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Tom Ford Documentary Director Michael Bonfiglio: "The First Thing I Noticed About Tom Ford Was How Good He Smelled"

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Remember back in June, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) was meant to premiere a documentary about Tom Ford? Then the premiere was delayed til September and now OWN is saying they'll finally air the show on October 23rd. Well, anyway, we're still really excited about it.

Photo credit (above): Getty Images; Below right: Mike Martin

@Radical.media director Michael Bonfiglio, right, spent a significant amount of time with Ford while working on Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind. Here, Bonfiglio talks about the process of making his first fashion documentary and discovering how interconnected life and fashion can be.

Michael Bonfiglio: I must confess that when I first started shooting Tom Ford for a documentary I was working on, I didn’t really know who he was.

Of course I’d done my homework, reading everything about him I could get my hands on. I knew that he was the wunderkind who had transformed Gucci and YSL into fashion powerhouses by the time he was in his early thirties. I knew he was one of the most influential and respected people in the fashion world, and that he was known to be a perfectionist with extremely particular tastes, a provocateur whose self-assuredness bordered on arrogance. So I was a little intimidated, but mostly because I felt unprepared.

My lack of knowledge about Tom was directly related to my lack of knowledge about fashion. I’d never felt that fashion was really something that particularly applied to me. I grew up in a small town where “fashion” simply wasn’t part of the conversation. And as I got older and started working in documentary film, often on projects about serious issues like human rights and environmentalism, fashion seemed frivolous.

But a few months prior to my first encounter with Tom Ford, I’d seen his film A Single Man, and it had moved me. It was my favorite type of art—the kind that you keep thinking about it weeks after experiencing it. It got me thinking: how could the same person who had created such a spiritual, raw, and personal film be so concerned with every minor detail involved in showing a bunch of rich people some new dresses?

I didn’t know Tom yet.

The first thing I noticed about Tom Ford was how good he smelled.

I’d been invited to his Madison Avenue store last September, the night before he unveiled his Spring 2011 women’s wear collection, and the day before we shot the first frame of the documentary.

The show itself was Fashion Week’s most tightly-guarded secret, and aside from Terry Richardson and Tom’s own film crew, ours were the only cameras allowed in. The place buzzed with activity as the technical crew and the entire Tom Ford staff attended to last-minute preparations. My producers and I sat quietly observing, mentally plotting out our camera positions and trying our best to stay out of the way.

Suddenly, I heard my name. Cori Galpern, Ford’s Director of Worldwide Communications, was speaking to Tom and looking in our direction, and they began walking toward me. “Tom Ford,” he said, arm extended and looking me straight in the eye. I felt like he was sizing me up, and immediately stood and shook his hand, The first thing I thought was, “Wow, he smells incredible! Like? confidence.

After we exchanged brief pleasantries, Tom went back to work. I watched him survey the room, politely making adjustments—some subtle, some drastic—with utter certainty and calm precision. Seeing the intensity of the whole affair, I really felt like I might be the wrong person for this job.

The next night we filmed behind the scenes at the show. It was a glamorous affair, open exclusively to the fashion world’s elite (and my crew and me), and unquestionably the most coveted invitation of the season. About an hour before his guests arrived, Tom found a few minutes to speak with me. Assuming his incredibly selective guest list and ban on photography was due to a combination of snobbery and hype, I asked him why he insisted on making it so private. While I retained my skepticism, his response surprised me.

“Because of my past reputation at both Gucci and Saint Laurent, there is enormous expectation of me designing a women's collection. And so because the expectations were so high, I thought I should really make it quiet, downplay it.

"I've learned over the years that you should do something first and then talk about it. Because you can talk things up to a level where they can’t possibly live up to people’s expectations. So hopefully the audience is arriving thinking they're going to see a small showroom presentation, and I hope that they're surprised by what they see.”

As everyone now knows, the show was an unqualified hit. Anna Wintour told me she “loooved it,” and even I could see that the clothes were absolutely beautiful.

Later that week, we filmed some more with Tom, and he impressed me with his charm, humor, and the incredible politeness he showed to everyone around him, no matter what their role. And again, he seemed vulnerable in a way that ran counter to everything I’d thought I’d known about him. He even confessed that he was a little uncomfortable being filmed, since he’d never let a film crew into his process the way he was allowing us to do.

Over the next few months, we shot with Tom a few more times, culminating in a full day of filming and a sit-down interview at his studio in London.

Just prior the interview, as we were setting up our lights in his office, Tom asked me about the interview format. “So will you be on camera as well?”

“Oh no,” I said. “I’m not on camera, and my voice will be completely cut out.”

Well that’s good, seeing as how you’re dressed,” he replied, with a wry smile.

I was mortified. I was wearing a black button-down shirt and a pair of Levi’s. Pretty inoffensive I’d thought, clearly incorrectly. My face must have betrayed my shame, because Tom quickly tried to make me feel better. “No, you’re fine! It’s just that if you were going to be on camera, you should have on a little jacket or something?”

But I knew he thought my appearance didn’t pass muster. My embarrassment waned, and we sat for a wide-ranging interview that lasted for over two hours, discussing everything from lapel widths to his interest in the Tao Te Ching and his feelings about mortality. And the man whose socks retail for more than I pay for shoes spoke candidly about his own struggles with the industry that made him a star.

“We convince people that they’re not perfect enough, that they need this, or they need that. We promote materialism, which is ultimately not the thing that brings you happiness in the world.”

But he also defended the importance of what he does. “Fashion creates a bit of a dream. That’s the whole point I think of dressing up, is you feel better about yourself. It’s an enhanced version of who you are? You’re feeling good, so you’re showing a side of yourself that maybe you wouldn't be showing if you were sitting there feeling bad.”

As simple and perhaps obvious as this observation is, coming from Tom Ford it seemed like a minor revelation. I had never really thought that way about fashion. I’d always assumed it just wasn’t something that was meant for me. But I came away from our time together with a new appreciation for what it may be. Fashion creates ethereal moments that have the power to spark our imaginations, stimulate the senses, and bring beauty to the mundane and inject a bit of fantasy into everyday reality. It can change our perception of the world, no matter who we are or whether we want it to or not. While he took pains to explain that the measure of that change should be kept in perspective, Tom taught me that there’s nothing frivolous about it at all.

After we’d put together a rough cut of the documentary, I flew to Los Angeles to screen it for him. I was quite pleased with how it was coming together, but nervous about what he would think of it. I also wanted to show him that I had really heard what he was saying.

So I bought a new shirt (and tucked it in). I borrowed a waistcoat from a friend and put on some freshly-shined dress shoes instead of the beat-up Chuck Taylors I’d had on in London. And I waited in the hotel lobby for Tom to arrive.

He walked in the door and approached me with a warm smile. He gave me a hug, kissed me on both cheeks and the first thing he said was, “You look great! So cleaned up!”

I felt good, and free to concentrate on nothing but the quality of the work we’d done on the documentary? which he loved.
· Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mine [OWN]
· Tom Ford documentary debuts on OWN [Racked]
· All Tom Ford coverage [Racked]