tussle with LVMH as a difficult time that felt like "World War III".

But even LVMH's divide-and-conquer tactics, he says, could not drive a wedge between him and Ford.

"Arnault would say to the press that Tom Ford was the creative genius and that I was just the business person. But I really agreed. I said business people, like Arnault and myself, were a dime a dozen," he recalls.

Eventually, Mr De Sole and Ford teamed up with French holding company Pinault- Printemps-Redoute, subsequently known as PPR and renamed Kering in June this year.

The group bought shares that amounted to a 40 per cent majority stake in Gucci in 1999, diluting LVMH's share.

Mr De Sole says he and Ford learnt the power of tenacity from the saga.

"It's important not to quit. The old saying, winners never quit and quitters never win, it's completely right. You have to tough it out."

The duo went on to expand the Gucci Group that year. Using the US$2.9 billion from the PPR deal, they acquired brands including Yves Saint Laurent (now Saint Laurent Paris), Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Boucheron and Bedat.

The duo left the brand in May 2004 after PPR gained full control of Gucci Group.

After taking a step back from fashion, Ford turned to movie-making. His film, A Single Man, was critically lauded when it was released in September 2009.

Meanwhile, Mr De Sole had plans to retire and spend more time with his American wife in their home in South Carolina. The couple have two grown-up daughters.

But when "Tommy", as Mr De Sole affectionately refers to Ford, invited him to help set up Tom Ford International, "it didn't take much to convince me".

"We have the same work ethic and I have an immense amount of respect, trust and love for him," he says. The feeling is clearly mutual. Ford has been reported previously as saying that he trusts De Sole with his life.

The Tom Ford brand started with make-up and eyewear deals, signed in 2005. It launched its first store and men's collection in 2007. Women's clothing made its debut at a New York presentation in September 2010 to rave reviews from the fashion press.

Tom Ford clothing, known for their glamorous and sexy elements, starts at US$3,500 (S$4,300) for a suit and runs into five-figure sums for gowns.

The brand now has more than 20 stores worldwide, including four in China, Japan and South Korea.

Building a brand from scratch presents challenges different from rescuing an old design house, Mr De Sole says.

"Gucci was in terrible shape but it had 70 beautiful stores. It had the infrastructure so we just had to re-invent the aesthetic."

"Luxury is about exclusivity and intimacy," he adds, explaining that they have to be mindful of the pace of expansion and not to flood a market with stores.

Next up are plans for shops in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

He expresses a supreme confidence in Ford, now a father to a year-old son via surrogacy with his long-time journalist partner.

Asked if there are any brands whose success he would like the Tom Ford label to emulate, he replies without missing a beat: "I want everyone to copy us."

llim@sph.com.sg


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