PATT MORRISON ASKS | TIM GUNN : On the ‘Runway’
To employ catchphrases from two Teutonic giants -- Heidi Klum and Arnold Schwarzenegger -- Lifetime TV’s “Project Runway,” which wraps up its season this coming week, has bid auf Wiedersehen to Los Angeles for now. But it’ll be back.
So too will the man whose own catchphrase, “Make it work,” gets shouted at him from admiring strangers in taxicabs. I cannot sew on a button properly, but I wouldn’t miss “Project Runway,” in large measure because of the urbane and droll Tim Gunn. If there’s a Tim Gunn character, I might even play the forthcoming “Project Runway” video game.
“Project Runway” fans may think of him as a fashion god, but Gunn regards himself as an educator, counselor to the designer/contestants toiling among the toiles. He strolls from dressmaker’s dummy to dressmaker’s dummy, either worried or pleased, as the garment under construction deserves.
Gunn spent a quarter of a century as a teacher and administrator at Parsons the New School for Design in New York. Now he’s the creative director and “brand ambassador” for the Liz Claiborne company.
Even if you only see “Project Runway” as you channel-surf on your way to PBS, you have to admit he’s an especially able wordsmith. Who else can so credibly toss out words such as “diaphanous” on television, or speak comfortably about “the semiotics of clothes”? He crafts and stitches his phrases as meticulously as the couturier Balenciaga composed his dresses.
So I’ll tweak Shakespeare to say this about Gunn: His “glass of fashion” is always full.
This is the first time I’ve ever begun a phone conversation -- with a stranger, at least -- by asking, “What are you wearing?”
[Laughs] Charcoal pinstripe suit, white shirt and a silver and gray version of a rep tie.
Did your style change while you were in L.A.?
Absolutely. I got to the point where I felt like I was walking around like a mortician. I thought, this is ridiculous. I stopped wearing ties. I wear them on the day someone’s [eliminated from the show], out of respect. But in the workroom, no, it’s too silly.
The current season is in L.A. The next one, which was already shot, is in New York, but the season after that, you’ll be back in L.A. Do you like the idea?
I love the plan. We needed a booster shot, and L.A. provided it -- more than that, it gave us a whole new threshold.
But you came here kicking and screaming.
I’m a creature of habit and [resisted] the idea of not being in my own bed at night, being on foreign turf, and I didn’t want to have to use any transportation other than my feet. But it all worked out beautifully.
Pedestrians here behave better than New Yorkers.
You’re superb! I wish we in New York observed the same pedestrian rules. I realize that it’s also very serious. Police will hand out tickets; I never got one, but I saw it happening.
In New York the entire street is a runway; people want to be seen. Where’s the public runway in L.A.?
In everyone’s car! [In L.A.], fashion has to be [about] a destination, and in New York, the destination is merely the city. In Los Angeles, what you see depends on the destination; there’s a fashion culture associated with the gathering.
Do you know when you sensed that the buzz is wrong, that L.A. is not a fashion wasteland after all?
The Emmys were happening when we were arriving, so we were going to use them for our first challenge. Some people associated with the show were very woeful about the whole thing -- oh no, a red carpet dress, what a ho-hum way to begin the season. Ho-hum? It’s the Emmy awards! All the high-end carpet [events] happen in Los Angeles. That’s when the doors of the epiphany began to open.
Until World War II, when the couture houses of Paris closed, New York was nowhere in fashion land. We were a city of copiers of Europe. The hotbed for fashion design and innovative thinking was Hollywood: Irene Sharaff, Gilbert Adrian. It was all about Los Angeles. I thought, “This has been part of my fashion history for a long time -- why did I have such a memory loss?” It was great to rediscover that.
People who don’t know peau de soie from peanut butter watch this show. What is it that -- well -- makes it work?
