Interview With Tim Gunn:

For 'Project Runway' fans, you are one of the most beloved aspects of the show. Now you have your own show, 'Under the Gunn.' Lifetime must have heard the cries of "More Tim, please!"
Tim Gunn: I'm very, very proud of it. It was a complete and total surprise that we did it at all. I was prepared to do another season of 'Project Runway,' but Heidi wasn't available. And she and I have a pact that we will not do the show without the other. For some reason Lifetime thought, oh, we'll bring in a guest host for one season. And I said well you'll have to find a guest mentor too, because I won't do it without Heidi. So they scrambled and conceived of the show, along with Sara Rea, who's our fabulous show runner for 'Runway' and 'Under the Gunn.' So the whole thing came about very serendipitously and it was a joy.
You actually started out as a sculptor. How in the world did you end up on 'Project Runway'?
Tim Gunn: Fashion came after me, I didn't go after it. It happened when I was at Parsons [The New School for Design]. I was a teacher and also an administrator. I was a kind of Mr. Fixit -- I called myself a "pooper scooper"... I learned there was a real crisis of morale in the [fashion] department. I found out that the curriculum had remained unchanged for 50 years! And I mean completely unchanged. It was the same curriculum that was put in place in 1948. Why?! Because the program was such a success people were afraid to tamper with it. And there was an unwritten mandate that faculty and department chairs would be graduates of the program. So it was self perpetuating, it was feeding off of itself. It was just crazy. So I was sent in... to offer up a prescription for how to turn it around.
What did you do to right the ship?
Tim Gunn: I spent a whole year researching and talking to people in the industry, talking to our students, talking to faculty who were willing to get on board with something new, because I was demonized. I was the devil incarnate in that place.

I jettisoned the "jewel in the crown" -- the senior-year Designer Critic Program, which brought in top designers like Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs. They would work with students over the semester developing a single look. I got rid of it. But with permission of the students. I said to them, many of you came here to experience this program. So how would you respond if I tell you that I'd like to get rid of it? Well they cheered! Of course the faculty were extremely upset. And at the time 70% of the designers on 7th Avenue came from Parsons -- those people went crazy over the fact that I got rid of this program. So I went through this period of being totally demonized not just by the faculty and the department but by the industry. And I needed to just withstand it.
You were doing then what you do now -- putting the spotlight on the students, these fresh designers.
Tim Gunn: Exactly. They would say to me, on the one hand I'm flattered and honored to be before Donna. On the other hand, it's not my aesthetic... and I'm leaving this program not really knowing who I am as a designer. Well I thought that was one of the most devastating things I could possibly hear! So we had to reposition everything to be about them.

We had our annual fashion show, which in the past was these designer critic collections. And this year it was a dozen collections out of a group of 70 seniors. Well. For the first time in my history with that show the press actually talked about the students' work as opposed to the party and the glamor of all these celebrity designers. And Julie Gilhart, who was the head buyer for Barney's, bought one of the collections right off the runway. So then there was a buzz, and people started talking about the department. And that's how the 'Project Runway' producers found me!
You see major drama in the workroom. Yet you're such a calming force. How do you turn a meltdown into a make-it-work moment?
Tim Gunn: I have a general spirit of trust that they'll be able to do it. I'm there to guide, but I'm not there to give them the solutions. One of my refrains is, "I can't want you to succeed more than you do." I pummel people with questions. I make them reach inside, explore as much as they can of themselves. When they come back with, "What do you think I should do?" Well, what do YOU think you should do? And generally they resolve it themselves. Sometimes I can help cut to the chase for them and say, look, I think what you're saying is the following. So, that's my approach.
On UTG, you're actually mentoring the mentors (former PR contestants, Mondo Guerra, Anya Ayoung-Chee, and Nick Verreos) as they shepherd the contestants. Who's harder -- student or teacher?
Tim Gunn: I'll tell you -- I had a lot of difficulty mentoring Nick, who comes from a teaching background. There's a profound difference between teaching and mentoring. When you're teaching you really tell people what to do. And when you're mentoring, I think that's a big mistake...

How I view it is, I'm giving the designers permission to do what they do. As opposed to well, I would do this, I would do that. I had to figure out how to deal with him as well. I actually lose my temper a couple of times. And then I just realized, wait a minute, I need to take the emotions out of this for myself as well.

What I ended up saying to him with a good deal of frequency was, "Every time you put a pin into one of your designer's muslins or fabric, it creates a fairness issue with the other mentors and all the other designers in the room. So this is why you may not do that." Then I have to give permission to the other mentors to pin, to sew, to pattern draft. And no! That's not gonna happen. Because there can't be any fuzziness about whose work it is. It has to be the designer's work. The designer's the one who's standing before the judges!
Each season someone's lamenting that so-and-so can't even do basic construction. How important is education vs. raw talent and vision?
Tim Gunn: Well I have a bias given my background. I believe so strongly in being educated in any discipline that you're practicing. We have a good number of self-taught designers in every season of 'Project Runway' and also on 'Under the Gunn.'
Is that on purpose?
Tim Gunn: I think to a degree it is. When I'm at the auditions I'm always saying to the producers, look, we're all looking for diversity in point of view... background. But I feel that the self-taught designer is very handicapped. I'm not a fan, to be honest. Because they have a very limited vocabulary when it comes to construction. But more importantly, they haven't experienced a critique. They haven't been through that process of depersonalizing people talking about their work. I find it very, very limiting.

