For three seasons, Tim Gunn has maintained Project Runways maelstrom of fashion designersthose budding in the workroom as well as those preening in the judges chairsand helped shape the program into one of the most compulsively watchable serials in recent history. And if reality-show stardom signaled a second act for the former fashion design chair at Parsons the New School for Design, his appointment in March as chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne Inc. is yet a third for the 54-year-old. When not busy overseeing Claibornes 45 brands, including Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand, and Kate Spade, hes managed to film a fourth season of Runway (expected to premiere late this year) and is about to debut his latest Bravo venture, Tim Gunns Guide to Style, a makeover show based on principles laid out in his book Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style.
Youre quick to point out that Guide to Style isnt a typical makeover show.
Im not a fashion Svengali. I dont throw clothes at you and tell you if you wear these things. all your fashion foibles will go away. Im a fashion therapist.
But the tagline of your show is Your Style, Tims Rules.
Id prefer to call it the little black dress of makeover shows, but there are two maxims that I subscribe to: One is about fit, and the other is about posture. I had a guy come up to me on the subway platform a couple of months ago who said, How do I get my suits to fit better? I walked around him and said, Im going to give you the simplest solution in the world, and forgive me if it sounds abrupt and rude, but just stand up straight! He did, and looked much better.
And what about fit?
People reveal too much skin, especially when its the midriff, and I hate low-rise jeans. And Im talking about guys. If youre wearing a shirt that fits you and pants that fit you, I know whats under there. I can tell. Give me a little mystery. I dont want to see all that.
Your show cant have only two rules. It would last 10 minutes.
When we look in the mirror, most of us see somebody other than who we really are. Its almost like phantom limbs, when your legs are gone but you think you still have them. You look in the mirror and you really see somebody else.
How does your show help people see themselves more accurately?
We have an amazing computer software program called OptiTex that is used at Parsons. It takes 25 measurements of a subject and creates a virtual model you can dress in whatever you want. You can rotate it and throw several different styles of clothing on it to see what works and what doesnt.
Have you done one of yourself?
No! Im too afraid. Nothing is taking 25 measurements of me.
Youve long been confident in what works for you though, right?
I met with Diane von Furstenberg shortly after I was named head of the fashion department, and she was looking at me like I was some stodgy old banker. Id been trapped in academia for 20 years. I realized I needed some edge. Thats when my quest for a black leather blazer began.
To get your edge?
Yes, and I found a stunning $800 Hugo Boss blazer at Saks and just bought it. I walked across Fifth Avenue in a fashion daze. A fashion daze! I was overwhelmed, so I thought, Why dont I go into Banana Republic and get a pair of khakis? That will be a nice antidote to this.
But you were off to such a good start.
No! I went into Banana Republic, and Khakiland was gone. It was a whole new world. I found a $400 black leather blazer that was almost identical to the Hugo Boss one. Ive been a Banana Republic customer ever since. I wore a suit of theirs at the shoot today.
Lets be honest: You havent exactly walked on the wild side since the leather blazer incident.
My mother even tells me I look too buttoned-up. Do you know she still buys clothes for me? She doesnt even know what size I am. Mother, I dont wear a large! Im comfortable in a suit, and black is fail-proof. But on the weekends I wear jeans and a T-shirt.
I dont believe you.
Just the other day I got an e-mail from someone I dont know saying, I saw you on Ninth Avenue and 23rd Street wearing a pair of shorts. I dont usually respond to things, but I wrote back and said, What did you think?
So you didnt grow up fixated on fashion?
I was fixated on architecture and interiors, which of course had everybody worried. I had a really butch fatherso butch I thought maybe he was a closet case. He was an FBI agent and a sports lover, and the only sport I could even participate in was swimming, because it was nice and clean and you didnt sweat.
You studied sculpture in art school. Was that easier?
In terms of understanding who I was, being an art student revealed so much more than the years of psychotherapy Id had before that, including being comfortable with being gay. I loved the diversity of the student body and the fact that none of the answers were in the back of the book. I had a lot of bad college experiences before I got to art school and went to more expensive schools than I even want to list.
You had the added challenge of growing up in Washington, D.C., arguably the worst-dressed city in the country.
Oh, it is! I was on Capitol Hill several months ago advocating for the Design Piracy Prohibition Act. Without fail, the men and women in Congress and the Senate would say to me, Im not a fashion person, dont look at me, I dont know anything about clothes. I finally said to one woman, Youre a public figure elected into office. What you wear sends a message about how you want to be perceived by the world. Dont you think you should care about how you look? I mean, I just lost my patience.
