Tim Gunn

Fashion guru, alleged slacker

Is it true that you don’t really do anything at your Liz Claiborne job?

I wish whoever says that would walk a mile in my shoes. I mean, it is true that I’m doing a lot of public appearances for the brand, but I’m creative director over the whole company! I’m not designing, I would never say that I am, and I’m not editing either. But I’m here as a sounding board, as a therapist, as a truth-teller, as a colleague, and really as the eyes and ears to the design community. The same people who say that also say that I’m in a creative dispute with Isaac Mizrahi. Ridiculous!

—Drew Toal

See previous 1 bold question

[Editors note: Extended interview]

What would you like to change about Hillary Clinton’s look?
[Laughs] You know what I’d like to do? I’d like Hillary to spend a day with Nancy Pelosi and really get an understanding of how comfortable Nancy Pelosi is with her gender, with being feminine in her dressing, and really celebrating the fact that she’s a woman and celebrates or demonstrates the qualities and characteristics that are so profound and powerful about being a woman. I feel like Hillary is just trying to be one of the boys. And her distinction is her gender, as far as I’m concerned. I mean, all the other aspects of her, I simply accept as givens, but her real distinction running for office is that she is a woman. So I wish she’d just own up to it and be what she is. So I’d like to see her in clothes that have a little more fit. I’d love to see her in a skirt or a dress. I’d love to see her use color in a more fashion-forward way. I mean, I’m so sick of the pastels and, you know, she just looks like she’s ready for Fort Lauderdale. And she’s the senator of New York! Show a little pizzazz!

Can you really make all body types look beautiful?
Yes. I am confident. I always cite the opera divas, like Leontyne Price. I mean, of course I’m an old fart, so I go back to these people who aren’t around anymore. But Leontyne Price and Marilyn Horne and Beverly Sills, I mean, they were glamour queens, and they were women who were not a size two.

So it’s more about fit then, I guess?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s about silhouette, proportion and fit. That’s my mantra when it comes to getting fashion right.

Speaking of mantras, isn’t “Make it work” pretty vague advice?
Is it vague advice?

Yeah, and frankly, it is on purpose. It really came out of my teaching experiences, and I find with my students that rather than taking a problem that they’re having with their own work, with disparate parts that aren’t coming together, or a fabric that’s a particular challenge, they’d simply be inclined to chuck the whole project and start over. And I don’t believe that’s a good way of learning. I mean, unless you’ve really backed yourself up against a wall and you’ve so damaged all the ingredients that there’s no way of retrieving anything that’s going to work, my dictum to them was simply make it work. Work your way through this problem because they’ll learn so much about how to problem solve, rather than just taking a whole new set of ingredients and saying “Okay, let’s start over.” You know, it’s about saving a recipe, so to speak, metaphorically. So it’s intentionally vague, as opposed to, in the case of the Project Runway designers, “I want you to take this sleeve and I want you to reset it into the base of the jacket, and I want you to raise the shoulder a quarter of an inch.” I mean, that specificity is more about me and really has nothing to do with them. So I’m intentionally vague when it comes to “Make it work.”

That makes sense. I guess you learn something then even if it doesn’t work.
Yeah! And then if you can learn to engage with our work in a way that’s analytical and critical, then you can learn a lot. Otherwise, it’s just a wasted experience, as a matter of speaking.

Speaking of Project Runway, you’re very nice and diplomatic on the show generally. But what designer would you least like to see return?
Well, that always comes down to personalities for me. You mean, for this season who would I not like to return?

Well, it’s no contest. It’s Victorya. No contest.

No contest, huh?
She was so incredibly difficult. I mean, I’ll share with you. The executive producer, Rich Bye, and I had two off-camera interventions with her, which is unheard of on the show. You know, whatever we do, we do it on-camera. But we didn’t want to do this on camera because we certainly weren’t going to use it.

It was that bad?
Well, she was incredibly difficult and brought down the whole tenor and tone of the workroom in a way that was really not nice. It was troublesome to the other designers and our reason to engage with her off-camera was to simply ask bluntly, “What is wrong with you? You are taking a place on this show that thousands of people would have wanted to have. So you’re here. Why are you making this such an uncomfortable and unhappy experience not only for yourself, but for everybody else?” I mean, she was nasty to the crew. People would be trying to mike her and she would, you know, kind of smack them away. And she said, “This is not the show I wanted to be on.” What are you talking about? She said, “Well, I never dreamed it would be like this.” What do you mean you dreamed it would never be like this? You’ve seen the show. She said, “Well, I thought that was cheated. I never really dreamed that we would only have a day for a challenge. I never really dreamed that we wouldn’t have any breaks.”

I said, “Well, you only have yourself to blame for being delusional about it. How we portray it on-air is exactly how it is.” And she said, “Well, I just couldn’t believe it could be like that.” Well it is! And then I said to her, “Why don’t you just throw the next challenge? Or throw the challenge that we were currently engaged in?” But you know, the designers have too much of an ego to do that. But I will tell you in my own evil way, I was really, really sorry and regretful that she didn’t stay around for the women wrestlers challenge [Laughs]. Wouldn’t have that been awesome?

