Q&A with Tim Gunn

Liz Claiborne Inc. and Project Runway’s Tim Gunn chats with the Current about the “Lucky You Runway Contest,”

Best known as the sharply dressed mentor of developing fashion designers on Lifetime’s Project Runway, Tim Gunn has recently emerged as an actor (Gossip Girl, Sex and the City 2, The Smurfs) and bestselling author (A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style and Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons for Making it Work). Also an LGBT-rights advocate, Gunn has spoken on behalf of the It Gets Better Project (itgetsbetter.org) and The Trevor Project (thetrevorproject.org). The former Chair of the Department of Fashion Design at Parsons The New School for Design ― where he was a member of the administration and faculty for more than two decades ― Gunn is now chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne Inc., the company behind brands like Juicy Couture, Kate Spade, Mexx, and Lucky Brand. Gunn comes to The Shops at La Cantera for Saturday’s “Lucky You Runway Contest.”

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
Thank you for talking to me. What time is it there?

It’s 9 in the morning.
Oh, OK. So you’re an hour behind. I was worried it was two hours. And I thought, if it’s 8 o’clock he’ll kill me.

No. So will this be your first time in San Antonio?
It really will be, I’m looking forward to it.

Well, it’s a lovely place and we’re excited to have you.
Thank you.

I’m curious. With this fashion show, does it matter if people buy something at Lucky Brand or is it for anyone?
Anyone can attend. There's no charge for attending. … But for purchases of $100, we have a professional photo taken.

That part makes sense; I was curious more about the participants in the show, the casting and all that. Do [the models] have to be customers?
No, no, not at all. We're promoting, I'm not sure how we're promoting it, but we're doing an open call for models ― for regular people, men and women — to walk in the show alongside professional models. But no, no they don't have to be Lucky customers at all.

I love the idea that it’s all shapes and sizes.
Well that's what I love too. Because there are a few things that are more off-putting than fashion shows with models who are not even remotely like your own size and shape. You just think, well of course she or he looks good in that, they're 16 years old, they're built like a reed.

So Fashion Week just being over in New York, did you enjoy it this season?
You know, I have to tell you I was barely there this season. We had our Project Runway show the second day of fashion week, which was a Friday, and I saw a couple of shows on Saturday and Sunday and that was it because I had to travel. I had to be in Washington during Fashion Week with Mrs. Obama.

What were you doing for her?
I was hosting a teen design fair through the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum here in New York and it coincided with the National Design Awards Lunch that she hosts annually. And she said, “We have all these great designers here and we should expose these young high school students to them.” And she asked if I would give the keynote, and I said I’d do it in a heartbeat.

That’s excellent.
We had about 200 students and she invited about 15 of them back to the White House for lunch.

Working as chief creative officer for Liz Claiborne and then also on Project Runway, how do you find time for things like that or say to work on a project like The Smurfs Movie?
I'll be honest with you Bryan, I'm about a hair shy of a psychotic breakdown [laughs]. It's hard to juggle. I have to admit, I’ve had a great career... and to have all this phenomenal fun stuff happen to you after you turn 50? I mean it’s surreal. First of all, I really appreciate it. And secondly, I know it won’t last forever, so I’m enjoying it while I can. Really, it’s great. And to add to the psychoses, I have to turn in the manuscript to my next book tomorrow. So I’m sitting here, going through and editing every page. But it looks good.

Do you ever tell yourself to “make it work”?
Yes, I say it everyday.

So, you’re not sick of people saying that to you, then.
Oh no, I consider it to be a great compliment.

Have you ever worn anything made by one of the Project Runway contestants or winners?
That's a really good question [pauses]. Yes, I have a jacket, a sport coat I should say.

Who made that?
By Emmett McCarthy … Season 2. Emmett was a menswear designer for 15 years.

I visited Chloe Dao in Houston and I think she was carrying his clothes in Lot 8.
I’ve been to Lot 8 also. It’s fun.