It doesn't mean that it spells disaster. We've had self-taught designers that have won! Other people celebrate it -- they say good heavens it's remarkable! Well, I'm self-taught on the piano as a kid. And then I actually started lessons and I studied for 12 years and I found out that I had developed a lot of really bad habits that had to be corrected. Because you don't know! You fly by the seat of your pants.
As a viewer, I wonder, does this person really deserve all these accolades if they can't keep up in a real situation?
Tim Gunn: I have the same questions. I'm not a judge, and quite frankly I never want to be. Because I think it compromises my relationship with the designers and mentors. Because whatever I say can end up being a self-fulfilled prophecy. So I'm happy to step back... But at the same time it's the largest source of frustration that I have on both shows. Because I want to say, "What's wrong with you judges? (laughs) What's wrong with you?!"
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You're insanely busy. Yet you always appear to be so calm and collected. How do you get it all done so gracefully?
Tim Gunn: I'm generally speaking about a hair shy of a psychotic breakdown. I really am. And I have to put my own boundaries of a sort. I have my meltdowns. I tend to have them privately. Or on the phone with my agent... I discipline myself not to multitask. Whatever I'm doing, I'm there in the moment. I can't be doing several things at once, it just doesn't work for me.

At the same time I say to myself every minute of every day, I'm the luckiest guy I know. I had a great career as a teacher and an administrator... and then to have this whole new threshold of not just a career but of a life? Right after I turned 50? So that helps propel me forward, I have to say.
You must have to say no a lot. Yet you're regarded as one of the nicest in the biz. What's your secret super power?
Tim Gunn: I have my own internal mandate. I only do what I have to do. I get invitations to opening nights and premieres and all sorts of things. My definition of having to do it means I've agreed to present, to host, something of that sort -- if I'm just there as a guest I don't do it. So I scale myself for my own time to heal and repair as often as I can by eliminating all those things that I may want to do, or people may want me to do, but I don't have to do.
Let's talk clothing. There's been a big shift toward online shopping. Acceptable or fashion faux pas?
Tim Gunn: For men I really believe they need to go to a store if they're buying a suit. Shirts you can do online, shoes you can do online, but a suit -- walk into the store. Because it's all about the fit!

For [online] apparel I love Gilt.com. When it comes to my own clothes I'll use JCrew.com because I know the fit so well. I use J.Crew for more casual things, so I'm not as concerned about precision of fit. But for my suits I always go to bricks and mortar. Because it's so important that you get a precise fit. And also I have a very limited vocabulary when it comes to my own personal shopping.
What are your favorite brick-and-mortars?
Tim Gunn: I only go to Suit Supply. It's an awful name. It sounds like Dress Barn! They opened in New York about two years ago. They're out of the Netherlands and they're all across Europe. But New York was their first non-European foray. I read a review in the New York Times and I thought, this sounds too good to be true. Because quite frankly I was spending a fortune on clothes. It made me feel sick, and I'm always supplying my own wardrobe, so to find a brand that has exquisite textiles, spectacular construction and is affordable? I went to the store and I've never been back to Barneys or Saks or Bergdorf's since! Also, what I love about Suit Supply is that every sales associate is an expert in fit. So it's not, "We'll bring someone down to tailor it." They can all do it. It's a criterion for working there.

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What if you have good taste but you don't know how to put it all together? Can style be learned?
Tim Gunn: I definitely think it can be learned and I think it can be done on a budget! I always cite three areas that need to be in harmony and balance: silhouette, proportion and fit. You'll look great no matter what size or shape you are, and no matter what your taste happens to be as long as silhouette, proportion and fit are in balance. And it pertains to the whole head-to-toe look. It's not just the clothes we're wearing. If we're unkempt and poorly groomed, those things matter as well. It's gotta be the whole package.
In the U.S., NYC and L.A. are the trendsetters. Have you ever been somewhere that surprised you with its style?
Tim Gunn: Several places. Chicago is a really chic, fashionable city in all ways. I think it's inappropriately overlooked. I'll say the same about St. Louis. I was really impressed!
You have such an inspiring story and outlook. Who would your dream interview be?
Tim Gunn: I have never met her. Hillary Rodham Clinton. I'd love to sit down and have a conversation with her.

Get more of Tim's recommendations: Read his My Five Favorite Haute Spots.


Tim Gunn is an educator, author, fashion therapist and mentor on 'Project Runway' and 'Under the Gunn.' See him in new episodes of 'Under the Gunn' on Thursdays, 9pm on Lifetime. Or follow him on Twitter @TimGunn.

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