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12-04-2007
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nytimes

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April 12, 2007
The Headmaster of Fashion


Josh Haner/The New York Times
Tim Gunn walks the line at open auditions for “Project Runway” in Times Square.

By ERIC WILSON

A deceptively sweet-looking Daniel Vosovic arched a dark brow beneath his willfully tousled curls, turned to the man seated to his right and cut straight to the bone.

“If you ever send an e-mail to me and sign it, ‘Best wishes,’ I’ll know you’re just trying to pacify me,” he said with a mocking tone that had the effect of a match dropped on kindling. Tim Gunn’s face turned as red as Laura Bennett’s hair.

This happened on Saturday morning in a Midtown hotel during tryouts for “Project Runway,” the Bravo reality series about dueling designers on which the meticulously unflappable Mr. Gunn serves as mentor, moral guide and cautionary sounding board to a cast of generally flailing contestants, like the fecund Ms. Bennett from the third season.

Mr. Vosovic, a second-season runner-up who was helping assess the incoming class of the fourth season, teased Mr. Gunn between his candy-coated send-off of the 20th applicant, a huffy Russian named Vladimir, and his abrupt dismissal of Rebecca, a substitute teacher with unnaturally red hair who described her work as “a combination of Martha Stewart and Tim Burton.”

Rejection is an art best crafted by experience. Mr. Gunn is the Michelangelo of the form. Here, a sampling of his words to a series of washouts:

“I don’t think you have the depth of experience yet. In fact, I know it.”

“This really is not what we’re looking for.”

“I appreciate what you’re trying to do. Do I love it? No.”

“We’re going to pass. Best wishes.”

Viewers of “Project Runway,” not to mention alumni of Parsons the New School for Design, where he was long a faculty member, will have no difficulty summoning up the posh, lilting voice of Mr. Gunn, who has been parodied on late-night television for the softly scolding undertones of intellectual feyness in his delivery of the word “designers.”

Ashleigh Verrier, a 2004 Parsons graduate, said that Mr. Gunn’s mannerisms are so ingrained in her mind that “I can still hear him saying, whenever I drape a piece: ‘Well, can she walk in it? Can she hail a taxi?’ ” Former students speak of Mr. Gunn as if he were Miss Jean Brodie or Mark Thackeray in a more expensive suit.

“I believe from a historical standpoint, Tim is going to go down as someone who brought fashion to an academic level and culturally put it on the map,” Ms. Verrier said.

As an academic whose role was intended to lend an air of dignity to a show about making stars of untested designers, Mr. Gunn, 53, was an unlikely candidate for breakout celebrity on “Project Runway.” Yet he has struck a chord with young people who admire his buttoned-up demeanor and the way he treats designers: as if he were a principal. Mr. Gunn, who until last month was the chairman of the Parsons fashion department, is the foil for all their flamboyance and inexperience.

His success has surpassed that of any of the winners of the show. Bravo has announced plans for a spinoff called “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style,” which is pegged to an actual guide Mr. Gunn wrote with Kate Moloney, an assistant chairwoman of fashion design at Parsons, published by Abrams Image.

And last month, Mr. Gunn was lured away from Parsons, where he began working as an admissions director in 1983, to become chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne Inc., one of the nation’s largest apparel companies. At the executive level, Mr. Gunn will serve as a voice for the roughly 350 designers employed by Claiborne’s 45 brands, a role the company has likened to a creative dean.

And he will continue to appear on “Project Runway,” which will return late this year.

With the show’s popularity, Mr. Gunn changed fashion in an abstract way, making it more appealing as a career to a generation of young people who see design as a ticket to celebrity, reflected in a flood of applications to design schools across the country.

Talking to Larry King in August, Mr. Gunn described the show’s appeal: “Fashion is so fully embedded in our culture today that there are mythologies about it. And if anything, this show demystifies much of that and really makes fashion very, very accessible to the public at large.”

Now, at Claiborne, Mr. Gunn is attempting a more concrete real-world makeover: to bring a sense of excitement about fashion to a corporate culture known for blandness and to effect a change in the perception of its brands, from outdated to fashionable.

Can Mr. Gunn, in his words, make it work?

IT’S a huge learning curve for me,” Mr. Gunn said last week at the company’s offices in the garment center, across Seventh Avenue from Parsons. “I’ve been living in a rarefied bubble, really, for a total of 29 years. Because we were dealing with theory, we could write our own scenarios, where nothing ever fails and nothing is ever lost in the shipping process. It’s a very different universe.”