Who on Capitol Hill needs Tim Gunns Guide to Style most?
Laura Bush. Oh, my God!
Would she require her own two-hour special?
I think it would be all day, every day for about two years. Wed have to reprogram her whole DNA. I think its an impossible tasktruly. Dont even get me started on the Bushes. Their daughter Barbara is a really fashionable young woman, though. I dont know how it happens. Maybe they left her on somebodys doorstep and didnt get her back until she already had her fashion DNA reprogrammed.
What else about Capitol Hill troubles you?
The Senate pages uniforms. I had a group of about 20 female pages come up to me and ask what I thought of their uniforms, and theyre pretty hateable. It used to be women couldnt be pages, and they still havent changed the uniforms, so theyre in mens tailored pants and mens shoes! Talk about backwards, anachronistic, and horrifying. Is that not crazy? Design Piracy Prohibition Act be damned, Im going to take up their cause. Fix the pages uniformsimmediately!
Lets talk about something as important as public policy: Project Runway. How has it changed since you first started?
Seasons 3 and 4 are incrementally at a higher level in terms of the designers and their work than seasons 1 and 2. So much so that, especially in season 4, its really a matter of taste. All of the work is beautifully executed and presented. The producers are always interested in knowing who I think is going home and who might potentially win. I always say, I have no idea whos going to win, but I can tell you whos going home. And then the person I think is going home is the winner.
You have no influence over the judges?
None. It keeps me an honest man. I have no interaction with them at all, but that doesnt mean they dont drive me to total despair.
And how do they do that?
How do the judges drive me to total despair? By smoking crack! By making decisions I cant fathom.
Any particular time youre thinking about?
Only once have I said with complete impunity that I knew that someone was going home. It was when Alison and that horrible Vincent were on the chopping block over the Waste Management recycle challenge. When they voted Alison off, I was dumbstruck.
We all were, Tim.
Alisons model may have looked a little like Minnie Mouse, but it was an ambitious design that was extremely well executed. I marched into an executive producers office and said, Why did you do this? You just did this because you think Vincents a good character! But he showed me the judges ballots, and theyd voted to send Alison home.
Bravo has done such a great job of presenting exceptionally talented gay people to mainstream America.
Im so proud to be part of Bravo largely because of that. Theyve totally demystified gayness. Of course, the striking element about Runways third season was that the two male finalists were heterosexual. That was really weird and unexpected given the pool, but it happens.
The gay-friendly vibe on Runway must not have been much different from the environment at Parsons.
Youd be surprised. When Parsons began offering an architecture degree, a reporter asked the dean why wed decided to open the department. Right in front of me the dean said, Im interested in getting more guys into this school. The kind of guys you find in shop class. We have far too many guys here who have been in home ec. I recoiled with a visceral reaction. I couldnt believe he could be such an oaf.
What year was this?
This was the early 90s! So I said to the dean, right in front of the journalist, You may have lost some of those guys who were in home ec class, but you just picked up a lot of girls from shop class.
Fantastic. So what can Tim Gunn not write a guide to?
Any number of thingsyou name it.
Hows your romantic life?
I havent been in a relationship since 1982. God, that sounds pathetic. But I was so severely hurt that Ive never, ever gotten over it. I was so madly and desperately in love that I didnt see the end coming. It was a routine night on the couch watching television, and he turned to me and just said, I dont have the patience for you. I cant do this anymore. After nine years. I still remember leaving his apartment, driving down Rock Creek Parkway in Washington, D.C., thinking, Maybe Ill just drive right off the bridge.
Or you could have thrown him off of it.
Yes, then I got very mad. This was the advent of AIDS, and I found out that he had been sleeping around with everybody imaginable. I couldnt believe how he put me at risk. Thankfully, I was perfectly healthy, but when I came out of the relationship I was so aware of how AIDS was devastating the design industries, and that was enough of a reason to stay away from any kind of a relationship. Ive flirted with a couple of relationships over the last 24 years, but I cant go there.
Well, undoubtedly youre leading quite a full life.
In some ways I feel terribly selfish saying this, but also terribly honest: Having a relationship takes time, and I dont have any. Id have to give something up, and I dont know what Id be willing to give up. But Im the luckiest guy in the world. Theres something about living in a gay mecca thats very purging and cathartic. Im thrilled that all these people are having relationships and relieved that Im not being asked to leave somebodys home because theyre over me.
For more with Tim Gunn, visit Out.com tomorrow Wednesday, September 5. Tim Gunn's Guide to Style premieres Thursday, September 6.