Tom Ford and Jay-Z have formed the latest alliance to elicit the breathless enthusiasm of fashion press, and it seemingly goes deeper than one making a suit for the other.
Jay-Z's latest album Magna Carta Holy Grail includes a song called "Tom Ford," with a chorus that goes, bluntly and uncreatively, "Tom Ford, Tom Ford, Tom Ford." The track is a cheer for Ford, a celebration of Jay-Z, and a rejection of commonplace internet technology. "Fuck hashtags and retweets," raps Jay-Z, who gave an advanced look at his album only to Samsung mobile users. Ford, who is not on Twitter and wouldn't even allow online press to attend his womenswear show until its fifth season debuted this February, would surely agree. These two — and their famous penchant for temporarily barricading their creative work — were made for each other.
Ford is enjoying an unusually great spate of press through two of music's leading male performers so far this year. He also partnered with Justin Timberlake on "Suit and Tie," creating clothes for Timberlake to wear in the single's video and accompanying artwork. He dressed the former boy bander for the Grammys and subsequent press ops. The alliance, announced in Women's Wear Daily in January, led the New York Times to recently call Timberlake "in certain ways a Ford creation, right down to the modified pompadour" — a straighter style, which Ford, unlike many Timberlake fans, prefers to his natural curls.
That makeover made possible by Ford was key to Timberlake's transformation into an upscale pop star, proffering music as classy as his new self. Jay-Z might not need to build his new album on a physical makeover, but his image revolves around living the high life, which is exactly what Ford sells. This mass marketing is seemingly at odds with the Tom Ford brand. Ford built his namesake label on the premise of unabashed luxury — $990 jeans, tuxes championed by celebrities that cost well into the thousands of dollars, and eventually, a surprise secret showing of his first namesake womenswear collection that banned press and boasted Beyoncé as a model.
"I'm holding everything back, controlling all the photography," Ford, who only allowed Terry Richardson and his team of six to shoot that collection, told WWD. Determined to stick it to the current system, he didn't allow the photos to go online until December. He openly shunned fashion reviews and celebrity endorsements. "The customer is bored with those clothes by the time they get to the store. They're overexposed, you're tired of them, they've lost their freshness," is how Ford justified his methods in that same WWD story. Well, what could be more overexposing than being the subject of an entire Jay-Z song? Or being apparently responsible for the much celebrated makeover of one of the most famous pop stars of our time? With these relationships, Ford's latest statement couldn't be less subtle: His brand is going to be the pop star of the luxury world — his creative work will be the most sought after, the most important, the most celebrated, the most anticipated.
When Ford debuted womenswear in 2010, he emphasized that the collection would be small. Tom Ford stores would sell the first collection exclusively. The second would go to his stores along with Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, and specialty retailers. As annoying and pompous as his secrecy was, it was necessary. These are not clothes many people in the world can afford, and they needed to be scarce enough to feel as precious as Ford and his ardent fans deemed them. Also quite significantly, his strategy placed him at the very opposite end of the spectrum of H&M, a collaboration with whom he's openly rejected. "What excites me is the very best," Ford said at a talk last year. "And that tends to cost money … I want to design for people who get excited about the same things I do." While many brands have launched lower-end, more affordable lines in recent years, Ford refused to follow suit.
But there's a reason so many high-end brands made that rush to the middle. Building a luxury brand is notoriously difficult. Many designers, even those as celebrated as Proenza Schouler and Thom Browne, can struggle with financing for years and years after attaining critical success. The nature of the work of a designer has changed with the rise of the internet too. They must broadcast next season's trends to the world on the internet, but that only enables fast-fashion brands to knock designers off before their wares even make it to stores. Now that everyone's designs are knocked off, designers have to sell much more than an of-the-moment look — above all, they have to sell a lifestyle, a look and feel of luxury you can't buy at Zara. Yet they also have to be mass enough for people to know your name and that it's worth something. By collaborating with fast-fashion chains, designers get the exposure a big name can offer while still being able to monetize their creativity, even if a watered-down version of it. It's not unlike the relationship musical artists have with big corporations, who sponsor the tours they need to make money in the face of the internet's assault on album sales. Most artists, like most designers, have come to terms with this. Just as Beyoncé isn't afraid of commercialism (hello, Pepsi commercial), neither is Ford, who has repeatedly stated commercial clothes are part of his design philosophy. His work may be precious, but he doesn't want his clothes to be so precious that they look like they belong in a museum (think Alexander McQueen).
Timberlake — who had been vocal about his recent focus on acting instead of music prior to his latest album — reportedly embarked on The 20/20 Experience only in order to fulfill a soon-to-expire $20 million Live Nation contract. After the lackluster radio debut of "Suit and Tie," Live Nation partner Jay-Z suggested he and Timberlake headline. Rumor was, Live Nation was worried about Timberlake being able to sell tickets. Was it coincidence that each had a Tom Ford-branded track? And what's more: Why bother with the blatant Tom Ford alliance in the first place? It seems unlikely it's just because he makes their favorite suits and ties and likely that money is at stake.
Last month, WWD reported Ford was looking for investors — wealthy families, specifically — to buy minority stakes in his company, but the process had been stopped once it leaked to the press. (Ford denied at the time that he wanted to sell a minority stake.) But Ford and his business partner have made no secret of their ambitions to become one of the world's top luxury brands. When WWD asked Ford recently if he could become one of the world's top five, he said, "I could and will, certainly within the next 10 years, if not sooner." In a conference this spring, Ford's business partner Domenico De Sole described brand building as "a painful, long and expensive road, but it can be done," adding that "the reality for a small young company is you need financing for your stores." Could Jay-Z be helping with that financing by investing in Tom Ford? Could he now be trying to reap rewards from that investment? The Ford brand isn't all $1,000 jeans — its line of cosmetics and fragrances are expensive but accessible to a huge audience of people, and surely Ford's biggest moneymakers.
Just last week, Beyoncé — a model in Ford's first namesake women's show — posted a photo of her foot delicately tucked into a baby-sized Tom Ford shoe, a custom creation for daughter Blue Ivy. With all the effort the Carters seem to be putting toward promoting Tom Ford, it would be odd if they didn't have a financial incentive to do so. And, as Ford's team has said, he's the one that needs the money.
Yet Ford has acted surprised by the "Tom Ford" track rather than like an accomplice in the effort. "I am completely flattered," he told Billboard. "I mean, come on, who would not want a Jay-Z song named after them?" Especially when you have no intention of seeing whether or not your hyper-luxurious brand can withstand the decidedly down-market flavor of an H&M line. How nice that Tom Ford has discovered another vehicle that can deliver that level of publicity without sacrificing his creative vision.