His role at Liz Claiborne is a new one for the company, part of a mandate by Bill McComb, the chief executive, to foster an image of “irresistible product,” even if that requires raising some prices. The implication is that the company, which like many large, publicly traded apparel businesses, places a premium on financial performance, also recognizes the value of design.

And Liz Claiborne is in need of a face-lift. Profits at the $5 billion company dropped considerably last year, by about 20 percent. Mr. McComb, who joined Claiborne in October, said there was a feeling internally, among designers, that the company had become too numbers-oriented. He thought that Mr. Gunn would inspire them, as he does on the show, to take creative risks.

“If dollars and cents drive your design, you risk becoming a commodity line,” Mr. McComb said. “And that’s the death of a fashion business.”

Mr. Gunn, in a black pinstripe suit one day and a black turtleneck under a black leather blazer the next, may be well suited for the job. At Parsons, he revitalized a fashion curriculum that had not changed since 1952. He introduced students to critical thinking, fashion history and the realities of commercial business. He made the school’s annual runway show more competitive for seniors by presenting only the best collections, which had an unexpected result of making instant stars of its top graduates: Ms. Verrier, Chris Benz and Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler.

On the other hand, Mr. Gunn has faced criticism from some students about changes they perceive as encouraging those who fit an idealized, or commercialized, image of successful designers over independent, freewheeling thinkers.

Moreover, “Project Runway” has drawn complaints for trivializing the profession. Stan Herman, the designer, speaking on the industry last month at a panel organized by the Fashion Institute of Technology, said, “It needs to be taken with a grain of salt because there are many kids who don’t know anything else about fashion besides ‘Project Runway.’ ”

Mr. Herman later said that the show has had a positive effect on enrollment in design schools and credited Mr. Gunn with presenting a balanced picture of the business. But he was concerned, he said, about the show’s track record of producing more celebrities than successful designers.

“We are living in an era of instant gratification, and the show is built on that premise,” he said. “The fact is that fashion is an art form or a form of commercial art that takes years and years of development. I find when they just use personalities, they miss a lot of the hard work that goes into our industry.”

Since casting began in Los Angeles last month, Mr. Gunn has been insulted by rejected applicants and questioned about the future of the show after poor turnouts there on some days. Last year he sparred in the press with Jay McCarroll, the first winner, who was irritated by Mr. Gunn’s criticism of his slowness in starting a post-“Runway” career. Other contestants are quick to defend Mr. Gunn as supportive of the development of designers’ careers.

“He will be to Liz Claiborne what Anna Wintour is to Bernard Arnault,” said Emmett McCarthy, a second-season contestant, referring to the advisory relationship the Vogue editor has with Mr. Arnault, the chief executive of LVMH.

Mr. Gunn seems unfazed by his celebrity or the backbiting that ensued. People might assume that “Project Runway” had a halo effect on his personal fortunes, but he said this was not the case. “I couldn’t be any more single,” he said. At least he was able to afford a new rental apartment in Manhattan, in London Terrace, where he was on a waiting list for nine months.

“For the first time in my life I have a grown-up apartment,” he said. “There’s a closet in the bedroom!”

Even confidence came to him slowly, as an art student at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington and later as a teacher there.

He had been an unhappy child, introverted, a stutterer, spending sunny days in his room reading books, practicing the piano, playing with Legos, idolizing mad King Ludwig II, who spent his spare time designing castles. He was the last one chosen during mandatory team sports — a disappointment to his tight-lipped father, George William Gunn, an assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who served as the ghostwriter of J. Edgar Hoover. (His mother, Nancy, helped establish the library of the Central Intelligence Agency. His great-grandfather Harry Wardman was a builder of row houses and hotels in Washington.)

“I was the one they called the horrible slurs that ended up being prophetic,” Mr. Gunn said. “Little did I know.”

Between the ages of 12 and 20, he was enrolled in no less than a dozen schools — not for academic reasons, but because he could not handle the social interaction. In college, he discovered his passion for design. The assemblage work of the sculptor Joseph Cornell held a particular sway over Mr. Gunn, who was attracted to the neat boxes of photographs and the surprising juxtapositions.

“I thought there must be a way of synthesizing all the different parts of my life in my own way,” Mr. Gunn said. “I really think it was Cornell who caused me to have the confidence to say I’m going to be an artist.”

But his epiphany came, oddly enough, at a moment when he was faced with rejection, and what would seem in retrospect to be one of many prophetic moments. An artist looked at his student work at Corcoran and told him, “I’d rather look at the space this work displaces than look at this work.” Best wishes.