There are different iterations of love for the show. On the one hand, people love the fact that you don’t know where the challenge is going to take the designers, but you believe in their talent. But I had a mother of a 9-year-old come up to me in an airport. She said the show teaches young people how important qualities of character are: It teaches you that hard work pays off, that cheaters never prosper, that it’s better to play nicely with others than to be a diva. I’d never thought about the show that way. It’s really a lovely thing.
You’re there holding the designers’ hands, letting them know whether they’re going off the rails. How did you come to have that role?
It evolved from many years of teaching young people who are hugely impressionable, who have dreams and aspirations. It’s a big responsibility, and you don’t want to bash them. There are times when I’ve said, “I think we need to talk about some other routes that you should pursue.” But you want to nurture, guide and support. It’s important to me on “Project Runway” to bring that with me, including the phrases “make it work” and “carry on” and “I want you to succeed more than you do.”
Did I hear that you have a line of clothing coming out?
Oh no, never, never, never! I won’t ever consider it. I have this neutrality. I’m like the fashion Switzerland. I don’t have a brand people can hold up and say, “What are you talking about? Look at this work you did!”
I’m not a fashion designer; I’m a career educator. I’m a huge advocate for American fashion. I love the fact that we think it’s a great honor [when] people buy it. If you create a one-of-a-kind item and put it in a vitrine in a museum, frankly, who cares? I use wearability as a compliment, and I would say, “I don’t care what you design as long as your client can get into a taxi wearing it.” That eliminates a lot of the ridiculousness and float-in-a-parade [designs]. When you see clothes that take risks and are still wearable, it’s a thrilling moment -- for me it’s like looking at a Rothko.
My mantra is that the only thing you may be in charge of all day is how you look when you leave the house -- but that can influence everything else.
I’m working with [TV’s] Dr. Oz, with people with life-threatening illnesses, and I’m thinking, “How can I possibly talk to them about fashion when this is a life-and-death situation?” And they’ve said: “Fashion is important [because] it’s the only thing I can take charge of, the only thing I really control, and when I look good, I feel better, and that can only help my health.”
How do you compare L.A.'s garment district to New York’s?
It’s very, very different. My perception is that the fashion district in L.A. is more of a sourcing district, whereas in New York, it’s sourcing and it’s design, as opposed to just a destination to get stuff.
Do we have you to thank for the fact that there is no fur in the challenges?
Yes, thank you! I was called a fool when I was chair of fashion at Parsons and I invited PETA to speak to students. The industry went crazy. I said: “Wait a minute. The International Fur Trade Commission is coming here. I have a responsibility to bring another point of view, let the students decide.” I would say if you’re going to use fur, you have a responsibility to know its origins. At Liz Claiborne, every brand is now fur-free. A woman assaulted me verbally for my fur position. She said one of [her] favorite items is a mink coat, and that furthermore, it’s sheared mink, so people wouldn’t even know it’s fur. I said: “Then you have even less of an excuse. Sheared fur looks like velvet. You could wear a velvet coat.” I’m also not a great fan of faux fur that looks real -- I’d much rather have it look fake.
What was your fashion epiphany?
I grew up in Washington, D.C. It’s a city that subscribes to a uniform. So it wasn’t until I moved to New York that I became keenly aware that clothes really are about who you are. You see 40 different people dressed in 40 different ways, and it allowed me to come into my own. People say I’m a fashion guy. Well, I’m a guy who loves the industry, but I’m certainly not fashionable. I am a classicist; there’s only so far I’ll go with my own apparel, but that’s who I am. I’d never look at a man who’s not dressed as I am and say, “What’s the matter with you”?
I gather you were paid nothing for the show’s first season. I hope this has been remedied?
It has been, although I must say that I still need my day job.
Is there one item of clothing you cannot stand?
I cannot wrap my brain around the ubiquity of Crocs. Kelly Ripa [on “Live with Regis and Kelly”] said, “I insist that you put them on because they’re so comfortable.” And I put them on. I am looking down at my feet, and I feel like I have hooves! They’re horrible. If we all succumbed to the comfort trap, to dress as if we never got out of bed -- then we should never get out of bed.
firstname.lastname@example.org. This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.