The Tom Ford look – a rakish, glossy 90s-style minimalism for hedonists – has come back into fashion this year, just at the moment when Ford himself has left. Ford sold his company to Estée Lauder for $2.8bn last year and has bowed out of design duties. But at Milan fashion week, a debut collection by his longtime protege, the British designer Peter Hawkings, made a convincingly chic case for the viability of Tom Ford fashion without Tom Ford the man.
The charismatic frontman was absent, but the greatest hits were sung flawlessly. The skinniest of velvet trouser suits were not so much tailored as trimmed to the bone. Silk blouses were unbuttoned to the navel. Evening sandals teetered on needle heels. There were shiny mock-croc coats, safari jackets, sculptural belt buckles slung around the hips of slinky dresses. On a low-lit catwalk at 9.30pm, every model wore sunglasses.
Where Hawkings’s version of Tom Ford differed from the original was in it being a little more modest. Ford was a provocateur, who in his spring/summer 1997 show sent a model down the catwalk in an open-knit sweater, plenty of smoky eye makeup, but nothing on her bottom half except a G-string with interlocking G-logo above the buttocks. Hawkings does not appear to share this taste for catwalk semi-nudity.
Backstage after the show, asked who he pictured as the Tom Ford woman, Hawkings immediately named his wife, the entrepreneur Whitney Bromberg Hawkings. The couple met while they were both working with Ford, before Bromberg Hawkings left to set up the online flower company Flowerbx. “My wife is the Tom Ford woman. I am lucky to have a strong wife with strong opinions who tells me exactly what works and what doesn’t,” Hawkings said.
The fully dressed elegance of these clothes reflected a designer listening to feedback from a professional woman. An aesthetic that looked louche and exciting in the 1990s can read as a little sleazy to modern tastes, so this felt like a contemporary update. However, it risks leaving the clothes lacking in frisson, which Ford knew better than anyone was essential to keep a brand in the spotlight. Estée Lauder has bought Tom Ford primarily as a beauty company – Tom Ford fragrances and makeup have a devoted fanbase who pay elevated prices – which means that the future of Tom Ford as a clothing line still hangs in the balance.
Ford had planned to support Hawkings from the front row, but flight disruption caused by severe weather prevented him from travelling to Milan. Torrential rain has also disrupted plans for the Gucci debut of new designer Sabato de Sarno. Gucci was due to host an open-air show in the streets surrounding Milan’s Accademia di Brera, envisaging a city-centre event that would be watched by residents on their balconies – a symbolic reclamation of Milan’s heritage by a brand looking to find its way back to solid ground after an era of ultra-eccentricity under Alessandro Michele. At the 11th hour, Friday’s show was relocated to an indoor venue at Gucci’s modernist headquarters. “This decision has been made with the utmost priority of ensuring the safety of all the production workers and offering the best possible experience to its guests,” a Gucci spokesperson said.