‘Project Runway’: Tim Gunn carries on (to Season 7)


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If you caught Part 1 of the ‘Project Runway’ finale, you may have seen a teaser for Part 2, promising, of all things, a Tim Gunn meltdown. I couldn’t envision the designers’ mentor losing his cool, so I got the whole story over the phone as the former Parsons School of Design chair and Chief Creative Officer at Liz Claiborne Inc. spoke with me from New York about all things ‘Runway,’ fashion and TV.

Tell us about your ‘meltdown’ that Lifetime has promised us for the finale.
It was looney kajooney land, let me tell you. The backstage at Bryant Park is always crowded —you’ve filled the space to capacity, so we have a ton of hair people, makeup people, models, dressers and, because we couldn’t have any of the designers revealed to the public at large, we had all 16 designers backstage. Thankfully we only had three people showing, and that’s a record for us: It’s always been at least four. That was the good news: There were no red herrings. Owing to the fact that we couldn’t reveal to the audience who the finalists were, we wanted to tape their introduction before the audience came in. We had to do a pre-fashion show, and we taped the whole thing. Through the miracles of editing, it’s going to look as though the designers are speaking to the audience, but there isn’t one. We did the whole show; it was great. Then a volunteer at Bryant Park declared that the models should get out of their looks — it takes forever to get them into them, up over the head with the hair and makeup. I was distracted by something, then I’m paying full attention backstage and the models are getting undressed. I said, ‘Halt! What is happening here?’ The head dresser said, ‘I’m getting them out of their clothes.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Well, they’re going to steam them.’ That’s when I said, ‘I am about to lose it, and everyone’s going to stay in her clothes! PERIOD.’

Why didn’t the designers say something?
The designers were so worn out, they’d been up all night, and we’d been there since 4:30 in the morning, by then it was a quarter of nine. I don’t even know how aware they were that it was happening. There’s a fashion show that follows us, and we had the advantage of being the first show, but the people following us had a noon show and we weren’t out until 10:30. The more protracted our show was, the less time they had to get ready, and I believe in being a good citizen about those type of things.


How did Los Angeles differ from New York as a backdrop for show?
It was completely different. We had opportunities that we wouldn’t have in New York: The Emmy red carpet, that’s not going to happen here. We had our beach challenge.

And you wore flip-flops!
That’s not going to happen here either! We had access to people like Bob Mackie, plus his archive was in L.A. It was just easier to facilitate having access to those incredible costumes that he shared with the designers. We had the Getty. There’s wonderful museums here in New York, but the Getty Center is a whole environment, plus there’s just a more casual lifestyle in L.A. and the incredible weather. I had to stop walking around in suit and tie all the time because I looked ridiculous.

Other than the show being shot in L.A., could you feel much of a difference with the show being on Lifetime as opposed to Bravo?
I have to tell you: Lifetime and Bunim/Murray had such respect for the show. They wanted to change as little as possible. It was funny because when we were wrapping up Season 5, we were giving their designers their marching orders about their collection, and Heidi [Klum] said: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have our fashion shows in a whole new place, bigger and splashier? It’s time for a change. The first day that we had our runway show in Season 6, we went to a soundstage and it was a replica of Parsons’ auditorium. I couldn’t wait to see the look on Heidi’s face, having dreamed about this whole new environment — it looked exactly the same. But they really wanted things to change as little as possible because the viewers were so up in arms about the move and anticipating that the show would be completely different.

What or who has defined this season?
That’s an excellent question. It’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about, and, as a for instance, every season prior to Season 6 has had a ‘villain.’ There really isn’t one this season.

You mean Irina [Shabayeva]? There is another aspect, to me, that was different. When we assemble for fashion week, we’re together with the designers for a week before the show. The show’s been airing except for Season 6, so everyone knows what’s been happening with those one-on-one interviews and no one knew this time. I didn’t know, the designers didn’t know, so none of the designers knew until the show started airing. That usually there’s a kind of climax during the fashion week preparations where the designers are addressing these issues, these things that they’ve heard in these one-on-one interviews, and in a way it informs me, too. None of that happened. If we were to do it again now, it would really be different. At the same time, though, this season there wasn’t really a person for whom I have antipathy, like Kenley [Collins]. Blech. Before that, Victorya Hong, before that, Vincent Libretti. Irina is tenacious. She really wants it. We had a very long lunch with Irina and her family, and, oh my God, talk about the nut not falling far from the tree. Her mother was saying things like, ‘If Irina doesn’t win, she better not come home,’ and I could say she’s already a winner. Also, Irina was my student.

