By Jeff Walsh
With his new book, "A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style," Tim Gunn brings the expertise and charm that has made him famous on "Project Runway" and boiled it down to the essentials that everyone can use in their own life. Gunn, 53, recently left Parsons: The New School for Design, where Project Runway is taped, for a new position as chief creative officer for Liz Claiborne, although he will return for the show's fourth season. In addition, Gunn will also host Tim Gunn's Guide To Style, which will air as eight one-hour shows on Bravo starting in September.
As much as I love Project Runway, and understand that it is "reality TV," I was surprised at how down to earth and affable he was. Our initial interview was set up for Friday, via phone, a day in advance of his San Francisco visit. He was doing two book events in one day, so not surprising to do it over the phone, really. So, he calls me on Friday, and just as we're getting started, I mention I'll be seeing him at the book event in San Francisco tomorrow. "You're in San Francisco? Why don't we do this in person? We'll get a better interview that way." We make plans to meet at the bookstore the following day, in advance of his event, and that was that.
The day of the event, he was running a little late, though. So, the first part of our interview took place as roughly 200 people were in an adjacent room, anxiously waiting for him to appear and knowing he was already in the store. When the bookstore manager came to get him, we decided to finish up after he finished signing books.
So, this interview is a strange hybrid. You get the first part of the interview, then a transcript of what he said to the San Francisco audience, you also get their questions for him, as well as the second part of my interview with Tim.
Throughout the entire day, I was struck with how personable and open he was to everyone that came out to see him, clearly enjoying this strange twist life brought him.
At first I didn't watch Project Runway, because I was just, "Eh, it's all about fashion.." and, well, obviously... (gestures to outfit)
Oh, stop! (laughs)
But then I started dating this guy, and he was like, 'You remind me of the guys on Project Runway, you're so witty...' And I was like, hmm...
I'd better watch this show!
Exactly! So I start watching it. I figure if I'm dating him and he's going to talk about it, and then we go on like two dates, nothing happens, and then I'm hooked on the show.
I'm watching the episodes, listening to your podcasts, everything.
The podcasts are fun, because they are very purging and cathartic.
So, for someone like me, who's not even that much into fashion. I mean, I cook, but Top chef just isn't the same, because you don't see it happen and learn anything. But the fashion pulls you in and you get to see how people express themselves in all these different ways. So, what do you think the attraction is?
Well, this is speculative on my part, because I'm such an insider. I know why it interests me and, frankly, I didn't think it would interest anybody else. I have to say, when we did season one, I didn't know what the show would be. We were taping, but who knows how they're going to cut it. I thought maybe it's going to be all the antics in the Atlas apartments, and there will be very little about what happens in the workroom.
But, as we know, there was a lot and people wanted even more of it. The audience was really interested in the whole creative process. I think the idea that all the designers have the same opportunity. They've got the same budget, the same array of fabrics available to them, what are they selecting, how are they thinking in terms of a point of view about design, and then how do they use the time that's allocated, and what is the outcome and how do the judges respond?
Because I'm certain you, like everybody else, when the designs walk the runway, you have preferences. You have things you resonate to more than others, and things you really hate. What I've loved about the evolution of the show was that, which each successive season, the designers get stronger.
In my view, the jump between season two and three was huge. It's demonstrated in the challenge outcomes. In seasons one and two, you almost never see a sleeve. Almost never. And in season three, there are jackets and coats, dresses with sleeves, there's shirts; it's a much more ambitious level of design and certainly of execution... what's my point? Oh, just that the more it is about design, the more interesting it is and, also, the more provocative it is. Because it's a matter of taste. It's a matter of what you do respond to and what you don't.
I guess what I've noticed is, like when you see a weight loss show, you rarely see them work out, they focus on the drama. And when you see a cooking show, they're doing something and then a beautiful dish comes out. But on this, you see the sketch and follow that form as it goes throughout the show, so it seems like it's not just the drama, but you see the process a lot more.
Exactly, you do. And you also see... there can be ambivalence in the designer about the direction the work is going, the decision-making can suddenly change midstream because of X, Y, or Z, and we talk about. We hope there's an educational element to it. Not that the viewer is going to go out and start making clothes, but that they'll have a better understanding of why this happened, and why it was more successful than that other thing.
And I have to say for myself, I certainly like some of them more than others. But, across the board, I just want them all to succeed. I never say, 'I want you to fail this challenge.' I may look at the work at the end and say, 'I'd bet you were going to fail this.' But we want them to succeed. It's really about helping, not knocking down, toppling, and making fun of, ridiculing, and all that.
So, the new book, "A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style," for some reason when I read that, it's like... yeah, Tim Gunn, I can see that.
I mean, do you see that and think, 'God, if they only knew me back when...'
People Magazine this week. It just came out yesterday with these old photos. In one of them, I wrote that I look like Napoleon Dynamite.
So, it's an evolution.
It is an evolution.
Because, especially dealing with gay youth, they seem more apt to experiment with their image and such.
I think they are.
Do you think people naturally have a sense of what their style is? Or is it a constantly evolving thing?
I hope it's constantly evolving. I hope it's not stagnant because we evolve as individuals. The more experience we have, I can't help but to think we change and we look at the world around us and we know how to morph ourselves ... well, it's the semiology of dressing. We send messages of how we want the world to perceive us, and that can change and evolve as the world does, and I think it should. It's why I would hope for anyone who's thinking in that manner, about the message, that what's in their closet keeps changing. Not even every year. I mean, if I look back at my closet today versus seven years ago, I think there's barely anything still in it from that time.
I always used to do the thing (because I used to be over 300 pounds), where...
Really?! I can't imagine.. that's fantastic. Congratulations!
Thanks. So, I always did the 'when I hit this weight, then I'll develop my style.
No, I understand that.
So, it's kind of like 'No, not yet. Keep going to old Navy and buying T-shirts.' And at a certain weight, it will become, 'OK, now how do I want to dress this?'
Right. Well, that has a lot to do with self-image.
So, what was the process of writing the book like?
Yeah, I understand that... I'm trying to finish a novel.
Are you really? Congratulations.
Yeah, it's like 780 pages right now that need to be beat down into a novel.
How long can it be?
The problem now is just tightening and fixing.
Well, this book went through the same thing. It just couldn't be 300 pages. It just wasn't going to work. But I love writing, and I always have. I have never tackled anything this ambitious, and it's a 180 page book or something. As my mother says, 'Barely a book.'
Yeah, always. It was just daunting. It really was. And I wanted to make certain that my voice was there, that I wasn't just writing words. Thank God for Kate Moloney, who's a brilliant editor. At one point, I was going, 'I'm going to end up in a mental hospital. I really am. I'm just going to check myself in just to avoid this.'
Yeah, I'm there right now.
How are you doing with your deadline? Are you past it?
I don't have one.
I saved up money from when I had a corporate job, so the only thing I have to do all day is go to yoga class and work on the book.
And do you set aside a certain number of hours a day to work on it?
The writing I was able to judge more. But the editing is like, 'Was that enough? Was that a workday?'