Tim Gunn Talks Fashion, Celebrities, and Brands

Behind the scenes at 'Project Runway' and fashion shows...

Tim Gunn Courtesy of Lifetime TV

Tim Gunn says, “Be insatiably curious about everything” — and he clearly heeds his own words.

His Twitter account reflects multiple personalities: educator, author, fashion therapist, and Project Runway mentor. He’s also covered the Academy Awards red carpet and appeared on various TV series and films.

Gunn made his comments at an appearance at New York’s 92Y on Tuesday, where he was interviewed by fashion insider Fern Mallis. A self-described “truth teller,” Gunn is known for helping others with makeovers. He’s also continually reinvented his own career, and he recounted some of the high and low points at the event.

Project Runway: “It was all very serendipitous”Tim Gunn at 92Y Courtesy of Joyce Culver

“The show took the veil of mystery, intrigue, purported glamour and fabulousness and ripped the veil right off. It’s been great for the industry.”

Gunn was pleased that the producers selected him to be a consultant on the reality show about fashion design. However, he noted that Project Runway debuted to very few viewers, and after attending a screening, the president of Bravo asked, “Who’s ever going to watch this?” He was gun shy and didn’t attend the premiere party, but said he “watched the first show like he watched The Wizard of Oz — from under the sheets.”

Yet by the end of season one, he felt validated when the show caught on and was nominated for an Emmy. Nine more nominations have followed during 13 seasons, and Project Runway remains a hit now for Lifetime TV.

Gunn is now a co-host and mentor on the show. As for how the designers have fared, he said, “they can only be as successful as their ambitions, resources and the economy allows. It’s a tough business.”

Celebrity antics: “You can’t make this stuff up”

Gunn once told a story to the New York Post about Vogue editor Anna Wintour being carried down five flights of stairs by two male bodyguards from a fashion show in New York since she doesn’t like to ride in elevators with others. Wintour’s people demanded a retraction, which he refused. After further discussions, he sent her a letter and a bouquet of white flowers.

In reflecting on similar incidents he’s witnessed over the years, Gunn asked the audience, “When does it happen that a switch goes off and suddenly this type of behavior is OK?”

Working for legacy retail clothing brand: “in crisis management mode”

Gunn served a brief stint as chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne Inc, where he was charged with winnowing down their portfolio from 48 brands. He described his tenure there with the team as, “Paddling and bailing as fast as we could, and it was crisis management.”

Then he added:

“I have a theory about legacy brands in the U.S. They tend to not make it, while in Europe they flourish.”

Dressing up is a must: “The ‘slobbification’ of America is grim”

Gunn expanded on his recent profile in The New York Times metro section about his Sunday routine: He wears a suit when visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, because “when looking at incredible works of art, you can’t stand there in shorts and flip flops.”

He also lamented that air travel now is “like one big slumber party,” with passengers wearing pajama-like outfits.

Tim Gunn the Natty ProfessorHis books: “golden rules, style guides and mentoring”

Gunn has written four books, starting with a 2007 guide to quality, taste and style. His next book in 2010 outlined his “golden rules,” such as accepting responsibility for one’s actions and taking the high road.

His new book, The Natty Professor: a Master Class in Mentoring, Motivating and Making it Work!, reflects his many years spent teaching at Parsons School of Design, where he re-positioned the fashion program. The chapters spell the word ‘TEACH’: truth telling, empathy, asking, cheerleading, and hoping for the best.

For Gunn, mentoring is about only helping people with things that they can change, and the primary takeaway is showing people the confidence to navigate the world.

Forecasting the future: “Throw the dice and take risks”

When he was in his 20s, a psychic once told Gunn that he’d “leave his life as an artist on the shelf,” which he acknowledged has turned out to be an accurate prediction.

Now he’s making the rounds on his book tour and gearing up for the next season of Project Runway. As for his other plans, he said:

“Since I’m so lucky and blessed, it would be reckless hubris to wish for anything else.”

(Image #1 courtesy of Lifetime TV; image #2 courtesy of Joyce Culver; Image #3 courtesy of Simon & Schuster)