September 2009

Tim Gunn Motivator in Chief

Project Runway’s resident gentleman opines on fashion, fame—and always playing fair

Tim Gunn

tim gunn, lifetime, project runway, new season, los angeles Hanoch Piven

No one is more stunned by the whole Project Runway phenomenon than I am. I had the dream job of all dream jobs in design education as the chair of the fashion design department at Parsons in New York, charged with repositioning it for relevance in the 21st century.

In the mid to late ’80s, fashion became tumultuous, and when it finally congealed, it was in a very different place in America. But Parsons as an education institution was in the same place as before the revolution. A fashion school in America is vocational, just like a medical school is. It’s a matter of not simply satisfying the needs of the industry but actually educating people to lead it. You know, 70 percent of the designers on Seventh Avenue were Parsons educated. So I was crazy about this daunting assignment. I was given a one-year acting appoint­ment to diagnose the situation and offer a curricular prescription. I threw the entire curriculum out the window. My disposition on it was, whoever the students want to be, we should provide the resources so all of them can flourish. I loved the collaboration: feedback from faculty, from students, from people in the industry.


Project Runway creators Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth didn’t know anything about the industry, so several people suggested they talk to me—and many others—in their quest for a consultant for this new show. I found out they were the Project Greenlight producers, and I thought, Okay, they have integrity—they have a respect for the medium. I was relieved when they revealed they wanted to work with real fashion designers. They asked how I would respond if they were to say they wanted the designers to do a wedding dress in two days. I was very matter-of-fact about it and said, “Well, then they’d have to design a wedding dress in two days.” They looked at each other in a way that I knew was meaningful, and I asked, “Is that the wrong answer?” And they told me I was the only person who said it could be done: “Well, let’s make it work!”

We had only one major disagreement. Seventh Avenue had planted in the producers’ heads that the designers didn’t need to make the clothes, that there could be a sample room with seamstresses and pattern drafters who would execute the designs. I just said, “Look, if the audience doesn’t see the designers get real blood on their hands, they are not going to believe it. Furthermore, who does Heidi send home—the seamstress?” Well, they countered, “The major designers we met with say they don’t make clothes anymore.” I replied, “Of course they don’t, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to.” I felt that these would be young designers, and if they didn’t know how to make clothes, they were not going to be good fashion designers—it disqualified them.

Then we launched the auditions, and I was doing exactly what I love—engaging with young people, looking at their portfolios and talking about their aspirations. It was during that period that the producers said, “We think we need to have a mentor to the designers in the workroom—how would you feel about being that?” I was a little terrified, and the first thing I asked was, “Do I have to live with them?”

The initial feeling for the show was that the designers could go into the workroom anytime, back and forth from their rooms. It bothered me, because this show is enough of a stamina test without that. I said, “Let’s close the workroom at a certain time, so everyone is on a fair playing field.” It went back to my 29 years in education of always wanting to provide the same opportunities to all students, so what is really being evaluated is how they use the same set of resources in the same time period. Then if someone wants an extension on a project, it’s a no, because all of the others turned it in on time.


I never dreamed I would be in the show when it finally made it to the air. I thought Heidi would give the challenge, the designers would take it to the workroom and their outcomes would parade the runway. But there was a concern that no one would talk—it’d be just work, work, work. So, by sending me in to probe and query, it would add some dialogue. At the same time, it’s about hearing the designers. I mean, who needs to hear me? What no one ever hears me talk about—unless there is a snippet before the models walk out—is I never see the clothes walk until the runway show. I only really know about the silhouette on the form. I am looking at a stagnant dress on a mannequin. So, the runway show is a very different experience. I am in the back, and I watch it all the way through. The designers are like my kids, and I want to see how the judges interact with them—because I care.

There are three people the original candidate presents to at the auditions: me, an editor from Marie Claire and a former Runway finalist. The three of us are only looking at the design, because if they don’t have the stuff, then it really is a waste of everyone’s time. We bring it down to a pool of roughly 85 to 110 candidates we are confident have the talent, creative direction, inno­vation and ability to make the clothes. From there, I don’t even want to get involved. But the producers are looking at the personalities, diversity of point of view, diversity of background.