That would have been hilarious.
And I think it’s likely that she would have just walked away from the challenge. I mean, I can’t say that for certain. But I think she would have refused to do it, saying, “This is an indignity to the entire female gender.” So it would’ve been great to see, but it didn’t happen. Things happen for a reason, so I guess it wasn’t meant to happen.

Why can’t straight men make it fashion?
[Laughs] I’m sitting here thinking that I must know some straight men in fashion.

Do you?
Or designers? You know, personally I don’t. I’m sure they’re out there somewhere. I mean, we’ve had them on the show. This season, Kevin, and I have no doubt about his sexual orientation. In design, we don’t have to just focus on fashion; in the arts in general, there’s a lot of gay men. But I will say in fashion with men, I make the assumption they’re gay until proven otherwise.

Will Dynasty-era shoulder pads or Zubaz pants ever make a comeback?
I hope not. But you know, when you look at the fashion pendulum, it’s always reacting to what’s happening, and we want the customer to buy something new. Those proportions are so exaggerated. They look costumey. I’m hoping that when shoulder pads do return, that it’s in a more modified and believable way. The ‘80s were really a troublesome fashion decade.

Is it true that you don’t really do anything at your Liz Claiborne job?
I wish whoever says that would walk a mile in my shoes. I mean, it is true that I’m doing a lot of public appearances for the brand, but I’m creative director over the whole company! I’m not designing, I would never say that I am, and I’m not editing either. But I’m here as a sounding board, as a therapist, as a truth-teller, as a colleague, and really as the eyes and ears to the design community. The same people who say that also say that I’m in a creative dispute with Isaac Mizrahi. Ridiculous!

Does Veronica Webb get truly horrified at some of the guests when they come on the show? You know, their fashion tragedy?
I wouldn’t say that she gets horrified. I mean, like me, she, I mean the two of us are totally committed to helping these women get better. It’s sort of like having a fashion illness. And there were some people who were simply more challenging than others. But the wonderful thing about the structure of the whole show is that it’s not an intervention. It’s not a matter of Veronica and I show up at her house, and she doesn’t know that we’re coming and she has no idea why we’re there. She has contacted us to say, “I’m in a serious fashion rut and I want you to help me get out of it.” And the reason I say it’s a good thing that’s the underlying structure because we can walk away. And believe me, there were a couple of times when we really threatened to do just that. I mean, in one case, it was the English teacher in New Jersey with the cargo capri pants and the sassy tank tops. And we just said, “You know something? If this is so difficult for you and you really don’t want to do this, you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to. You can go right back to New Jersey.” I mean, what I like about the show and about the message that we send is that it’s about being responsible for what you’re wearing. Because the clothes that we wear send a message about how we want the world to perceive us. So as long as there’s an awareness of that, wear whatever you want. At least you know that you’re not a victim. You’re responsible. So by working with Veronica and me, these women learned what they look good in, what they should avoid, and they have a heightened awareness of what works for them so they can make decisions. I would never, ever say, “You can only wear these items.” When I was asked to write the book, I said, “I’m not interested in doing a play-size self-help makeover book.” It’s not what I do. And Abrams Image, the publisher said, “But it’s really what we want from you.” And I said, “Well, let me think about it.” And I went back to him and said, “Okay, I can do it provided that I do it my way, which is not to offer up a fashion prescription, but really be a fashion therapist.” I mean, I have a very Socratic approach to this. What do you do? With whom do you interact? What items of apparel do you resonate to? And how do you want the world to perceive you? Because the answers to those questions are different for everyone. And then it’s matter of what looks good on you. And that’s where the silhouette, proportion, and fit are critical ingredients.

If you had to dispense one piece of fashion advice to New Yorkers, what would it be?
To New Yorkers specifically?

I have to tell you, I love this city when it comes to fashion. The reason I love it so much is that it accepts everything. It accepts the most sophisticated, elegant clothes and it accepts the float in the parade. I mean, it just embraces it. I don’t think there’s anything you can’t wear here. I mean, one piece of advice for New Yorkers is the advice I would give people anywhere in this city, which is that most people’s clothes don’t fit them properly. And in most cases, they’re too big. It’s all about the comfort trap. People feel that if there’s a lot of wiggle room in their clothes, they feel more comfortable. And in fact, they don’t look polished. They look sloppy, to be perfectly honest. And men are more guilty of it than women. But everybody is guilty of it. And, you know, the first time, people say it’s a matter of, “Well, when I get in my car, I don’t want to feel like my arms are constrained.” Well, that shouldn’t be the case either. It shouldn’t be one extreme or the other. It shouldn’t be you’re wearing a tent or you’re wearing a wetsuit, you know? We have to find a happy medium here. But you’ve probably heard my refrain about, “If you want to dress to feel as though you’ve never gotten out of bed, don’t get out of bed.” And it’s simply true. I hear about comfort all the time. Look, I want to be comfortable too. But am I as comfortable wearing a shirt and tie as I am wearing a turtleneck? No. But it’s more appropriate for certain occasions. And it’s important that people dress for occasion appropriateness.

So is it okay to ever wear an athletic jersey?
In the gym! [Laughs] Absolutely. And from your apartment to the gym, absolutely. But is it okay to wear to the theater? No. But people do.

See more Bold questions