Issue Date: August 30, 2009
Superman of style
Find out why America is hung up on Tim Gunn, the most trusted man in fashion.
By Brian Truitt
See Tim Gunn on "Project Runway," airing Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PTon Lifetime.
First impressions are important, and Tim Gunn has made quite a few of them over the years. To the millions of fans who watch the fashion reality show "Project Runway," he's the friendly mentor with an authoritative presence. To his industry peers, he's the esteemed new fashion voice with a sculptor's background. And to the now six seasons' worth of contestants on the popular series, their first impression was that he seemed like a Catholic school principal in a dapper Banana Republic suit.
He's all these things and more. With Gunn, what you see is what you get, whether you watch him on TV or run into him as he's taking the subway back to his brand-new Manhattan apartment. "No one's more shocked and surprised about this whole phenomenon than I am!" says the 56-year-old former chair of fashion design at Parsons The New School for Design and current chief creative officer for Liz Claiborne.
While Gunn, who became a first-time homeowner four months ago, is back in New York after filming the seventh season of "Project Runway," the show's sixth season -- which was filmed in Los Angeles -- is airing now on Lifetime. Fans of fashion, and even those neophytes who wouldn't know an empire waistline from a handkerchief hem, flock to the show weekly to see how Gunn mentors his charges in the workroom, spouting catchphrases such as "Carry on!" and "Make it work!" while fostering their creativity.
Perhaps the reason Gunn is so successful is that he came to the fashion world as a relative outsider. "There's no greater calling than design," he says. "Whether you're designing a jacket or designing tableware, you're making the world a more beautiful place and better place, hopefully."
"Tim Gunn isn't popular because he represents something new, innovative or avant-garde," says Karen Tongson, a professor of English and gender studies at the University of Southern California. "Rather, his popularity rests in the fact that he is a comforting throwback to Victorian versions of the gentleman scholar."
Gunn, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, was not a terribly athletic or popular kid, but a nerd. A debilitating stutter didn't help matters. He bounced around more private secondary schools and colleges than he'd like to mention, trying to find a place where he felt content.
All along the way, his parents never wavered in their support of his artistic ambitions -- the same kind of care that he took with his design students and now his "Project Runway" designers. "My father, who died 15 years ago, was like this big, jock-y FBI agent, and here he has a son who gets toy plastic castles with knights and cuts out felt clothes for them? I didn't have a great relationship with my father, probably largely because of these things, but my parents really supported me," says Gunn, whose mother now lives in Lewes, Del., and is his "barometric gauge of reality" when it comes to the fashion industry.
Gunn finally found an academic home at Washington's Corcoran College of Art and Design and majored in sculpture. That's when it all turned around for him. "Part of what was so unshackling was the whole aspect that when you're studying art or design, the answer isn't in the back of the book. The answer's in you, somewhere," Gunn says. "It's a matter of tapping into the resources you have and being creatively untethered."
He went from being a student to a Corcoran teacher, moved to Parsons and New York City in 1983 and then joined "Project Runway" as a consultant for the first season in 2004.
In many ways, Gunn says his life has changed tremendously over 30 years, and in other ways, it hasn't changed at all. "Whatever's happening in politics, with the economy, with popular culture, with our environment -- all these things figure into good design and good art," Gunn says. "It's why I taught for 29 years: I loved watching other people feel the same sense of academic liberation, risk-taking and creative recklessness that allows you to do great work."
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Fall fashion tips
Advice from some of Tim Gunn's "Project Runway" protégés:
Christian Siriano (winner, Season 4): "Your coat for fall and winter is so important, and it's really such a staple because you wear it every single day. It's something people should invest in, because it's not just a throwaway piece. It's important, especially when you're budget-conscious and can't buy a whole new collection every season."
Chloe Dao (winner, Season 2): "Don't follow the trends; they're all wacky. Fashion right now is in a state of confusion, and the trends are just so not wearable. It's all about crazy shoulders or really [big] volume, and the shoes are over the top. Everything's big, big, big. It's like the '80s blown up 2,000 times. As Tim Gunn says: 'Stick to what you know looks good on you.' "
Nick Verreos (contestant, Season 2): "Guys, let's stick to flat-front pants, please. The one interesting thing is that the ankle is back, so there are a lot of cropped pants for guys. That's a great thing for footwear, so we'll get to see a lot more really cool shoes."
Tim Gunn's fashion mantra: Silhouette, proportion and fit. When you have those, you'll look fabulous, no matter what you're wearing.
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Online extra: MORE FALL FASHION TIPS
Christopher Straub (contestant, Season 6): "[Add] color with handbags and accessories. Everyone's wardrobe gets a little dark in the fall, so dress up all those grays and browns and blacks with a great purple bag or some blue or orange."
Andrae Gonzalo (contestant, Season 2): "We're in a leg period, so it makes sense that if skinny pants are very popular, then long skirts will follow. I've been watching old "Mary Tyler Moore" reruns, and all of the maxi-dresses and maxi-shapes that she wore make a lot of sense again. And it's only because the waist has risen. The waist is way back up to almost the rib cage. With that, that means long legs."
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PLUS: WHAT TIM GUNN TAUGHT ME
Christian Siriano (winner, Season 4): "I had confidence, but he showed me how to be a little more humble in my work. He never said, 'I don't think it should be that.' It was always, 'It could be something else.' It was always about what you could do to make it better."
Chloe Dao (winner, Season 2): "What I got just by being around him is his level of generosity and how grounded he is."
Nick Verreos (contestant, Season 2): "To try to conduct yourself with class and decency. And to be upfront with people, but not to be so personal in terms of getting into people's characters."
Christopher Straub (contestant, Season 6): "He told me to work on my design -- don't work on someone else's, don't try to please someone else -- work on your own. It's one of the most important things I've ever been told: 'You need to find what your identity is and focus there.' "
Andrae Gonzalo (contestant, Season 2): "It's always important to ask questions instead of making judgments."
Tim Gunn photographed at the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills by Blake Little for USA WEEKEND
Grooming: Helen Robertson, Celestine using Liz Earle; styling: Brian Primeaux, Artmix; prop styling: Alphonse Neri
Cover clothing: suit by Burberry, shirt by Ralph Lauren, tie by J. Press, pocket square by Club Room.Inside clothing: shirt by Burberry, pants by Claiborne by John Bartlett, tie by Thomas Pink.