We have a burgeoning Project Runway alumni association, and I continue to be a kind of mentor. They call me for advice or at a pivotal career moment. And you know what? Years later, they do keep in touch. What’s so challenging about the fashion industry is the nature of the scale of the collaboration. No one is a solo. It’s about, How ambitious are your own personal goals for your work? How expansive are your resources and finances, and how resilient are you to tons of obstacles? So, to get something other than a one-of-a-kind piece that sits in a boutique—to get something into Saks Fifth Avenue—is daunting.


A lot of people—industry people and editorial people—felt we ripped the veil of mystery and glamour off of fashion. That was unnerving. The industry is extremely difficult. You sweat profusely, you’ve got your sleeves rolled up, you’re on the floor, and it’s truly stressful. That is reality. We wrapped season two on Bastille Day 2005, the day the Emmys were announced. I welled up, because we were just nominated for season one! It was astonishing. That same evening, walking home, I ran into a dear colleague from the CFDA, who said something like, “I heard you did that show again.” She said it like, “that show,” and I remember this so potently. I said to her, “Well, that show has just been nominated for an Emmy.” We won a Peabody, too! It was so strange to be at those awards, because there were all these news programs and documentaries about strife and famine and consternation, and then there was happy, peppy little us.

I met my agent after season two, at the GLAAD Media Awards in L.A. I was at a Bravo table, and Jonathan Swaden of CAA was a guest at our table, and he said, “Who represents you?” And I answered, “No one.” He was like, “What?” And the Bravo people went crazy: “YOU DON’T NEED AN AGENT—STAY AWAY FROM HIM!” He came to see me in New York, and he changed my life, thankfully...


Last year, when we began taping season six and made the move to Los Angeles, I came here kicking and screaming. I was resigned, but I am a New Yorker. Knowing we had a new network, new producers, new set, new everything, I figured it was going to be arduous to pull everything together. The L.A. schedule was surely going to be brutal. But I was being bratty and petulant, I have to say. There is a sort of New York arrogance that asks, “What does Los Angeles have to offer when it comes to fashion?” But I had been here less than 48 hours when I had an epiphany—that it took so long was just dumb!

Remember, I had taught fashion history for all those years. Before World War II, L.A. was the only place in America where anything creative was happening in fashion. In New York, everyone was copying Europe; there wasn’t an original thought. But here, thanks to the film industry, there was this robust incubator for tons of creative ideas. So, I thought, Wait a minute! It’s the home of film and television, of all the high-end red carpets. And then I realized if it’s not happening here, it doesn’t mean anything.

I stayed at a new apartment building, right next to FIDM, where we were taping. I didn’t want to have a car. I didn’t drive, and I loved it. I went to Ralphs twice a day. The environment—the quality of life—is so special here. As an art student, I was enraptured by the work of Diebenkorn and Hockney. When you look at those paintings, you know they couldn’t have been made anywhere else. Gehry couldn’t have designed his L.A. buildings anywhere else. It was a whole new point of departure for me—and a very exciting one.


The workroom at FIDM is much bigger than at Parsons. But what was hilarious was a poignant moment at the end of season five, when Heidi and I were embracing, and Heidi said, because she knew how ambivalent I was about the plan to go to L.A., “It’s a good thing! You know, look around at the Parsons auditorium. This is an opportunity for a whole new runway and new direction for the show, and it is so exciting!” When we went to the soundstage for the first Runway judging, and I arrived before Heidi, I walked in, and suddenly I saw that they had replicated the Parsons auditorium—down to the square centimeter! They wanted the show to feel the same. I thought, I’ve got to see Heidi’s face when she walks in here!

Well, I understand what Lifetime and the producers were thinking, because there was such a backlash about the show moving to Lifetime and out here to L.A. And part of their message was, “It will be very much the same show.” So in L.A., the structure is the same: We present the challenge, have a budget and go shopping at Mood Fabrics. Then we come back to the workroom, and they execute the challenges. But you will find me in a pair of flip-flops in one episode. We might be alternating seasons between New York and L.A., so season eight will be here. I am really looking forward to it now. And I have my Ralphs card.