Interview: Tim Gunn of ‘Project Runway’

On Monday, February 22nd Tim Gunn made his appearance at Georgia State University to give a free lecture, A Guide to Quality, Taste, and Style. The Student Center State Ballroom on Georgia State University campus is packed with students, staff, faculty, and guests anxiously awaiting a look at the beloved Project Runway star. In fact, so many attendees swamped the ballroom that a second ballroom had to be set up to accommodate the overflow with a projected feed of the lecture. Seats fill up fast and the room is buzzing with excited talk of expectations for the speech. Finally, the audience quiets when Tim Gunn’s entrance is announced.

The tall gray-haired man that so many have all come to love for his down-to-earth vibe and much-repeated catch phrase “Make it work” on Project Runway walks across the platform to thunderous applause and yelling from the audience. His charm and casual attitude immediately put the audience at ease when he addresses everyone as his “peeps.” He begins to speak about his journey through the education system at Parsons in New York City. As a native of Washington D.C., Gunn never dreamed he would have a career as an educator. As both an administrator and faculty member at Parsons, he speaks about both sides of the higher education system. Eventually, Gunn became the associate dean of Parsons.

He goes on to talk about his work in restructuring the waning Fashion department of the school after the loss of the dean of the department. His restructuring included gearing the department to socially-conscious design and an eye toward new technology in the industry. During the restructuring, Gunn took enormous flack for removing the Designer Critic program, in which Parson’s senior fashion majors were paired with famous designers, like Donna Karan, to design for the famed designer’s collection. To acquiesce with student’s demands, Gunn changed the senior course work to focus on the student’s original concepts rather than designing for already established designers. As a result, many of those in the fashion industry saw the restructuring as a slap in the face, and much of the faculty at Parson’s saw it as a loss of visibility in the field. Fortunately, the students received the restructuring well and the first fashion show the school produced completely of student work was a success overall, despite bad press and runway protesting. As a result of the buzz, the fashion department at Parson’s became the most popular major at the school.

While working as associate dean at Parson’s, Gunn got the call to be a part of Project Runway. Initially, Gunn thought the show was a terrible idea. He thought the last thing the fashion industry needed was a reality show, but still agreed to meet with the producers. Gunn says the “make it or break it question” that got Gunn the position was when was asked what he would say if the designers were asked to create a wedding dress in two hours, to which Gunn replied, “Well, I guess they’ll have to design a wedding dress in two hours.” He compares the wait for a call-back like “being back in the dating game.”

Of course, Gunn got a call and became a part of Project Runway. In fact, it was Gunn’s idea to have the designer’s work space at Parson’s, due to financial constraints. However, Gunn disagree with two aspects of the show. First was that he did not want the designers to have 24 hour access to the studio, because he believed it posed an unfair advantage to those designers with “Martha Stewart stamina.” Second was that he believed that the designers should have to design and construct their garments. Shockingly, the show’s original format only required that the designers design their garment and would then send the design to a room of seamstresses and tailors who would produce the garment. Gunn saw the construction of the garment as an essential piece of the problem-solving aspect of the show. Originally, Gunn did not even think he would be on-screen. However, when it was confirmed that he wouldn’t have to live with the designers to become part of the on-screen cast, he agreed to come on board.

Gunn then begins to talk about his book, Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste, and Style. Originally, Gunn envisioned writing an academic book about the history of fashion. Gunn was extremely disappointed to hear that the publishers at Abrams wanted him to write a self-help book. After doing some research on what was already in the market, Gunn was disappointed in the current prescription-based fashion self-help books. He believes that the clothes should fit the personality of the person wearing them. Feeling as if the market was already over-run with fashion self-help books, Gunn wanted his to stand apart. Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste, and Style is text heavy so people would actually read the book.

Admittedly, Gunn struggled with the writing process. Finally the people at Abrams took Gunn to their offices where they would not let him leave until he finished writing the book. Four days later, he was done. Despite his struggle to write his first book, Gunn announces that he has just turned in the manuscript for his second, Gunn’s Golden Rules.

In this book, Gunn uses personal anecdotes to illustrate his points, which he claims are all true stories. As a result, he has faced some trouble since he decided not to change any names. Specifically, Gunn told the New York Post about Anna Wintour, in Manolo heels, being carried down the stairs by two body guards directly to her car after a fashion show. Wintour demanded a retraction from Gunn, but he refused claiming it was completely true. Gunn’s lecture last for almost an hour and a half, but it didn’t seem like it. The lecture ended with a Q&A session.

Should designers follow trends or make trends?

