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A dead alligator's skin, sprayed gold and serving as a table cover, is the first thing you see as you enter the hushed, nearly pitch-dark foyer of designer Tom Ford's new menswear emporium on Madison Avenue. Dare to proceed further, and you find one room decked out as a salon with velvet divans you don't dare flop on. Another chamber, paneled with the kind of floor-to-ceiling cabinetry that is every lowly apartment dweller's dream, offers shirts in no fewer than 340 colors, 35 fabrics, seven collars (Seven! What can they be? Buttons, no buttons, Etonand four more?) and three cuffs. Once you've chosen, you can spend even more money on an umbrella or that archaic item, the walking stick, both of which have been trimmed in 18-karat gold.
Did Ford, who has been famous since the early '90s for the sexed-up women's fashions he offered as head designer for Gucci and Yves St. Laurent, turn to menswear because, as he once put it, "You can only make the slit so much higher, the stiletto so much taller"?
Who knows. In any case, there are no stilettos in this black-and-gold crypt, and the only slits on display are the vents in the back of the ultra-traditional suits, which retail from $3,200 ($5,000 if you want yours custom made). Actually, you can only assume the vents are there, since the merchandise is shut up tight in glass cases. "Nothing's for sale!" a fellow shopper viewing these austere vitrines boomed genially to his companion, his voice ricocheting from the massive fireplaces to the high-gloss floors.
Another area, octagonal (I know because I stood and counted the walls under the chilly glances of the salespeople), is lined in marble and functions as a perfume bar, because Ford has a new line of scents, including one packaged in a black glass bottle and called Noir de Noir (Well, you didn't expect it be warm and fuzzy, did you?).
Alas, you won't catch Tom himself minding the store. Ever modest, the designer has explained that, "I can't be in the store during opening hours anymore because people want me to sign things and take pictures with them with their cell phones."
But not all of us want his autograph. Truth be told, Tom Ford has always given me the creeps. With his shirt cut down to there, revealing an artfully hirsute chest, and his "Aren't-I-good-looking?" smirk he seems like someone who gazes around the room and thinks that everyone around him comes up lacking. Especially the women.
Ford's antediluvian ideas about women became apparent when he headed up Gucci, a brand that he transformed from a moribund company churning out horsebit-trimmed loafers, double-G satchels, and the kind of printed silk scarves Helen Mirren wears in The Queen. Ford infused the label with a caffeinated sexiness, eventually making its very name synonymous with slashed necklines and high skirts. If you didn't get the message from the clothes alone, Ford wasn't above manufacturing a scandal, as when he shaved the pubic hair of his model with a Gucci G for an advertising campaign. Stunts like this, and the apparently overwhelming desire of legions of tiny women with lots of money to zip themselves into his creations, put the brand on top until 2004, when Ford abruptly left his post.
He claimed that he was going Hollywood and intended to make movies. It didn't happen. Instead, late last month he opened this temple of gilded opulence, the existence of which only serves to confirm that Ford has some very dated ideas about sex. The shop exudes the kind of smutty glamour that made Helmut Newton's more salacious photographs so attractive-repellent back in the 1980s.
Actually Tom Ford, the store, reminds you of nothing so much as the character Christopher Walken used to play in that old SNL sketch "The Continental," where a lecherous seducer with a European accent went through comically old-fashioned paces of seduction. Ford's heavy silk robe in a Chinese pattern (well, it looked heavyit's in one of those glass cases, so who knows for sure) is just the sort of thing a sinister older guy with a lot of money would slip into before offering you a line of cocaine or a glass of champagne while all the time you're wondering, how the hell am I going to get out of here?
Luckily it's just a store, and you can leave any time you want. Once outside, I crossed the street and immersed myself in a far different reverie at Juicy Couture, whose pink awnings are emblazoned with the brand's crest, a medallion held up by two terriers.
Instead of a fetid eroticism, the Juicy Couture store pushes the notion of Grown Woman as Princess. If Tom is a sleazy roué, the Juicy team, Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor, appear to have as their ideal customer the preternaturally perky Elle Woods, heroine of Legally Blonde. Woods loves bubblegum pink and Chanel quilting and tiny dogs, and so do Pamela and Gela! The pair's first success was a frankly hideous velour tracksuit, more often than not pastel, that allowed grown women to, in effect, walk around in their pajamas all day long. From this humble garment has grown a business that includes everything from panties to perfume to pet clothes.
Infantile and sticky as their aesthetic may be, it comes as rather a relief after Ford's mausoleum. Instead of an interior that relies heavily on ebony and marble, the walls here areno surprisepink, and everything is out in the open, which means you can immediately finger the price tags. If Tom's store is intended to remind you of a decadent hotel suite, the Juicy Couture shop is like a game of Candyland, with crystal-ball finials decorating the curving staircase. (Tom has a staircase too, with a sign in front that reads "By appointment only" and makes you wonder, with a shudder, what that appointment might entail.)
Slogans on the Juicy walls, rendered in kindergarten colors, include "Smells Like Couture" and "Juicy Kisses." This juicy business, faintly repulsive to begin with, is repeated ad nauseam on everything from underpants ("Girls Gone Juicy") to tote bags ("Juicy Girls Club") and even a bed for dogs ("For Juicy Dogs Who Like Stuff Love G&P"). Still, it's hard to be mad at a place that has cotton summer dresses, albeit in pink, for $168, which on this stretch of Madison Avenue is the equivalent of $16.80.
But it makes you wonder: In 2007, are these competing sexual fantasies our only alternatives? Tom Ford wants us to go back to a time when depravity wore a smoking jacket and velvet evening slippers; Juicy Couture thinks we should dress like giant six-year-olds, and sport a wristwatch that reads "Live for Sugar."
But an overdose of saccharine can make you just as sick as an art-deco evening scarf choking off your windpipe.