Interview: Tim Gunn from ‘Project Runway’

We were able to chat with Tim Gunn of Lifetime’s “Project Runway.” He talked to us about the upcoming season and how different the series is with 17 designers.

I know you can’t give away too many details, but the big question, I think, on a lot of people’s mind is what can we expect to see more of in the new hour-and-a-half format.

Tim: Everyone’s going to be very frustrated with me. I don’t know. I haven’t seen a cut of the show yet. I honestly don’t know how the additional time is being filled. I will say this though, based on seven seasons of experience, we have so much content that never ever reaches the air that it should not be an issue for the editors and the producers in general to fill that time.

When I reflect upon season seven, we barely see the Q&A between the judges and the designers. We barely hear anything out of the deliberation. You get a sound bite, when in fact the Q&A and the deliberation go on anywhere from four to six hours. So you think about it, if you just want to be a fly on the wall, it’s very easy to fill in that time.

Frankly I’ll say, somewhat egotistically, I feel the same way about my critiques in the work room. You would think that I check in with four designers, sometimes only three, when, in fact, I’m giving equal time to everybody. So there’s a lot of material that never reaches the air that now our 90 minute format conceivably can.

Well my followup was going to be if you guys saw an impact, if they had to do more filling, more cameras, but it sounds like it’s the same for you.

Tim: No, exactly. Taping season eight for me was no different than taping any previous season. Though I will tell you this, there’s an additional beat in the season and that is a one-on-one camera interview with me about things that are happening and frankly about the outcomes. I’m my candid, honest, truth-telling self and that means I don’t know how much of that they’re actually going to put in the show.

When I watch the show, I get frustrated when people don’t take your advice or your suggestions, but you always seem to remain pretty cool. How do you do that?

Tim: Well, it comes through 29 years of teaching and knowing that with some degree of frequency, I’ll leave the classroom just to give the students a little bit of breathing space and I figure that they’re probably trash talking about me. And I will tell you this, there is a designer this season—And my refrain during these 30 minutes is going to be I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know how it’s going to play out. There’s a designer this season who takes it upon him- or herself, I don’t want to reveal a gender, to walk around to the designers after I’ve done my critique to add comments about this designer’s viewpoint of whether I gave each designer good advice or bad advice and what this particular designer would advise them to do. And I reached a point where I will say I became rather frustrated by it because I thought I don’t want this individual to be undermining what I say.

So at one point when I’m leaving the work room, I declare it to the entire room, “Listen to your own voice. You may have someone coming up to you suggesting that that individual knows better than you what you should be doing with your work, but that individual’s not responsible for your presentation of your work on the runway. So, in fact, if you’re recalibrating your thinking based on what this person’s telling you, I would advise against it.”

Can you talk about the psoriasis contest? I saw some press stuff about it. Can you talk about that?

Tim: Oh, I am so thrilled to be working with Amgen and Pfizer on this. I’m thrilled to be working for a second year with some people who have moderate-to-severe plaque psoriasis because, in fact, it really does affect how they present themselves to the world.

My message, along with Dr. Susan Taylor, who’s a renowned dermatologist, is to manage your condition and get to a dermatologist. There’s so many new treatments that have evolved and developed, and then together, these individuals and I are working on how to make their fashion work for them because there’s an inclination to never wear dark colors because of flaking and to not wear wools. It can be very, very limiting. In fact, my sister has psoriasis, so I know how limiting it can be. In fact, there are things that one can do.

Also, people don’t realize that it’s a disease of the immune system and that there’s no cure for it. I will also add that one of our Project Runway designers in season eight has psoriasis, so it’s something that that individual and I have talked about with some frequency.

Which has been your favorite season of Project Runway so far?

Tim: The reason it’s difficult for me to answer is because I look at each season the way that I look at each semester of students I’ve had. I grow very attached to them, and there are different emotions that I associate with each season just as I do with these semesters of students.

I will say, though, I loved season three and the opportunity of going to Paris. I thought that was wonderful for everyone, though Vincent Libretti in that season was driving everyone crazy, in fact, by that point, the designers more than he had been driving me crazy. But each season has a different resonance and different DNA according to the designers who are on the show.

It’s interesting to have time to reflect upon the seasons and go back and look at them again because I do have the DVDs and I don’t want you to think I’m totally obsessed and sitting in my apartment all day and all night watching reruns of Project Runway, but I do enjoy going back and reliving it. What constantly blows me away, though, is the level and quality of the work that they execute, especially after we are at season three and move forward with our success of seasons.