As we know, Mr. Gunn did not become a great sculptor.


Hiroko Masuike for The New york Times
Tim Gunn juggles two roles these days, as the chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne and as a judge of aspiring designers on TV.



Josh Haner/The New York Times
Contestants’ creations at auditions for "Project Runway."



Virginia Sherwood/Bravo
Backstage with Jeffrey Sebelia, the Season 3 winner.

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12-04-2007
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i have no idea but i'll be watching Bette!

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13-05-2007
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i didnt find his criticizm on PR constructive, well @ least 90% of the time .... unless its a mistake so obvious

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12-06-2007
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Found this interview of Tim Gunn by the Chicago Tribune from last year.

enjoy
You heard it here first: Tim Gunn talks about Season 3 of 'Project Runway'

With aching fingers, I bring you my hourlong Thursday chat with Tim Gunn, mentor to the designers on "Project Runway," the third season of which concluded Wednesday night. Sorry, I'm posting this a bit later than I expected to, but here it is.
Without further ado, take it away, Tim!
How are you?
I’m so relieved that the last episode is over. I cannot adequately describe to you how relieved I am. Everybody knows Jeffrey’s won and the whole contretemps with him is behind us and it’s just great.
For my taste, Jeffrey was the clear winner. What was your thought?
I was thrilled with his win. Like everybody else in the world, I was so disappointed in Michael’s collection. I will tell you, the difference between his collection on that Friday at Bryant Park and the prior Monday when he arrived was night and day. He benefits so tremendously from feedback. He’s still young and among the final four he’s the least experienced of them. And it’s not good for him to work in a void, in a vacuum, and that’s what he did for close to three months.
All he needed was a little bit of feedback and pow, he problem-solved, he worked his way out of a couple of design jams, and he was just head and shoulders above where he’d been. It still wasn’t strong enough, but it just underscored for me how much incredible potential he has. And he will realize it.
So we kind of bracket Michael and put him aside, and we look at Laura and Uli and Jeffrey. And they all produced, in my opinion, superb collections. The difference between Laura and Uli and Jeffrey is that Laura and Uli didn’t really surprise us.
And with Jeffrey, he’s constantly innovating, he’s constantly experimenting, he’s constantly taking risks, and what’s inherent in all that is that you put yourself out on a limb. And you could crash and burn or you could ascend and he really ascended.
Going into the deliberation after the shows, I thought, I really don’t know how the judges are going to fall out over all of this. I had difficulty with that all season, because for most of the challenges, the outcomes were well executed, well presented, and then it became a matter of taste.
How was the judging this time, was it a huge torturous process?
I wouldn’t say it was torturous, though it was a little torturous because it was long. [There was] lot of debating.
What was the debate centered around?
It was that taste issue and whose designs epitomize, at least for the show, the next great American fashion designer? Is Laura too narrow? A lot of it was edited out.
I have to tell you who I adored in this whole process, that was [guest judge] Fern Mallis. She is the ne plus ultra of fashion people, she created Seventh on Sixth, she used to run the Council of Fashion Designers of America and she looks at fashion shows all over the world. And I will say she was blown away by the presentations of all four of them and we heard her say how disappointed she was in Michael’s collection.
She really leaped to a position of championing Laura and Uli in the face of some antipathy from Heidi, Nina and Michael, having to do with how narrow their scope is. And Fern said, [as for] Laura, there are a lot of rich ladies around in a lot of zip codes and they buy clothes. And I can see them buying these clothes. And they’re superbly conceived of and superbly executed. And with Uli, she said, you cannot trivialize the resort market. It’s enormous. It was great to have her there as another point of view.
There was a lot of debate, it wasn’t a matter of, ‘OK, it’s Jeffrey, let’s all leave and have a cocktail.’
It seems as though a number of fans were disappointed that it wasn’t Uli. Was she in the final running?
In the end, it was between Jeffrey and Uli. She really stepped up where she was on the show. Personally I loved it. It was refined, elegant, there were myriad customers who would wear those clothes, compared to Jeffrey, I have to say. But in terms of making a fashion statement with a capital F, Jeffrey made more of one.
It seemed to me Uli got too far away from what she had been known for.
Yeah, as I said on the show, ‘Uli, where are your prints? I miss them!’ It bears repeating, next to Diane von Furstenburg, no one works a print like Uli.
Speaking of non-print dresses, she wore a black cocktail dress on “The View” a couple of weeks ago that was just incredibly draped, so gorgeous.
I wonder if it’s what she wore last night [at the ‘Project Runway’ finale party]. I said, ‘I’ve never seen you in black before.’ It was stunning, she looked great. I said, ‘I know I said I miss your prints, but do the basic black dress for a while.’