Tim Gunn: Well I’m really not a trend promoter to be honest with you because I feel that people push trends on people they shouldn’t. I mean, when the gladiator sandal was in recently, how many people look good in that? What’s interesting about textiles is that they are determined about three seasons in advance, that’s why when you walk into a store you think “Gee, everything looks about the same.” There are those who lead and there are those who follow. It’s really the fashion editors who are able to make sense of it all. When you see the fashion magazines, it looks like such a narrower lens. All the magazines contradict each other because it is so diverse. Know what you like, know what looks good on you and keep doing it, no reason to chase trends.

What about your catchphrase, “Make it work?”

Tim Gunn: I don’t believe in the scraping of stuff. Take the existing condition, offer up a diagnosis for what’s wrong, and a prescription for making it work.

What is your opinion on Season 6 and the move to Los Angeles?

Tim Gunn: That dreaded Season 6 will never leave us alone. I do believe there is something about the slower pace of Los Angeles, the very different fashion scene and sensibility that had an effect on the designers. I noticed immediately when we started taping Season 7 that there was just more energy and vitality. Season 6 was a little hum-drum. The intent was to alternate seasons between New York and LA. I don’t think we’re ever going back to LA.

What do you think of Santino?

Tim Gunn: I have to tell you I love Santino. He’s a very talented designer. He does not play nicely with others and he has the capacity to suck all the air out of a room. But in the words of a dear colleague, “The poor dear can’t help himself.” And now he’s a judge on Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

If you could give any celebrity a makeover, who would it be?

Tim Gunn: Meryl Streep. Boy can she make mistakes. She doesn’t care, but she should care, the clothes you wear sends a message to how the world receives you. I was at the Oscars the year she was nominated for The Devil Wears Prada and I thought, “Ok, here’s her moment. She’ll really work this red carpet.” She looked like she was going to a picnic! So I would like to have a conversation with Mrs. Streep.

How did you get the guest spot on How I Met Your Mother?

Tim Gunn: The producers contacted me to say they had this new role as Barney’s tailor and that they all wanted it to be me and was there any way I would even remotely consider it. I said first of all, “I’m a huge fan of the show.” I had the script and I thought, “This is such a huge, poignant moment for Barney. He lost his favorite suit.” So the director, who was just wonderful, said, “This is fine the way it’s playing but I think it would be funnier if you didn’t emote at all and you were just like a rock. Do you think you could do that?” And I said “Sure, I’ll just pretend I’m my mother.” She loves me. I love her. I have no doubts or insecurities about her love for me but she’s never hugged me, she’s never kissed me, whenever I hug her it’s like I’m hugging a rock. So someone asked, “Did you father carry all the emotion in the family?” And I said, “No.” So that’s how I got it. I hope to return.

Which season would you consider the most innovative?

Tim Gunn: It’s hard for me to answer that question, because each season is like a class of students for me and they’re all different, they have different DNA. I will say though, Season 4, the season that produced Christian Siriano, that was a really, really phenomenal season. And in the case of Christian I do think we found America’s next great fashion designer. I’ve never met a design prodigy of any kind, let alone fashion, and when Christian came to the auditions we always had this paperwork first and I looked at the paperwork and I said to the producers, “Why are we seeing this kid? The show has evolved beyond this now.” And they said, “Well, he mastered the pre-screening and maybe it’ll only take 30 seconds.” It only took 30 seconds to realize he’s a prodigy and he’s just phenomenal. I’m just thrilled he did as well as he did on the show. You never know. When we had the prom challenge, you could see that he almost lost it. I was really worried. I thought, “This could be your downfall. Don’t let it happen.” But he rallied.

Who is your favorite fashion icon?

Tim Gunn: Oh we were all so young. If I say Carey Grant, do you know who I’m talking about? I had a student a couple of months ago ask, “Who’s she?” I say Carey Grant because he’s always dashing, always well-dressed and even when he’s dodging a plane in the middle of a cornfield he looks good.

How did you come to use such a diverse vocabulary?

Tim Gunn: As a teacher I wanted to raise the bar for my students. Most of my work in my classes is critique based and I would say to them, “I don’t want to hear ‘I like it because…'” I don’t care whether you like it or you don’t like it. My editors at Abrams, when reviewing my first book said, “We want you to remove a lot of these words because people won’t know them.” I said, “Let them sit with and Google and figure it out.”

What happened to Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style?

Tim Gunn: Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style was a show based on the book. It was a Bravo run show, and it’s basically don’t mention the name of the dead pharaoh. So Bravo is not a fan anymore. But I’m now a part of Dr. Oz’s new show as his fashion consultant so I’m doing a lot of work on his show. I worked with an Iraqi war vet at Walter Reed Hospital who during her fourth tour of duty lost her leg. I have to tell you, I have never been anywhere that has been so joyous. A remarkable experience.

The session concluded with a book signing for Tim Gunn’s new book, Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste, and Style..

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Article by: Lauren Wignton


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