"When sex goes out of business, so do we."
A bon mot of brilliance delivered back when by EstÃ©e Lauder, one her son Leonard Lauder takes considerable delight in repeating.
Assuming the beauty doyenne was correct, these should be heady times for the house she founded. This month will see the first fruits of Lauder's curious marriage with Tom Ford, the man for whom sex and style are virtually synonymous. "We've always tried to position ourselves where we're selling something that's really sexy," says Leonard Lauder, the company chairman. "That's the cornerstone of EstÃ©e Lauder."
Ford's own line, to include a fragrance and makeup, is slated to debut next fall. In the meantime, Lauder engaged him to create two limited-edition collections. "Tom Ford was the combustion that drove the entire Nineties," says John Demsey, president of EstÃ©e Lauder. "The glamour, the excitement and the product not only inspired people to love Gucci, but fueled an amazing moment in fashion around the world. He has the ability and the sensibility to do the same in beauty."
Ford will divulge little about his own launch, except that he has developed a fragrance and that it has a name. He is not, however, someone who works spontaneously. Rather, he built his success on careful analysis of the cultural winds and savvy anticipation of what's next. This photo portfolio depicts his view of a society dehumanized by the quest for physical perfection, for which the beauty world bears considerable responsibility.
"We've become plastic, objectifying the human body…waxed and polished and buffed and shined up and manipulated," Ford says. "And then, of course, I'm portrayed as the one doing the manipulating, the polishing, buffing, shaping, which is what I do. It's just what we do. What the fashion industry does."
Brassy stuff from a guy about to launch his own line. Of course, provocation goes to the core of Ford's style.
—Bridget Foley and Jane Larkworthy
W: How is life with Lauder?
TF: "Before we go any further, can we just clarify my relationship with EstÃ©e Lauder? I don't know why it's so hard to understand, but no one's getting it right. I signed a deal with Lauder to produce and distribute the Tom Ford fragrance and cosmetics collection, which launches in fall 2006. Since it takes 18 months to create a brand from scratch, in the meantime the Lauders asked me to do two small limited-edition collections. The first is Youth Dew Amber Nude. The original Youth Dew was maybe a little bit heavy for today's taste, so the first thing I did was reduce the concentration to make it more modern. The second project is the AzurÃ©e collection, which launches next spring.
W: These pictures make an interesting beauty debut, to say the least.
TF: I like to put things in social context. When we [Ford, photographer Steven Klein and W Creative Director Dennis Freedman] met to discuss this shoot, we talked about how certain things are so ingrained in our society. Like, for example, we live in a hairless society. There was a moment in time when if you were watching porn, or saw just any model or actor or man, there was hair—Burt Reynolds, for example, stretched out naked totally covered in hair. Men had mustaches. Men had chest hair. In today's world, all the guys are shaved, although gay men are going back to hair. We're living also in a very plastic moment where everything is manufactured and pumped up. If you look at SUVs, they look like station wagons that have been inflated. Breasts today look pumped up. Lips are pumped up. Butts are pumped up. What's happening culturally carries over onto the human form, and at the moment they're busty and big and pumped up.
W: Not all those little tabloid actresses.
TF: That's the opposite of it. One of the reasons we're so obsessed with thinness is that we've never been fatter. We're also living in a culture of extremes, with no middle ground. People are either purging or they're bingeing. So through these pictures I wanted to touch upon things like that.… I've always been about pansexuality. Whether I'm sleeping with girls or not at this point in my life, the clothes have often been androgynous, which is very much my standard of beauty.
W: So these pictures capture how you see today's world of beauty?
TF: We've become plastic, objectifying the human body. We're no longer animals. Women and men are so waxed and polished and buffed and shined up and manipulated. We don't age. We've got these weird lips that don't really look like lips. We've started to lose touch with what a real breast looks like; we've started to lose the animal side of our nature. It's time to somehow pull it back to something more human. We treat women almost like cars. It's happened over the last 25 years. When we were kids, it was lift and separate. Now, of course, Victoria's Secret pushes it all together.
W: You've always said that looking good requires work—polish and a certain fakeness.
TF: But I've also always talked about why the Seventies were such an important moment to me—because there was a relaxed quality; bodies looked real. I think it had to do with the fact that back then you really could have sex. We used to watch sitcoms where people had one-night stands all the time, and we grew up thinking that that was okay. Today we have a more perverse look at sexuality, but stylized and almost fake. If you watch a porn film today versus a porn film from the Seventies, there's something much sexier about the Seventies film because it's more natural. Today it's so stylized, sort of cartoonlike. But we're in a cartoonlike moment. I mean, think of Angelina Jolie's face. It looks like Lara Croft. She is exaggerated. Her lips are exaggerated. Our beauty standard today is cartoonlike, and it's artificial. So the idea of all these dolls [in the shoot], we're living in a world where there are humans who actually are just dolls. And the boys, are they dolls or are they human? They are in fact human, yet there are three of them so they're all the same and they look like dolls. The fact is that men are moving toward the same plastic beauty. And it's about me living in this world.
W: As someone entering the beauty arena, isn't this dangerous turf? You depict a frightening image of women, created in part by the beauty industry.
TF: I'm not criticizing. I'm just trying to make a comment to let people see where we are. Sometimes it's hard for us to see our own world. There's a surreal quality to a lot of things, just go to a dinner party and see a lot of 60-year-old women all stretched and pulled. There's real manipulation going on. Sometimes you have to exaggerate these things in order to make the point. So that was really the point of the photo shoot, not necessarily to say it's right or wrong or good or bad or we should do it or we shouldn't do it. But trying to show where we are.