She has a great talent for fitting clothes to a woman’s body in a unique way, she really knows how clothes move.
Absolutely. You know, all four of these guys, I just think they have the brightest futures. I’m so thrilled for them. I have a huge grin on my face and I hope I have it for a long time.
I really think it was the best set of final collections so far.
I totally agree. I was electrified during the entire thing, and I could tell by the audience reaction too. And the [magazine] editors who came backstage were just full of accolades, and they didn’t need to be. That’s a tough crowd. Everybody was like, ‘Oh, poor Michael,’ but for the other three, there was this palpable enthusiasm for their work.
But there’s a lot of good will for Michael, it seems.
Oh, tremendous good will.
And you know, his collection would work for a video, for a certain niche. It wouldn’t sell at Bergdorf’s, but it would work for a pop star.
It was very interesting, I sat behind Michael’s friends at the screenings, he was with all his guy friends from Atlanta, and as his collection was walking, they all kept slapping him on the back and going, ‘Man, Michael, that’s hot.’ And I kept thinking, how much of that collection was peer pressure. It’s idle speculation on my part, but they loved it so much.
And that was the kind of work, and Nina alluded to this last night, that was in his portfolio when he showed up for the auditions. I was dubious about putting him on the show and then did an about face when I realized how brilliant the guy is and how thoughtful. But again, he was gone for almost three months and he sort of drifted back into that thing. I thought, ‘We should have kept him in New York.’
You should have put him in a corner of Laura’s loft.
[laughter] There was enough room. She wouldn’t have known he was there.
How come there was no final piece they had to create when they arrived in New York? Was there enough drama with all the Jeffrey stuff?
Oh, there was more than enough drama. I will tell you, behind the scenes, there was talk of, ‘Do we need to do something to liven this up, to stress it up in a way’ in the workroom, because they were all getting along so well. But once the Jeffrey door was opened, it was like, we don’t need to do anything.
That was a serious investigation.
Is there a very detailed list presented to the finalists about what kind of outside help they can get and what they sort of help they can’t get, is that very explicitly explained?
Yes, and in terms of what Jeffrey did send out, it was completely within the rules. It’s just that we were missing a receipt, as we saw. He’s a great designer, but as I said to him, ‘Jeffrey, I hope you have a great business partner.’ Because when it comes to keeping good records and the details that a business requires, like in our case, the $8,000 worth receipts [that contestants needed to present], I said, ‘You’re well intentioned, but you’re sloppy.’ Everyone else had basically a spread sheet, where every item was in there and it was totaled and it was so easy to review it.
In Jeffrey’s case, it was a manila envelope, it was a bunch of loose receipts. Every route we went down with him, you just found more sloppiness. But it’s not unusual with fashion designers. It happens here with my students. I say, ‘Just don’t think that you can handle the books when you get out of here, because you can’t.’
Did he never take out a calculator and add up his receipts and see that he was over budget?
No. I guess he put it in a separate account and when it was empty, he was through.
Regarding whether he could have done that work – he did appear to have some problems with construction and finishing during the course of the show…
Yes, I’m in agreement.

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05-09-2007
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Tim Gunn is actually my hero: Whenever I've had trouble in art or photography classes and was nearing an important deadline, instead of banging my head against a brick wall, I remembered Project Runway and repeated his mantra to myself, "Make it work." It worked. Thanks, Tim Gunn, for the difference you've made in my life... I owe you, big time.

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24-09-2007
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Aww I love him!

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08-11-2007
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I purchased his "Guide to quality, taste and style" book, but every time I read it I can hear Tim's voice in my head. HAHA!
The book is really great though, at least Iv'e learned alot from it. Even if you already know alot about fashion and styling there's still a thing or two you could learn from Tim Gunn.

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21-01-2008
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Just cause I feel Tim needs my love. Since his thread has been so very quit. Where is the love??

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21-01-2008
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ilovelefashion View Post
I purchased his "Guide to quality, taste and style" book, but every time I read it I can hear Tim's voice in my head. HAHA!
The book is really great though, at least Iv'e learned alot from it. Even if you already know alot about fashion and styling there's still a thing or two you could learn from Tim Gunn.
Me too! When I read it, I hear Tim saying everything.

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21-01-2008
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Really? I may have to get his book. Actually, I am surprised that I don't have it yet. What kind of fan am I?

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