Fashion expert Tim Gunn has gone from the relative anonymity of academic life to the public life of a television star. Now we see his face on ads on buses around town promoting his new show on Bravo — a good time to take another look at Budd Mishkin's One on 1 with him from earlier this year.
| View the full, uncut interview with our web-only "One On 1 Extra" feature at the bottom of the page.|
Tim Gunn is literally between jobs. His old job at Parsons School of Design was located at 40th and Seventh, and his new job at Liz Claiborne is located right across the street.
"Same subway stop, same coffee vendor, exactly," said Gunn.
In the New York fashion world, Gunn is well known as the one-time chair of the Fashion Design Department at Parsons who has just become the chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne.
But to the rest of the public, he is best known for his role on Bravo's reality series “Project Runway,” where he mentors the show's contestants. It is not the usual journey, from an academic to a television star.
“[The fame] happened for me after I turned 50, so I have a perspective on it that I think is healthy, and, frankly, an appreciation of it, because there's something surreal about it," said Gunn.
The creators of “Project Runway” first hired Gunn as a consultant. It was his idea that the designers themselves should make the clothing on the show.
"What happens on the runway? The designer says, Îoh well, the sample room didn't execute this properly? It's not the design that I had in mind.’ And then what do we do, we get rid of the seamstress? I mean, how is this going to work? If the audience doesn't see the designers with blood on their hands, they're not going to buy into this, and they're not going to believe.”
The creators then decided to create an on-air role for him, alongside host Heidi Klum.
"Look at how stunning [Klum] is,” said Gunn. “If you could believe it, she is more breathtaking in person. She just is, she really does take your breath away.”
Gunn says he thought he might hit the cutting room floor.
"I have to say, I really thought, seriously, the entire time we were taping Season One, that they were kind of humoring me,” he said. “They could just snip me right out and they can have the designers responding to the questions that I ask. But, of course, we know that didn’t happen! But I thought it probably would.”
Perhaps Gunn's appeal is that the TV star seems to be the same person you see catching up with students in a Parsons classroom. But Gunn says he wasn't always so popular, neither with the students at Parsons, nor with the fashion world at large.
He took over the fashion design department in 2000, charged with updating the curriculum.
"It was tired, it was stale, it was lackluster,” said Gunn. “It had remained largely unchanged for 50 years."
The changes were initially a tough sell at the school and in the industry.
"It made a lot of people here, and a lot of people in the fashion industry, decidedly unhappy,” recalled Gunn. “To the degree to which there was a petition that the students in the senior year signed against me, wanting me to be fired. There was a big article in Women's Wear Daily."
"Seventy percent of the designers on Seventh Avenue are Parsons educated, so they saw me taking what they perceived to be a formula of their success, and getting rid of it,” he continued. “And I was an outsider; I wasn't a graduate of the school."
As a result of the changes, students' designs are now showcased publicly.
“That first year, when we actually showed the students’ thesis collections, there was this, there was a standing ovation at the end of the fashion show from the industry,” said Gunn.
The public knows Gunn as a smooth and sophisticated talker, but growing up, Gunn stuttered and as a young professor in Washington, his nerves caused him to be anything but smooth.
"I would throw up in the parking lot beforehand. And I would frequently throw up in the parking lot afterwards. Just from being spent, emotionally," he said. “In the morning it was terror, in the afternoon it would just be being spent emotionally and I thought, ’why am I doing this?’”
That Gunn would eventually have a career in an academia seemed a long shot while growing up in Washington, as he transferred from school to school.
“Those years were miserable, horrible. I mean, really, I was so lucky to have parents who cared tremendously about a good, quality education. And I tormented them. I mean, I really tormented them. I was a nerd and I accepted the role. I was the kid that was always getting beaten up and I wouldn’t fight back,” said Gunn.
Before he was born, his mother helped build the library at the CIA. His father was an FBI agent under J. Edgar Hoover.
"Dad was very close to him and, in fact, was his ghost writer, wrote his speeches, and wrote his books,” said Gunn. “So, I mean, Dad was the voice of Hoover in many ways. Later, when all of the stuff came out about the possible cross dressing, and the sexuality, I thought, if my father weren't already dead, this would have killed him."
Gunn says he and his father had a complicated relationship.
"I was such a profound disappointment for him,” said Gunn. “He wanted a different kind of son. He wanted a jock, and a serious one."
So Gunn became a competitive swimmer. His father was the team coach.
“At least with the swimming I felt he could have a sense of pride in what I could achieve, and he did,” said Gunn.
Gunn found his niche at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, first as a student and then as a professor. He came to the Parsons School of Design in 1982, not yet the fashion maven he would become.
"I was walking around in my khakis, and my, oh my, Glen-plaid sport coat, and it wasn’t what they were as much as the colors that they were and I just looked like some farm boy or something,” recalled Gunn.
When Gunn first started at Parsons, Times Square was so rough that the school had shuttle buses to take students to the campus downtown and the Port Authority.
"Well, I used to kind of mutter, well we're in Times Square, with a covered mouth,” he said. “They'd find out later, when their son or their daughter would happen to be here, because the students here come to us as sophomores. The freshmen program is downtown, so it was kind of a bait and switch; well we won't tell you where the sophomore program is yet."
Now, Times Square is thriving, and at 53, so is Gunn. He's taken on a new job as chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne. He’s written a book, "Tim Gunn: A Guide To Quality, Taste, and Style," which is the basis for his own reality show on Bravo, "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style" and he will appear on “Project Runway’s” upcoming season.
Gunn was also noted in last year’s People Magazine Sexiest Man of the Year edition, and he has his own bobblehead doll.
"No one's more surprised by all this than I am. I mean, I'm constantly having an outer body experience asking, who is that person? Is that really me?" said Gunn.
|ONE ON 1 EXTRA|
Take a behind-the-scenes look at this week's "One On 1" profile with Budd Mishkin's full, uncut interview in Real Video: