Tom Ford’s Yves Saint Laurent Is a Forgotten Footnote to His Gucci Years

From a stunning beef with the designer Yves Saint Laurent himself to a knockout final runway show in 2004.

Stuck in My Headis an essay series that celebrates the highly specific moments in fashion history that we’re pretty sure will stay lodged in our brains forever, from film costumes to runway bloopers to the ad campaigns of our youths. Here, senior digital editor Maxine Wally looks back on Tom Ford’s final collection at Yves Saint Laurent.

During his decade-long tenure as creative director at Gucci, Tom Ford was hailed for turning the near-bankrupt brand into a multibillion-dollar powerhouse—defining an era of the mid-nineties with a minimalist sex appeal that became synonymous with his signature aesthetic. But from 1999 to 2004, Ford took on another project that often gets relegated to a footnote of the Gucci era: He became the creative director of Yves Saint Laurent when Gucci Group added the maison to its profile.

And perhaps Ford would like to keep it that way. He famously struggled in his relationship with the late designer himself Yves Saint Laurent, who was, to say the least, not pleased with the direction Ford took the label, (and, some speculate, the fact that he gained attention for it didn’t help).

“The poor guy does what he can,” Saint Laurent told members of the press, just before he started writing letters to the new designer that detailed his rancor. According to André Leon Talley’s new memoir “The Chiffon Trenches,” one such note allegedly stated, “In 13 minutes, you have managed to destroy 40 years of my work.”

“Yves and his partner, Pierre Bergé, were so difficult and so evil and made my life such misery,” Ford once recalled, years after he’d left Gucci Group following its buyout by the company that eventually became part of the luxury conglomerate Kering. “I’d lived in France off and on and had always loved it…It wasn’t until I started working in France that I began to dislike it. [In Paris,] you are not able to work an employee more than 35 hours a week. The fiscal police…would show up at our offices—they’d come marching in, and you had to let them in and they’d interview my secretary. And they can fine you and shut you down. Pierre was the one calling them. So Yves Saint Laurent doesn’t exist for me.

“I don’t even remember much about my time at Yves Saint Laurent,” Ford added, “though I do think some of my best collections were [there].”

I agree with him. Ford’s time at Gucci was marked by all those words people use to describe game-changing fashions—Sexy! Iconic! Daring!—with the numbers to back it up (with Ford at the helm, Gucci went from being in the red to valued at more than $4 billion in the span of three years.) But I always find his designs at Yves Saint Laurent captured the romanticism associated with the house, combined with Ford’s signatures of simultaneous simple, clean lines and sumptuous luxury. Under Alessandro Michele, Gucci has gone in an entirely different aesthetic direction. But the brand now known as Saint Laurent, even under a rotating cast of creative directors including Hedi Slimane and Anthony Vaccarello, has maintained the tradition-defying codes that Ford put in place during his stint there.

It was Ford’s final collection for Yves Saint Laurent, a fall ready-to-wear line in 2004, which cemented him within the label’s historical canon. The previous season, he’d bent to the will of Saint Laurent somewhat, incorporating the signature Le Smoking jacket rendered in silks and wedding-dress-whites into his runway. But for his last dance, Ford gave a huge middle finger to Yves and Pierre, and did whatever the hell he wanted.

The result was a thrilling mix of jewel tones, fur accents, and spins on the Chinese qipao, or cheongsam, with pagoda shoulders and frog buttons. Today, the liberties he took with traditional Chinese dress would be called cultural appropriation—a white man mining the “Far East” for inspiration. Looking back at the cadre of white models with winged, smoky eyeliner and teased hair now, it’s certainly problematic. But in 2004, for better or for worse, the concept of appropriation barely existed—and at 14 years old, I found the collection to be exhilarating. Strangely enough, the association made me feel seen at that time—I went to Chinese school on Saturdays and participated in classical dance lessons there. I would wear a qipao. At my school talent show, I recited a poem in Chinese; I wore a qipao. (And you’re now fully aware of the extent of my nerdiness). Ford turned the qipao into a red carpet-ready gown: bright red, yellow, and pink, beaded with dragon print and tied delicately at the neck. The accessories were just as good, if not better, than the clothing—I kept track of the ankle-strap, peep-toe heels with embroidered flowers he debuted on the runway in subsequent issues of fashion magazines for months. He owned the tiny wedge heel that season. And models carried clutches wrapped in fur and braided leather straps, subtly giving off that bondage sex appeal that entire collections from Gucci reached for.

At the end of the show, Ford took his final walk down the runway. As the editors assembled gave him a standing ovation, he stood in front of fashion executive Domenico De Sole, who was Gucci’s president at the time and Ford’s longtime champion. In a gesture of homage, Ford bowed deeply at De Sole’s feet, sweeping his arm downward while De Sole patted him on the back, laughing. In that moment, Ford wore an interpretation of a Le Smoking jacket: velvet in a shade of lucky bright red—more Hugh Hefner than Saint Laurent. Although the DNA of the design no doubt came from the house that had scorned him, that version was all his own.

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