Seasons one and two, there was a lot of dubious work and work that was simply poorly made, and that meant that the runway deliberation was in some ways rather easy. When the work is really all well made, it gets much, much harder. It becomes much more a matter of taste, and in fact, you’ll see that in season eight.

Okay, well, I would have thought you would have known.

Tim: No, absolutely not.

As a followup, how do you feel this season’s group compares to the previous ones?

Tim: It’s a very interesting group and in terms of the chemistry among them, one that I’ve never really experienced in a prior season. It’s for this reason, they’re very fragile. They’re fragile in terms of their emotional well being. They’re fragile in terms of their ego. They’re fragile. So I always felt as though I was tiptoeing around glass that I didn’t want to break while still delivering what I’m responsible for delivering and what’s good for them, a truth-telling session in the work room and an opportunity for them to look anew critically and analytically at their work.

And I will also say I don’t know of a prior season when I have felt such profound fondness for everyone, even one designer with whom I have a serious antipathy at the beginning of the season. It dissipates, and we become pals later. It was very hard. We just wrapped this week, and it was very hard to say goodbye to them.

Do you use your catchphrase to “make it work” in everyday life?

Tim: You know I do, but I have to say I’ve become very self-conscious about it. I fear that people so expect it that I end up being just this predictable catchphrase person. I’m happy to say that this season of the show I only invoked the phrase when it was really necessary, and I was grateful that the producers weren’t on top of me saying, “Go in there and say ‘make it work.’ Go in there and say ‘make it work.'” No, I did it when it was necessary and appropriate, and there are moments that are really and truly “make it work” moments.

Where did that come from? Is that something that you started saying while teaching?

Tim: Oh absolutely. It came from my classrooms, and in fact, I even remember the first time I used it. This was the senior year class and the course I was teaching was Concept Development, and it works in tandem with a course in which the students actually execute their collection. I had a student who— It was March; she was going to throw the entire collection away, literally and metaphorically, and start a new one. I said, “We are presenting these collections in four weeks. You’re looking at five months of work, and you’re saying you’re going to get rid of it and start all over again?” I said, “You’re not.”

I said, “You’re going to look at the situation at hand, offer up a diagnosis for what’s wrong, a prescription, and then a prescription for how to make it work. You’ve got to make this work. You’re not going to start all over again. Period.” This was many years ago this happened, I find that with student that they then end up having this incredible resource within themselves for how to problem solve as they move forward as opposed to just starting all over again. And okay it works, but do you know why? So it’s a very useful lesson.

On Project Runway, it’s nothing if not “make it work.” Because as I’m always saying to the designers, once we leave mood, that’s it. Whatever you have is what you have, and you’re not going shopping again. You’re not retooling this. It’s “make it work” time.

The season now has 17 designers, which is the most in the series’ history. Have you seen a significant difference in working with more contestants? Are there certain challenges that come along with this increase?

Tim: For me, yes. Even when it’s 16 people and it’s so many designers and just making the rounds of the work room takes forever. And I have to tell you, I end up being, in some ways, spent and just exhausted physically and mentally because it’s a lot of work for me to really understand what each individual designer is attempting to achieve and then how to speak to them about my view of how successful this is or not and what I believe would benefit them. It requires a lot of brain searching and conjuring up former experiences.

I will share this with you, with the 17 designers—I don’t know how much everybody knows about the first challenge but—

That’s okay. If you can’t divulge it, that’s okay.

Tim: Well, I will tell you, I can’t make it around to all of them. There isn’t enough time. So, it’s the only time that I haven’t been able to do that. When are down to 16 designers, yes. It’s done, and it’s achieved.

When you can’t give your time equally to everyone, like if you try to on the next round, try to give them more time or is it just you try to keep equal amount of time each time you go around?

Tim: Well, that’s a good question. I think I referred to equal time. I guess I should say equal opportunity. They each have me. How much time they have depends upon what their needs are and how needy they are. And there’s some designers this season who are—I wouldn’t even say that they’re needy as much as they’re eager for feedback, and in some ways, they can’t have enough. It reaches the point where I simply say, “You need to be responsible for the decisions that you’re making. They’re not my decisions. It’s not my work. You have to be responsible for this.”

Do you still keep in touch with past designers from previous seasons?

Tim: I do. I mean, as much as they want to keep in touch with me. I’m very careful not to force myself upon anyone, but the designers do get back in touch with me either about professional advice or they just want to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, and I’m thrilled to see them.

