The Project Runway host shares his thoughts on civility, fashion and the Wintour of our discontent.
It’s hard to see how Tim Gunn makes his life work without the benefit of time travel. The ever-dapper Project Runway mentor and chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne recently finished the show’s eighth season, logged several guest TV spots, ran the attendant publicity gauntlet for his second book, Gunn’s Golden Rules, and has been on tour as something of fashion's ambassador to the real world.
Gunn, on one recent such visit to the King of Prussia Mall, was kind enough to discuss the book, reality shows, “It Gets Better” and being seen as the voice of reason in a notoriously unreasonable industry.
Gunn’s first-hand accounts of some of the more uncouth behavior in the fashion world drew a ton of early interest in his book, but the attention skewed its perception—the slim volume could be titled Gunn’s Guide to Being a Rational and Decent Human Being, but the way the tabloids picked up and harped on a couple of anecdotes, someone who hadn’t read it might assume it’s more “Manol-oh-no-she-didn’t.”
“I have been concerned about it,” Gunn says. “The reasons these stories are so potent for me is because they are aberrant—this isn’t the way most people behave.” For example, the now-infamous story of Anna Wintour having bodyguards carry her down five flights of stairs after a fashion event was included for the what-not-to-do lesson of what happened afterward (Gunn made a joke about the incident that found its way into print; Wintour tried to bully him into retracting it and apologizing).
Still, his brief turn as scourge of the Wintour-net doesn’t seem to be of much concern to him. “What’s the worst that could happen, she doesn’t invite me to a party?” he says. “I’m not invited to her parties now, and don’t care to be.”
When asked how he would reframe the book, Gunn says that perception is already changing “now that we’ve had this horrible outbreak of teenage suicides.” He speaks with unusual candor in his book about his own suicide attempt as an isolated gay youth, and was among the earliest and most affecting figures to record an “It Gets Better” video, sharing his experience and a message of hope for bullied LGBTQ kids. It’s clearly an important one to him, and he seems grateful that “people are now talking about that aspect and the Anna Wintour stuff has more or less gone away.”
Of course, telling it like it is comes with personal as well as professional risks.
“I’ll be perfectly honest—my mother isn’t speaking to me,” Gunn says, sounding as upbeat as one can given the topic. Those who’ve read the book might have their suspicions as to why (a little too close a peek into Hoover’s drawers, perhaps?), but he isn’t interested in speculating. “She has read the book and she’s not speaking to me. So I don’t know the specifics of what she’s so cobbled by—I can guess, but I honestly don’t know.” He gives the impression that he expects it will be all right and it’s difficult to doubt that unspoken appraisal; after all, this is the man who’s built his fame on doing the best he can with what he’s got.
When asked about the tensions around semi-outcast Michael Costello on the most recent season of Project Runway, Gunn shoots from the hip: “I’ll tell you what troubled me,” he says without hesitation, “and I’m making an assumption that it troubled the other designers, too. It’s that Michael, for each challenge, would create two, three, sometimes four looks ... I have not seen anything quite like that in the history of the show.” The designers' response to the judges’ praise of these hastily constructed garments was, Gunn assumes, “Good god, he did that in the last three hours.”
In his seven years at Parsons, Gunn says, he tried to make it clear to his students that fashion is, counter-intuitively, a very serious industry that is bigger than just pretty things and petty sniping. Fashion “is a sociological gauge—it happens in a context that is societal and cultural and historical and economic and political,” he says. “Clothes don’t need to change, but fashion, by definition, must.”
Gunn is passionate about the connections between what we wear and the environments we live in—one thing he loves about the American fashion industry (and it’s a point that’s not always seen as a positive, particularly in Europe) is its accessibility—how “we look at fashion through the lens of commerce.”
But Gunn acknowledges that even the accessible American fashion industry can still be alienating to many consumers—after all, it is still de rigueur for runway shows to feature prohibitively expensive clothes on “girls who haven’t even hit puberty.”
“It’s just not realistic,” he asserts. “A lot of people don’t have either the money or the inclination for that, and they want real, solid advice about how to present themselves. I like women who are real shapes; nothing makes me happier than working with real women in the real world and helping them get their fashion right. I’m always saying ‘If getting your fashion right were easy, everyone would always look great’—and, you know, they don’t.”
But at King of Prussia and malls across America, Gunn’s happy to help them make it work.
William Bailey came out his sophomore year at Camden Academy high school because he was “done trying to deny it.” The backlash was immediate. One of his best friends told him she wished he would get AIDS and die, then stopped speaking to him.