Did you feel a need to pull back at all when you advised her then?
No, to be honest, we had a very serious debate in Season 2 about whether former students of mine could audition for the show. I said if we say that graduates of Parsons, one of the largest design schools in the nation, can’t audition, then I should resign. That would be a terrible thing to do, to say this whole population can’t audition. I remain very unbiased.

What do you like about the home visits?
I love them. I like seeing another dimension of the designers’ lives. It gives me more of a sense of the context out of which their work evolves and a greater sense of who they are. We’re taping the Season 7 home visits right now.

What are your favorite types of challenges?

I really love working with the non-traditional materials, the challenges that really take the designers out of their comfort zone. I love those because there aren’t preconceptions or prior experiences that are brought to it. They’re very fresh and immediate. And the L.A. Times challenge was phenomenal


Do you confer with the judges after the runway shows, or do you just watch the tape?

I’m in the room, but I’m in the very back in the literal and metaphorical dark. I don’t say goodbye to the judges because I’m usually mad!But no, I don’t speak with the judges during the runway show: church and state. I will say that in Season 7 there are a number of designers who throw me under the bus, and Heidi says at one point, ‘I want a stool next to my chair with a red phone so I can call Tim Gunn,’ and I called out from the back, ‘I want a red phone to call you!’ That will probably be edited out, though.

What are some of the biggest disagreements you’ve had with the judges this season?
It’s easy: the beach challenge. I was absolutely confident that the Ra’mon [Coleman]and Mitchell [Hall] team would both go home, and the fact that Ra’mon won that challenge still has me spinning in my chair. I was horrified by what he designed — that neoprene horror. Nina [Garcia] had a filibuster in support of that look. The other judges were aghast, but she said, ‘This is the only look that is remotely innovative.’ Well, innovative it was; good it wasn’t. The Weinstein Co. auctioned off the look, and I won it because I vowed to present it to Nina. I still haven’t received it yet, though, come to think of it. Maybe they’re still working it.

With which judges do you tend to agree the most?

Well, I felt really bad for Heidi during most of Season 6 because, with too much frequency, she was the only common denominator, since she was the only one who had seen all the previous work of the designers. It wasn’t good not having Michael [Kors] and Nina as much this season, but there was so much they had to do. I’m just lucky that the people at Liz Claiborne said, ‘Go. Do what you have to do.’

What are the most unthoughtful ways you’ve seen the accessory wall used?

I’m not nearly as critical and particular about how the accessories are used as the judges are. There are times when that’s all they notice, but I say that’s a matter of styling, not design. And also, since I’m in the workroom with them all the time, I know the various challenges that they face with the accessory wall. For instance, it’s not as though we have every shoe in every model’s size, and during Seasons 6 and 7 there was a lot of grabbing of accessories. I said, ‘Put those things back until the design evolves!’ And then in some cases they were designing for the accessory. I said, ‘Don’t do that! It inappropriately limits your thinking and your creative capacity.’ I’d like to take this up with the producers and judges. I have a problem with designing a look and then having an impactful part of that look be a belt, for example, that you didn’t design or make. It makes me want to limit what’s on that accessory wall. I think if you need a belt, make it.

You’re famous for being nice. Is it hard to stay nice when you’ve become more of a public persona and you have people yelling ‘Make it work!’ at you on the street?
No! Never. When this incredible phenomenon happens to you after you turn 50, you realize how incredibly surreal the whole thing is and how incredibly lucky you are. It’s music to my ears when people say ‘Make it work’ to me. I love it. With precious few exceptions, everyone’s really nice. One guy did tell me, ‘You should be ashamed of yourselves. You’re so mean to those designers.’ Also, when we were filming in New York, I would go to this Au Bon Pain in the basement of Macy’s, and the first morning this woman behind the counter said, ‘Oh, it’s Michael Kors!’ I didn’t correct her. I thought, ‘Oh, let her be thrilled.’ Then, by the third morning, she asked, ‘What happened to your nice tan?’ and I had to tell her the truth.

Will we see a return of ‘Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style’?
No, but I’m on Dr. Oz’s show, so in a way I’m working with women in the same way I did on ‘Guide to Style.’ I loved every second of it. I loved the fact that it wasn’t an intervention, that people declared it was a fashion issue. Who knows? Maybe sometime down the path there will be another iteration of it. I’m also so busy it would send me right to a lunatic asylum.


