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Interview: Project Runway's Tim Gunn

By Tony Peregrin in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 8, 2010 6:00PM

2010_09_8_tim_gunn.jpg "The advice I give most often is to ‘make it work.’ That’s not just a catchphrase. It’s a philosophy I’ve followed my whole life,” says Tim Gunn, mentor and resident cautionary sounding board for the dueling designers on Project Runway. In his new book Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons for Making it Work, Gunn shares eighteen tried-and-true principles for “making it work” in an age that seems to favor comfort over politeness, and ease over style.

“I didn’t want Gunn’s Golden Rules to be shallow, and I didn’t want it be heavy-handed or oblique,” explains Gunn, chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne. “I was very much inspired by Diana Vreeland’s autobiography D.V. Her voice is so palpable in the book, and I wanted this book to sound as though I am speaking.” Never one to mince words, Tim’s distinctive, lilting voice shines through virtually every line of the book—especially when he dishes on some of fashion’s most notorious divas.

Chicagoist set its designs on speaking with Gunn about his new book and other topics, including why bad behavior leaves him positively unraveled (he means you, Anna Wintour) and why he gets the “shopping bug” every time he visits Chicago (which he does next week).

Tim Gunn signing, Monday September 13, 7:00 p.m., Borders, 830 N. Michigan Ave.

Chicagoist: Mr. Gunn, when did the idea for writing Gunn’s Golden Rules first take root?

Tim Gunn: Please, call me Tim. Well, I had been approached by a publisher… well, no, that’s not true. I had been approached by a book agent—and I didn’t even know what a book agent did, I had no idea. And he said ‘It's time—it’s been three years since your last book, it's time—what do you want to write about?’ Now, Tony, I do a lot of writing on my own, but nothing quite as ambitious as a book. So, I started thinking and I realized that I would really like to write an anecdotal book about bad behavior. I am so tired of it, aren’t you? I wanted to write a book especially for young people, a kind of guide to life, and have it read as if I was speaking to a student in my office. My book agent said ‘do you mean an etiquette guide?’ And I said ‘No, no. I’m not fond of the word “etiquette” it makes me think of proper wine glass placement or something.’ No, I said, ‘I want to write on civility and manners, and I want to use personal anecdotes and share experiences that I’ve had.’

C: Did you have any trepidation about revealing those personal anecdotes and experiences?

TG: At first, I wasn’t sure how much I should write about myself. You know, people come up to me and share very personal and intimate things with me, and I am so touched by all the trust they have in me. And people have told me ‘I see you interacting with people like this all the time, but we actually know very little about you.’ So, I thought I would make this book my opportunity to tell people some things they don’t know about me.

It’s a new threshold for me, and once the book hits the shelves there is no turning back! I’ve been very transparent in this book, and I have to be honest with you, I am very nervous, but at the same time I couldn’t be more thrilled.

C: I think my favorite example of you telling tales out of school is when you write about leaving a fashion show and coming across Anna Wintour being carried down five flights (rather than walking), with a little help from her bodyguards.

TG: Tony, I have to tell you, if Anna Wintour’s office hadn’t called me for three and a half days and put me through holy-hell, I would not have included that incident in the book. I would have never forgotten it, let me tell you (laughs), but I wouldn’t have put in the book. No, it was the aftermath that really did for me, and her office insisting that I retract what I said in the New York Post. But of course, I couldn’t because it really happened! I had documentation and everything, my appointment diary had the day and time of the Peter Som show.

C: What is the take-away lesson, or Gunn’s Golden Rule, for this kind of behavior, Tim?

TG: What is the Golden Rule here? Accept responsibility for your behavior. If you are so disillusioned that you believe that something didn’t happen that actually did happen, you are a sociopath, especially if you are trying to convince others that they didn’t see something they actually saw. It was all about speed and her wanting to get out of there as quickly as possible.

C: To illustrate your Golden Rule Number 6: “Never Underestimate Karma,” you write about a certain “glamorous host for Top Chef” who was “once married to a world-famous novelist who received death threats.” This host sought you out with the hope that you could recommend a jewelry designer for her line, and then inexplicably failed to acknowledge the favor you did for them. For situations like this, do you call the person on it, or do you sit back and wait for karma to boomerang back on the offender?

TG: I believe in letting karma do its thing. I think it’s pretty obvious it’s Padma Lakshmi, we’re talking about here. She was so relentless, and she kept reaching out to me repeatedly, saying ‘you have to help me find someone, you have to help me find someone.’ She was so insistent. And when I found what I thought was the ideal candidate, I submitted her resume and jpegs of her work to Padma. And we heard nothing. Not a word. I’m not going to make excuses for her. What comes around goes around. All I needed was an e-mail, and it didn’t even have to have any vowels—she could have just typed ‘THX’ and I would have been fine with that!

C: You write about how cutthroat the fashion industry can be, and you mention that “even the very supportive Michael Kors loves to read the bad reviews in Women’s Wear Daily out loud to entertain us on set.” What advice do you have for young designers to help them find a balance between keeping their egos in check and also releasing a little steam by being catty?