W: These pictures look futuristic-creepy—not a celebration of beauty.
TF: We are futuristic; we're on the cusp of being able to manipulate humans genetically to grow into whatever we think looks good. The moment we can start manipulating genes, how long are our legs going to get? Beauty used to be all about cream and lotions, and now it's not. It's about Botox. It's about fillers. It's about mini facelifts. We've reached a level of manipulation. And then of course I'm portrayed as the one doing the manipulating…the polishing, buffing, shaping, which is what I do. It's just what we do. What the fashion industry does.
W: But as someone making a foray into the mainstream beauty arena with a very mainstream company, how do you think this vision will be perceived?
TF: First of all, we can get carried away worrying about the mainstream. Five years ago the mainstream was watching Sex and the City. It's HBO today, with nudity and profanity every other word. The word f--- is part of normal parlance at almost every level of society. I think we're in a weird spot in this country, where we think that mainstream means being dull and flat. But everyone in this country has access to the Internet. Everyone has access to porn and watches it, by the way. So I don't get this mainstream thing. And EstÃ©e Lauder was at one point very, very innovative. EstÃ©e herself was a very innovative woman.
I don't believe in pandering to the public. I've always tried to be very open about everything. Open about my personal life. Open about my sexuality. At Gucci we were about mass luxury, but I shaved a "G" into a girl's pubic hair.
W: In fashion you're selling an image, but at the end of the day, that dress is very understandable: I like it. I don't. It will flatter me. It won't. Therefore, isn't image even more important in beauty than in fashion?
TF: This wasn't meant to be a shoot about beauty in a commercial sense: Look at the Amber Nude image, blah, blah, blah, which is rockin' for EstÃ©e Lauder. I've always thought that fashion has another meaning, because there are always sociological things happening that are pushing you to move in a certain way. The broader picture is more interesting.
W: Where would you like to see us go?
TF: I'd like to see something more natural. I'm all for Botox, collagen, cosmetic surgery. But I've been wondering, Why can we send a man to the moon but we can't make a breast look real? Then I encountered a girl the other day who had implants that really looked natural. She had nursed and her breasts changed, so she had it done, and her breasts looked just so amazing and so real. I'm all for manipulation to a certain extent, but I think it's very important not to deny the fact that we are animals. We need to look human.
W: With so much possible, do we become so fascinated by process that we overlook the result of too stretched, too busty, too everything?
TF: We're also insecure. You hear about something new you can do to yourself and you think, oh God, I need that. Insecurity was introduced by deodorant. We grew up watching all these deodorant commercials. This girl sweats, and, oh my God, it ruins her interview, and her whole life falls apart. She's got to have her antiperspirant. Now she doesn't sweat. Her life is great, and blah, blah, blah. It happens with each new thing that is available—I need a polish, a buff. It turns people into cars. I love cars, but I don't want to f--- my car.
W: So how are you going to fight the plasticized status quo through the Tom Ford beauty business?
TF: Just what I'm talking about. Images and products that help you look beautiful and polished, but not too polished. Look at the Amber Nude photo of Carolyn Murphy. I wanted to use the EstÃ©e Lauder woman, but I wanted to change her a bit. She looked very uptight. She looked very retouched. I'm just saying that there are times in your life when you should look a little more sensual.
W: More sensual than when you're appearing in an EstÃ©e Lauder ad?
TF: Well, those pictures can look a lot like a mom. I wanted to show a different side. She's got a bit more shine to her skin and she's not so matte. She is a little more human-looking.
W: You keep going back to the notion of real.
TF: Thousands and thousands of years of evolution have gone into making us attractive to each other and not to machines. We have to be careful that we don't start to look like machines and like we're made of plastic—even though I'm in bed with two plastic girls.
W: And how did you like them?
TF: They start to take on a certain presence. I think we were fascinated for the first 20 minutes but then…they weigh a ton and to drag one of those girls around took four people. Of course, they're made for sex. I think if you left that doll alone in a room with a different man for an hour, every man would have sex with it once. But I don't think they'd go back.
W: Let's talk about getting naked. Why did you do it?
TF: A couple of reasons. One is that I've had a little criticism for objectifying women and always taking their clothes off. I thought, Well, why shouldn't I take my clothes off? It seemed to make absolute sense. There I am, living in this world with dolls all day long, bathing and polishing and shining them up, and kind of looking like I'm in love with them. Well, of course I'm going to sleep with them. So A, it made sense for the story; B, I've never been freaked out or weird about sex.
W: You look pretty terrific—even unretouched.
TF: My butt is naturally hairless, by the way.
W: For the record.
TF: For the record.
W: And you have long maintained that everybody looks better naked. Yourself included?
TF: What I mean is that you can go to the gym and see a guy in the shower and think, Wow, great, I'd love to talk to him. Then he goes and sits down on a bench and puts on frightening shoes, a silver thumb ring and a bad suit. Being naked is the great equalizer; there are just less ways to screw up.
W: Do you fear anything?
TF: I fear a lot of things, but I don't fear this. There's an artistic side to fashion, and it should challenge. [Otherwise], everything will die.
W: That's the big picture. In a smaller picture, someone is funding your new venture, writing checks for X, Y and Z.
TF: If someone says to me, "Your contract is terminated," I'd say, "Fine, I don't care. It's not going to change my life." Of course, I'm in a wonderful position—that f--- you money that you always hear about. I believe in this. I'm not going to change who I am. You have to be true to whatever you are. As long as you're authentic, even if you're President Bush saying your thing, you're authentic being President Bush.