With the 17 designers this season, how does that change the dynamic of the show? Like will it just be one extra elimination or does it change the whole thing?

Tim: That’s a good question. Well, we’re so close to the show, maybe I’m giving something away, but that’s alright. I feel at this point you all have been so patient with me that if I am giving something away, that’s fine. What Heidi and I say is that our intention was to have 16 designers for season 8. We couldn’t make up our mind once we got it down to 17 about who should go, so we’re using the first challenge to determine that. So in a way, the first episode is the last stage of the audition process. Does that make any sense?

Yes, I understand. We’re seeing the return of big glasses from the ’80s. How will those affect the styles we see over the next year?

Tim: Well, my issue with the ’80s styling in general is you have to have some current contemporary elements in the styling of a look or else it’s going to look completely ’80s retro, which for me isn’t a good look. I didn’t enjoy the ’80s fashion when we were going through it, let alone do I want to reflect upon it. And those glasses can look costumey, so you can’t do a head-to-toe or you shouldn’t do a head-to-toe ’80s look. You’ve got to bring in some current items, either through the apparel or through accessories to keep it looking too costumey frankly. In general, I like the glasses, providing they’re not too oversized and too bug-eye-like.

How would you describe the season eight cast dynamic and how they relate to each other?

Tim: They are very respectful of each other and disarmingly willing to help each other. We have a couple of speed demons who are sewing prodigies who offer up their services to other designers, and I kept thinking, “Well, this dynamic’s going to change.” I mean the fewer designers there are, the more competitive they’re going to feel with each other, and in fact, if anything, they’ve become closer.

From where I sit as the mentor, it’s very sweet and touching. I hope our audience doesn’t want a lot of blood spill because with a couple of exceptions, they’re not going to see very much of that. Though there is a group, a team challenge, when we have more team members than we’ve ever had in the history of Project Runway, I mean in terms of number of people on the teams.

There is someone who reveals him- or herself – again, I don’t want to give away gender, as being this big bossy boots and it will be interesting to see how people respond to that episode because there was not to be a team leader among the team members. It was to be a collaborative democracy. In the case of one of the teams, it was not. So, that was an aspect of that individual’s character that I can’t say that I was totally surprised by because I knew certain things about that individual that had been revealed earlier in the season, but I was floored that there wasn’t a giant retaliation from the team. So later in the challenge, I retaliate. I couldn’t stand it any longer.

If you could just use three different words to describe this season, what would you use?

Tim: Oh dear. “Hot” because New York has never been hotter, and we’ve spent a lot of time outdoors. I’m trying to search for something that doesn’t sound banal. Well, I’ll use another word, “Emotional.” I’m probably more emotional this season than I’ve ever been. It has to do with how hard everyone’s working and how – I’m welling up right now – how lovely everyone is. They’re a great group. Oh, I know. Let me use another word So we have hot and emotional. “Frustrating” and it goes back to the judging. I can only believe that all of you with us today during this call and I just think we’re going to be on the same page about these things. I’ve always had my blog both to talk about the outcomes because people don’t hear me talk about the final looks but also to vent a bit. In a way I’m glad to have this on-camera time, as I’ve said earlier, in this beat of the show to just say how I feel how I feel about what happened.

In fact, the producers had wanted me to step into the judges’ circle and I refused to do that. It’s “No. I’m not going to.” I don’t want to do anything to either undermine them – well undermine them, let me finish my thought – or to potentially influence their decision making in a future challenge. They need to do what they do and I respect what they do. I believe in the separation of church and state, so I do not engage with them.

I wanted to see if you were excited about Santino and Austin’s new show on the road, if you were going to be watching that?

Tim: I am. I am excited about it. I have to tell you I thought it was one of the oddest pairings I could ever imagine. It’s like Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar, which probably will make for great television. Santino and Austin are such different individuals with different work habits and different views of the world. It should be fascinating to see.

Are there any breakout personalities in the season? Obviously, you can’t pick them out but are there are any who stand out to you as larger-than-life personalities like Austin and Santino?

Tim: Oh yes. Well, there’s only one Santino, and I say the same about each individual designer. They have their own DNA. I will tell you this too because I reacted this way at the very beginning of the season, there are some people about whom the audience will think, “Oh, they just put them on there for television.” In fact, they really are who they are. That individual is that individual, and the work that they do is exceptional. So even I at the very beginning was a little jaded and a little cynical like, “Oh come on.” Though I saw everyone at the auditions, I don’t know who will actually end up on the show and I stand corrected. Their talent is unimpugnable.