By now the tale has taken on somewhat mythical proportions—then again, if one is to identify the essential chapters in the life of Tom Ford, a climactic moment most assuredly would be the September 2010 launch of his womenswear label, an event that was equal parts highwattage Hollywood and hush-hush secrecy.

Only 100 invitees watched as A-listers like Beyoncé and Julianne Moore walked not a red carpet on this New York night, but a dove-gray runway, each wearing Ford’s vision of “a small capsule collection, shown on the women I find most inspirational.” The clothes exquisitely befit each wearer, from a leopard-print gown on Daphne Guinness to a white tuxedo on Lauren Hutton. After six years of the “When will he?” questions, arising every season since Ford’s 2004 departure from Gucci, it was a fashion moment both seminal and triumphant.

  Scarlet velvet single-breasted tuxedo jacket, wide-leg trousers, black floral Chantilly lace T-shirt, and a black crystal envelope bag

It’s notable that Ford, who narrated the presentation, prefers to think of the event not as a room brimming with boldfaced names, but as a return to something he holds dear. “There is a sense of intimacy that has been lost in fashion over the last two decades, and it is important to me, as a designer, to bring that back,” he says. Thus, you arrive at the dichotomy of Tom Ford, designer of clothes that effortlessly straddle the duality of artful luxe and sexually charged energy, dream maker of luscious campaigns, sizzling magazine covers, and a hungrily anticipated feature film, 2009’s A Single Man, which garnered both high critical praise and a healthy roster of nominations. Arguably the most coveted designer working today, Ford might have anything for the asking, and yet what he seeks is the private, personal attention and elegance of fashion’s bygone days. Amber Valletta has witnessed firsthand the evolution of Tom Ford, having played a role in another essential chapter, his 1995 Gucci show, roundly agreed to be both a star-making turn for Ford and the irrefutable comeback of the storied Italian label. “I’m not one to dwell on things, but I recognize the importance of that moment,” Valletta says. “Fashion has changed so drastically since then. But we all knew when we saw those clothes that they were special. We all looked so incredibly sensual and powerful, and there just wasn’t anything like it at the time. I remember walking that runway and feeling the power of that room.”

Valletta notes it was power of a different kind when Ford invited her to take part in his September 2010 debut, which also boasted a full-circle vibe. “He said, ‘It makes sense that you’re here, you’re a good-luck charm,’” she remembers. “That show was extremely personal, and you were so close to the audience that they could reach out and touch your clothes. And Tom announced all of us, just like old-school runway.”

Due to the promotion and subsequent award-season schedule resulting from A Single Man, Ford had only three months to craft his women’s debut; he enjoyed a bit more luxury of time for his Fall/Winter 2011 collection, which arrives this month in a new shop-in-shop at Neiman Marcus Bal Harbour. “My first [women’s] collection was really about returning to womenswear and establishing a framework for what the collection will be,” Ford says. “My second collection is much more developed in its size and scope, yet it is still about individuality. It consists of real clothes for real women…. I want my shops to be somewhere a woman knows she can go when she wants a great jacket, a great pair of pants, a beautiful shoe, or great bag.”

Fall/Winter plays into that idea with some of the most sumptuous, tactile pieces to emerge from the season, a masterful mix of corset-like detailing on high-neck lace dresses, peplums on severely cut sheaths of crimson velvet, and stunning tuxedo suiting for evening—the latter referred to in the fashion vernacular simply as a “smoking,” a term originally coined by Yves Saint Laurent when he famously introduced “Le Smoking” tuxedo dressing for women in 1966 (Ford served as creative director of YSL between 2000 and 2004). He accented these feminine and forward clothes with bold jewelry in hammered gold, gold-fringed handbags, and velvet sandals that wrap like ribbons around a woman’s foot.

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