BACK IN THE '80S, GUCCI, ONCE THE HEIGHT OF CHIC IN leather goods and fashion, had become synonymous with cheesiness, its logo of interlocked gold Gs ripped off and emblazoned on everything from T-shirts to handbags. The company itself wasn't blameless. "The canvas that we became famous for in the '70s had slowly turned into plastic," says Tom Ford, 33, who took over as Gucci's creative director in 1994. "Many of the products were substandard." Nowadays, thanks in large part to Ford, there's not enough Gucci to go around. At the company's London boutique, 150 patient patrons are wait-listed for his techno-stretch pantsuits. Bergdorf Goodman in New York City has 220 hopefuls on hold for his silver G white leather pumps. And the flagship Milan store can't keep his bestselling G-belts in stock. "When you see Tom's things," says actress Jennifer Tilly, a fan, "there's an almost uncontrollable 'I've got to have it' feeling."

As the force behind fashion's return to mod, the Texas-born Ford restored Gucci's luster by reining in the firm's overlicensed logo and replacing its stuffy designs with glitzy zebra-print silk shirts, chartreuse caftans and stiletto-heeled loafers. "Kate Moss is today's Twiggy, James Dean is perhaps Keanu Reeves," he says. "When I work, I think, 'What do these people wear?' Theirs is the image I want in my clothes." So far, he has succeeded. "His clothes are glamorous but in a very casual way," says Madonna, who, like Sharon Stone, Demi Moore and Heather Locklear, is a devotee of Ford's body-hugging blouses ($495), faux fur coats ($1,195) and patent leather go-go boots ($495). Ford also credits timing for his success. "Gucci has always been a little flashy, a little Riviera, a little Hollywood—a mix of good taste and bad," he says. "Because of the kitsch quality of things now, we came back at the right time. People are saying, 'I'm cool enough to wear this ridiculous G-belt and it's screaming at you, but isn't that great?' "

Ford mastered the art of reinvention early on. The older of two children of real-estate-broker parents, now divorced, he grew up in Austin and Houston, and later in Santa Fe, N.Mex. At 5, he persuaded his mother to pack away his bedroom set. "I remade my entire room out of cardboard boxes," he says. When he was 12, he pleaded for—yes—white patent Gucci loafers. "I got them the moment my foot fit the smallest size," he recalls.

Tall and handsome, Ford headed to New York University in 1979 to study art history and acting. When his first trip to an agent paid off with a role in a commercial (he later appeared in spots for Old Spice and McDonald's and in bit parts on TV), Ford dropped out of school in his sophomore year. By his own admission "not a very good actor," he enrolled at Los Angeles's Parsons School of Design in 1982 to study interior architecture. Two years later he switched to the school's Paris campus where he had an epiphany. "I realized I'd always wanted to be a designer," he says. "But when you grow up in Texas, it's not something you want to admit."

Following Ford's 1986 graduation and stints with Cathy Hard wick and Perry Ellis, Gucci hired him in 1990 to revamp its women's ready-to-wear. By March of '95, he was winning critical acclaim. Ford "has put Gucci far and away in front," raved a New York Times reporter after October's spring show. On Feb. 12, the Council of Fashion Designers of America gave him their international award.

Now the power behind one of Wall Street's hottest companies (after going public last year, Gucci's share price jumped from $22 to $42), Ford isn't just watching the cash roll in. A bachelor who is married to his job, he spends barely half a year at his spacious Paris flat. In his off-hours, he patrols the club scene from New York to Paris. That, he says, is where he comes up with his best ideas. "I design for the international person who travels between New York, Paris and Hong Kong," he says. "Or at least the person who dreams of such a life."

JANICE MIN
CATHY NOLAN in Paris, DAVID COBB CRAIG in New York City, TOULA VLAHOU in Milan and STEVEN COJOCARU in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Cathy Nolan,
  • David Cobb Craig,
  • Toula Vlahou,
  • Steven Cojocaru.