I heard you say showing too much skin is probably women’s biggest fashion mistake. What would you say is men’s?
Most men wear clothes that are simply too big for them. And it's not flattering. I’m always saying, “The more volume your clothes have, the more volume you appear to have.” And you know how men are. They shrug this whole thing off anyway, like, “Oh, I’m not supposed to be concerned with such matters.” Well, we should all be concerned with such matters. It’s the semiotics of clothes.

What about flip-flops?
In the right context they’re fine. I don’t think they belong on downtown city streets and certainly not in offices. In fact, the flip-flop has an incredibly powerful and potent legacy.

I heard you recently say that Project Runway is fur free. Is that across-the-board true?
Yes, we've always been fur free.

That’s excellent. I was really impressed with your speech for the It Gets Better campaign. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone take it to such a personal level.
Thank you.

I think it really shows a side of you that was just thrilling to see.
Well, thank you very much. And I was very proud to do it.

Can you tell me anything else about the Trevor Project?
I do all that I can to support the Trevor Project. It's an incredibly important organization. And I will be very happy when the Trevor Project has absolutely no work to do.

Doing online research on you, I came across some funny things. I’m curious if you’ve seen “Tim Gunn is the Last Man on Earth,” or What Happened to Andrae? The Movie!
No I haven’t [laughs]. I’m the last man on earth?
It’s a young guy doing an impersonation of you and he’s looking for the designers and time is passing and it turns into a search for the designers out in the woods. And the other one is like a mashup. Do you stay in touch with Andrae or any of the other designers?
I've actually been actively helping Andrae find a design position. We email all the time.

On Project Runway, I feel like there are more and more self-taught designers. Do you think they have any sort of advantage by not having these rules set in their head?
To be honest with you, I am not in favor of self-taught designers being on the show. I think it's a handicap for a number of reasons. They don't know the rules, and while I certainly think rules should be broken, I don’t know whether you’re watching this season…

Yes, religiously.
Well, Fallene is the designer who didn't understand what a grainline is. I mean that's just basic and fundamental to putting a garment together, you've got to match the grain or you end up with a big hot mess. So I would never dream of having to talk to designers about grainlines, that's something you talk to freshman about. So I was really shocked and disturbed by it to be perfectly honest. I thought she was out of her element. I mean in some ways this was an unusual casting process this season. It was the first season I did not do the auditions and I always do them. But the dates were declared so late and my Liz Claiborne spring schedule was already conflicting. … So I just couldn’t accommodate these dates. The idea of bringing 20 designers to New York and having Heidi, and Nina, Michael and me all weighing in on which 16 it should be ― we've never done that before.

And I, in prior seasons, have always felt any one of these 16 individuals could win this season, anyone of them could win. And I wasn't as confident this season owing to issues like the one with Fallene for instance.

When you’re not in the workroom, are you in some way watching what’s happening, watching their progress? And are the judges able to see what’s happening in the workroom?
I live there practically, I mean I live on the set. So when I'm not in the workroom, yes I'm in the production room, I'm watching what's happening on the camera. And it actually helps me know some of the things I want to weigh in on when I go into the workroom. For instance, I'm never present for the fittings with the exception of last week’s challenge when we had the Sheepdogs, the music group. I was at the fittings because I wanted to make certain that they weren't getting stuck with pins and having things glued onto them. I just wanted to protect them, because originally they were not going to be on the runway, we were going to use professional models. And when the producers and I met the Sheepdogs, and they're just so charismatic and such great guys, and we said, “How would you feel about walking the runway?” And they said they didn’t want to walk it, but they would perform on it. And that’s what ended up happening. But accordingly, I felt very paternal towards them and protective so I wanted to be in the workroom for the fittings. It’s never happened before. And we’re already asking if next season we should change thing up a bit. Because I’d like to be at the fittings. I watch them from cameras, but I’m not there. So I can’t really weigh in on them. And I don’t want the designers to think I’m a spy. But I am.

I thought the performance was the perfect way to mix it up and it’s cool to see the show evolving in the ninth season.
Oh, I’m so glad to hear you say that. Thank you.

Of all the brands underneath the Liz Claiborne umbrella, which one would you say has the most potential for growth in maybe an avant-garde direction?
In an avant-garde direction?

