Thomas Carlyle Ford was born on August 27, 1961, in Austin, Texas, the son of realtors Shirley Burton (née Shirley Ann Thrasher) and Thomas David Ford (1932-2020). He spent his early life in the suburbs of Houston, Texas, and in San Marcos, outside Austin. He rearranged furniture in the house at 6, and gave his mother advice on her hair and shoes. His family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, when he was 11. In Santa Fe, he entered St. Michael's High School and later moved to Santa Fe Preparatory School, from which he graduated in 1979.
At age 16, he enrolled at Bard College at Simon's Rock, but quickly dropped out. He moved to New York City to study art history at New York University. There he met Ian Falconer, who took him to Studio 54 for the first time. Ford dropped out after a year, focusing on acting in television commercials.
Ford began studying interior architecture at The New School's art and design college, Parsons The New School for Design, in New York City. He continued to frequent Studio 54, where he realized he was gay. The club's disco-era glamor would be a major influence on his later designs. Before his last year at New School, Ford spent a year and a half in Paris, where he worked as an intern in Chloé's press office, inspiring his interest in fashion. He spent his final year at The New School studying fashion, but graduated with a degree in architecture.