TG: If you are going to be catty, you have to be careful with whom you do it, and in what manner! It’s the kind of behavior that is best kept behind closed doors. Look, it’s not as if I am peering at the world through rose-colored glasses! Of course, I know what is going on and I’m guilty of it too. But you don’t want to be seen as someone that makes snarky comments all the time. I have enough unflattering things to combat, no need to add this to the list. (Laughs).

C: In the chapter on Rule 10: “Be A Good Guest or Stay Home (I Won’t Judge you—I Hate Parties),” you write about being set up on blind dates. What is the best way for all the single ladies and gents to handle this situation with humor and grace?

TG: Do what I do: Say ‘Thank you very much. I’m very comfortable being single, and I don’t have time for relationship. I am touched by your offer for me to meet someone, but the timing isn’t right for me.’ Actually, that [scenario] is preferable to getting a blind phone call or e-mail, where someone says ‘So and so told me to get in touch.’ Oh my God! You have to handle those situations very carefully. Frankly, it’s better not to meet them at all, so that they don’t have a chance to think it has anything to do with them if there isn’t a connection. I’ll meet them, sometimes, for a cup of coffee, but only if they understand that it is strictly platonic, otherwise it can get slippery and messy.

C: You mention in the book that your mom tends to worry about you being alone at this point in your life. Does your mom know that you are gay, Tim?

TG: I don’t know if she knows, Tony. (Long pause.) I approach it this way, and please don’t think a huge of amount of discomfort didn’t permeate every molecule of my being as I was contemplating this whole thing. But I asked myself, ‘What do I gain from this and what does she gain?’ I certainly never talked about being interested in women or men with her. I never implied I had any sexuality at all! Also my mother... on the one hand she is a Chatty Cathy and can talk a blue-streak, on the other hand, she is not comfortable discussing anything personal. Like the chapter in my book says, sometimes you really should just keep your mouth shut! (Laughs.) Now, if I was to bring a guy home, I wouldn’t blind-side her with him. I would make an advance visit and test the waters.

C: You’ve often said that the reason you are single comes down to time, and that you’d have to give something up to be in relationship, and you don’t know what that would be. Is that still the case?

TG: That is still the case. Unless I meet a guy who didn’t have a life of his own and wanted to do everything with me and travel everywhere I go.

C: I know plenty of guys that would do that in a heart-beat. Hot guys, Tim!

TG: You are very kind! I am going to sound like an old fart here, but I have been alone for 28 years and I really cherish having my private time and being alone and being able to decompress. It’s my own version of meditating. I know love conquers all, but you have to grow into that. The person I lived with for nine years, well it wasn’t instantaneous—we grew into it. I never thought we would live together, but things just evolved and it happened. Now that being said, I could very well end up being with someone—someone I know now.

C: It sounds to me like you are dating, Tim.

TG: (Laughs.) No, I’m really not. But, you know, I am more social now than in the past. I’ve recently met some wonderful people that I hadn’t met before, and they are wonderful, great people, and I have huge respect for them. I wouldn’t say I am out on the scene or anything, but let’s just say I have more social opportunities than I did before, and I’m actually accepting more invitations to things than I did before.

C: Talk about Project Runway and the new 90-minute format. Is it working?

TG: I will be honest with you—I was despondent about the 90 minutes. That’s not to say that there isn’t enough content, there is, but 90 minutes is a huge commitment for TV viewing. I remember I would hear people say ‘I DVR the show and fast forward to the challenge and then to the final elimination’ and I thought ‘Wow you are missing all the really good stuff.’ But if they did that for 60 minutes, surely they are going to do it with 90, but I stand corrected. You actually don’t notice the extra half hour, because they build up the characters early on. I am very proud of this season.

C: I heard they tried to woo you to be a judge on this season, but that you politely, but firmly, demurred. Would you ever consider being a judge on Project Runway?

TG: Absolutely not. If they were to have made that a condition for me being on the show, I would have left the show. I can’t possibly have a relationship with the designers and be a judge. Listen, the designers all see the show as a PR vehicle for their brand, as do I. I take it very seriously.

Then, the producers amended the plan, are you ready for this? (Laughs). They wanted me to step into a lighted circle next to Heidi and tell the judges what I though of their critiques. After the first episode of doing that they would have had to hide me in the Witness Protection Program! I told the producers there is no way that that is going to happen!

C: You’ll be in Chicago for a book signing and appearance in September. Do you have any favorite Windy City haunts?

TG: I call [Chicago] a clean New York. And it’s an architectural feast. You know, I get such a shopping bug to beat the band when I am in Chicago. I never get that in New York. But I walk down Michigan Avenue or I walk into Water Tower and I do a lot of shopping! Someone there once told me it’s because none of the stores on Michigan Avenue have awnings, so you feel closer to the product. It’s more seductive that way.

C: Are you telling me that Tim Gunn can actually walk into Water Tower Place and go shopping without being mobbed?

TG: I think you have an exaggerated sense of my life. (Laughs.) Listen, I ride the subway every day and without hesitation. I do everything I did before, and proudly. Oh, people do come up to me, occasionally, but they are always so lovely and warm.