My favorite episode of that show was the woman who had all the expensive stuff but no style.
Ali: She was so extraordinarily difficult. I wanted to have a showdown with her a lot earlier than I did, but the producers wanted me to hold back. There was so much going on in that episode people wouldn’t know about. She wouldn’t let us film in her apartment, we had to rent her an apartment and bring all her clothes to it. Gretta [Monahan] and I were going through the closet and we asked what the soul-stirring items are. She said, ‘I didn’t bring any. I didn’t bring my good clothes.’ We asked, ‘You’re going to throw everything away, right?’ ‘No.’ Plus, there was a general disrespect of the crew, which I have no patience for. None. You can walk all over me, but do not insult and abuse the people around me. I have no patience for that. I was ready to blow at Neiman Marcus, and the producer said, ‘Go ahead, blow.’ After I had my thing with her in the dressing room, the whole crew applauded.

Fashion-wise, what’s the biggest waste of money?

These days, women don’t spend a lot of money on anything. But I think it’s the seduction of a handbag. If you don’t spend a lot of money, you appear cheap, which I think is ridiculous. I frankly have serious difficulty understanding the appeal of really expensive (and by that I mean over $600) bags. Six hundred dollars is the bare minimum when it comes to those stratospheric bags. The Hermes culture of ‘Well it’s made by 60 people in an attic in the countryside of France’ — to be blunt, who cares? And all these matching pelts. Who fundamentally cares? It’s a big slouchy hobo bag. It’s not as though it’s a tailored piece of luggage. I just don’t understand it. I say to people who really want to reach and are looking at $5,000 handbags, ‘Spend half that amount and give the other half to charity.’ I just don’t like conspicuous consumption. I find it distasteful.

What’s a street trend you’ve been seen women pulling off that anyone can wear?
I see a lot of women really working a flat and looking chic and sophisticated, and I love the look. I was looking at the Bill Cunningham party page in the New York Times, and a woman was wearing those Alexander McQueen hoof shoes. It not only looks ugly — I don’t believe it’s something you get used to and then think is pretty — it looks like the individual has a deformity. It looks like the devil’s spawn. It’s really horrifying. The individual who was photographed had hair like Elsa Lanchester, like ‘Bride of Frankenstein.’

And it wasn’t Lady Gaga?
No. I thought, ‘Wow, she’s really working the look.’ It looked preposterous, definitely like a costume.

Do you have any plans to join Twitter?
No, not remotely. I have an official Facebook page, and I like having it. When people want to contact me, I say, ‘Go to Facebook.’ But that’s one thing I regret about not teaching: Those students kept me very aware of what was going on.

Do you have any time to watch TV, and if so, what do you watch?
Thank God for DVR. I love HGTV. I love the Food Network. I love ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ ‘Drop Dead Diva,’ ‘Mad Men.’

I thought ‘Drop Dead Diva’ looked horrible the first time I saw an ad for it, but I’ve heard good things about it.
I know a lot of ‘Runway’ addicts who now watch it. I also thought it looked horrible and cheesy at first, but it’s really not. And Brooke Elliott is a great actress.

Have you watched ‘Models of the Runway’? Do you think it was a success?

When I first heard about the concept, I said out loud to myself in the privacy of my own home, ‘Has anyone ever met these girls?’ But I met the Season 6 models, and I thought, good heavens, they really raised the bar. These women have something to say, and they’re articulate. I watched the first episode and thought it was awful. By the second I was beginning to get hooked, and by the third I was fully hooked. I liked hearing the models talk about how they felt wearing the designer’s look and what they thought of it.

Can you tell us anything about Season 7?
I think there is some controversy over Season 6, but I think everyone’s going to love Season 7. Also, I can tell you that it is the season of the man’s scarf. We taped in June and July in New York, and Michael Kors and I are the only ones not enswathed in a scarf. It’s also the season of the sashay — no one other than me moves with any degree of urgency. No matter what, they sashay. I don’t even have the adequate words to describe how mad and frustrated I would get: ‘We have to get down to the runway right now!’ and they’d just kind of glide along through the workroom.

— Claire Zulkey
Related posts:

Tim Gunn: On the ‘Runway’
‘Project Runway’: Tim checks in
‘Project Runway’: Bit of a messfest