Or a 'wow' direction. Are there any surprises under Liz Claiborne’s umbrella that you might have a hand in?
Well, I have to tell you I’m not designing. I’m not editing. I work with the designers and with the merchants. I give critical feedback. I’m there as a cheerleader or a shoulder to cry on and their advocate at the executive level for their needs. But I’m very respectful of what they do. And I will say I’m a big champion for innovation and for things being fresh and new. And in that sense I think that all of them have potential for wowing us. We have new creative directors at many of the brands and the founders of a number of the brands have gone away. And I will say about the founders that they can be sort of stuck in one place and be rather impractical, so just to not have them there so we can move the needle… and I’m not talking about everything. But the great unknown here is: what will the customer actually respond to? Because you don’t want to alienate your customer base. At the same time you want to leave them the product that they might not otherwise experience, so it’s a tricky thing.

I can imagine. So for instance with their ad campaigns and things like that, do you have a hand in that?
I really don’t. If asked, I’ll weigh it on it. But generally speaking, no. I’m much more about the product, and about sourcing and production than I am about advertising campaigns. I mean I’m certainly interested in them. But I don’t weigh in on them.

You once mentioned on Project Runway that you’d be more likely to maybe paint or draw versus make clothes. Is that something that you do in the little spare time that you have?
It’s something that I do to illustrate a thought that I have. I’ll just pull out a Sharpie and say, “Here, it looks like this.” More as a mental vision. You may or may not know this, but I was educated as a fine artist and ended up being a sculptor.

So when was the last sculpture you created?
Oh God. Oh, probably in the late 1970s. When I started teaching, I found that teaching was such a purging and cathartic creative exercise for me that I felt sort of purged and I didn’t feel the need to make my work any longer. And I spent a number of years feeling very apologetic about it, and I thought, “Why? I don’t need to do this to prove myself. I can still be a perfectly viable teacher and I know how to do it.” So it’s been a long, long time. And I have to tell you this: Working with designers for so long, for more than 30 years, I have such huge respect for designers and what they do. And in many ways they’re in the service for a public good. They make the world a better place. And when I look at what fine artists do today, I just think it looks so self-indulgent. And I don’t know if I could actually return to it. I have an appreciation for it; I have art in my home. … I would be much more inclined to do something more design-related. 

I just think people are fascinated by what you might do off the set.
I write a lot, so that’s also an outlet for me.

I love your comment about being in the Witness Protection Program.* Do you have any sort of friendly relationship with Anna Wintour now?
[Laughs] Well, let me put it this way. In any environment that I think she might be present, my radar is up and highly tuned-in. Because I want to be able to navigate around her; she wants to be able to navigate around me, too. Trust me. [I attended] a dinner for Narciso Rodriguez and she was there and they were probably five tables in and I was seated next to her daughter Bee, who is lovely — just gorgeous and just incredibly articulate and funny and smart and we just had a great time. And every time I looked over at Ms. Wintour’s table, she’d be staring at us like, “Die scum, die.” It was funny to be seated next to her daughter.

Can you tell me who your favorite fashion designer is on a grand scale?
Oh easy. Easy, easy, easy. The person who I have the greatest respect and affection and she is dynamic and charismatic and full of sex appeal … and she is the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America — Diane von Fürstenberg.

I love her, too. I think I’ve taken up more of your time than I was allotted. But I want to thank you very much.
Well I appreciate your time.

And I will see you out at La Cantera.
Oh wonderful, I look forward to it.

“Lucky You Runway Contest”
Open casting: Free; 4-8pm Thu, Oct 6; Lucky Brand Jeans Shop, 15900 La Cantera Pkwy, (210) 877-9655, luckybrand.com.
Fall 2011 fashion show and open forum Q&A: Free (but seating is limited); 1pm Sat, Oct 8; The Shops at La Cantera (outside the Lucky Brand Jeans Shop), 15900 La Cantera Pkwy, (210) 877-9655, luckybrand.com.


*Gunn has joked that he’s in a witness protection program after infuriating Vogue editor Anna Wintour by including an anecdote in Gunn’s Golden Rules about her being carried down five flights of stairs by bodyguards.

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