ProfileTim Gunn: A Lifetime of Making It Work
By Jennifer Conlin, The New York Times
- Oct. 13, 2013
At Lincoln Center on the second day of New York Fashion Week, Tim Gunn quietly encouraged with a quick hug, a kiss on the cheek or a last-minute word of praise the four contestants who were about to show their final collections to a gathering audience of nearly a thousand invited guests. In turn, the designers smiled back at him, grateful for their mentor’s presence on the day that would determine the Season 12 winner of “Project Runway.”
Another group of designers, however, no longer seemed to care about Mr. Gunn’s “Make it work” mantra. “I don’t think they like me anymore,” he said of the four already-eliminated contestants working on the sidelines. Now acting as “decoys” for this Sept. 6 taping, so the identities of the finalists would not be revealed before the televised finale on Oct. 17, they too would be showing their collections that day.
“Some of them apparently think the show was rigged this season, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” Mr. Gunn said, his fingertips touching one another at waist level in his characteristically poised stance. “It couldn’t be further from the truth,” he added again for emphasis, looking annoyed.
Later, reflecting on this season’s drama, which included a fifth decoy designer who decided to pull out of the fashion show that morning, he said, “It goes without saying that when a designer is out and leaves the show, they are hugely disappointed and probably a little grumpy.”
“But there was a new flavor of it this season that was really quite unpleasant,” he added. “The level of anger and acting out and grumpiness was really beyond the pale. I will be blunt. I did not want to see them. They were just not pleasant.”
Then, more in keeping with his image as the show’s peacemaker — stepping in when the fractious squabbling among the contestants seemed to be veering toward physical altercation; soothing fragile egos when they had been bruised by a judge’s tough critique — Mr. Gunn softened his tone a bit: “I think it has to do largely with the fact that we have such a talented group.”
While talented they may be (though regular viewers of the show may have a less charitable view of the contestants’ design skills than Mr. Gunn), if past seasons’ results are any guide, then the moment when one of them is named a winner may well be the highlight of his or her career as a fashion designer.
Because, for all the opportunities that come with that victory (and this year the cash and prizes total more than half a million dollars, as well as the chance to design and sell a collection at Belk department stores), the track record of past winners is not an encouraging one.
While some former contestants have gone on to minor celebrity (an hourlong documentary was made about the Season 1 winner, Jay McCarroll, Chris March had a short-lived reality show, Santino Rice is a regular panelist on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and several of the designers, including Malan Breton, Daniel Vosovic and Irina Shabayeva, have shown their own collections at New York Fashion Week), only Christian Siriano, the winner of Season 4, has emerged from the show with anything remotely approaching a high profile in the fashion world.
In fact, for all the made-for-television tension that accompanies the announcement of the winning designer, it is fair to say that no one has benefited more from the show’s success than the three original judges and Mr. Gunn himself.
Though Michael Kors was an established designer before joining “Project Runway,” the show has made him a bona fide celebrity, and his TV fame could not have been an insignificant factor in his highly lucrative initial public offering nearly two years ago. Nina Garcia was the little-known fashion director at Elle when she joined the show, and is now creative director of Marie Claire. These days, she is on ABC doing red-carpet commentary for the Oscars, working as a consultant for J. C. Penney and doing a deal with the co-founder of Netflix. And Heidi Klum, already a noted Victoria’s Secret and Sports Illustrated model, has turned into a global fashion conglomerate, with a line of active wear for New Balance and a jewelry collection on QVC, while also starring as a judge on yet another reality show, “America’s Got Talent.”
But perhaps no one has come further (or benefited more from the show’s success) than Mr. Gunn, who for more than two decades was a largely anonymous administrator and teacher at Parsons the New School for Design in New York.
Since the show began in 2004, first with Bravo and now on Lifetime, Mr. Gunn, who turned 60 this summer, has nearly too many accolades to list. He has published three books (one written with Kate Moloney and one with Ada Calhoun); had an animation role on a Disney show; a period as chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne Inc.; numerous guest appearances on hit television shows like “How I Met Your Mother,” “Gossip Girl” and “Ugly Betty” (usually playing himself); a spinoff makeover show on Bravo that lasted two seasons called “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style”; red-carpet Oscar interviews with the likes of Helen Mirren; and a couple of invitations to the White House — the latest being to a lunch hosted by Michelle Obama. He and Ms. Klum also just walked away with the Emmy for hosting a reality TV show (beating out, among others, Ryan Seacrest and Betty White) at the most recent award ceremonies.
As even he would admit, the show has made him an unlikely celebrity, one whom Ms. Klum described in a recent e-mail as “the kindest, most humble person you’ve ever met,” and whom his longtime “Project Runway” executive producer, Sara Rea, calls “such a good person,” one who will “stop and give an autograph or take a photo with anyone who asks.”
Prompted to talk about his many accomplishments, Mr. Gunn can’t help but admit his good fortune. “I am just a lucky guy and a very happy guy,” he said recently, sitting in the elegant Upper West Side penthouse apartment he bought in 2009 after 25 years of renting. “There is nothing more that I would even think of wishing for, because if I did, and if there is a higher authority in power, it would strike me down with a bolt of lightning for the hubris of it.”
It’s been a long journey to get here.* * * *
Raised in Washington by a mother who helped found the library for the C.I.A. and a father who worked as an F.B.I. agent under J. Edgar Hoover, Mr. Gunn did not have an easy youth.
“On the topic of my own sexuality, for years and years and years I knew what I wasn’t, but I didn’t really know what I was,” he explained in his apartment as he talked about his childhood, adding that he grew up with “a very distant, aloof father, who I knew I was a disappointment to in so many ways.” And a mother who was “very attentive, very caring,” but not warm. “I don’t remember ever being hugged by her,” he said.
Mr. Gunn says he still remembers clearly the feelings of “despair and anguish” he experienced as a teenager. “How to describe it?” he said, pausing to find the right words. “It was a huge human pothole.” He added that he, like others in his position, had few public role models in the gay community to look up to.
“I had people like Paul Lynde, and the fey decorator in a Doris Day movie, and I thought: ‘Well that is not me either. I am not like that,’ ” he recalled, and then moments later, in a brief moment of levity, added, “Well, maybe I am!” laughing loudly.
He has now publicly acknowledged that he tried to kill himself at 17 with an overdose of pills. After that crisis, he found the help he needed in the medical community and among his family.
“Whenever there was a crisis that I presented to them, and trust me there were many, my father was always there,” he said lovingly. “He was the stabilizer, he was the negotiator, he was utterly fabulous, and my mother would fall to pieces, completely fall to pieces, and not advance the plot in any way. But Dad was there.”
But comfort was not the same as acceptance, and Mr. Gunn says he never came out about his sexuality to his parents, knowing they would disapprove. His father died 18 years ago and his mother 3 years ago.
He knew that his second book, a New York Times best seller, “Gunn’s Golden Rules” (in which he discusses being gay), which was published in September 2010, just before his mother’s death, would “trigger a hugely emotional and incendiary response” from her. As he told an interviewer at the time, “If she’s still alive when the book is published, then it will kill her.”
Instead, after the book came out, she wrote what Mr. Gunn describes as a very long “tome.”
“It’s in a 9-by-12 envelope that is half an inch thick, I think,” he said. “Still unopened.”
Since discussing his own suicide attempt, however, including making an emotional video for the “The Trevor Project,” a national organization for L.G.B.T. and questioning youth, he has found that parents often bring their teenagers up to him after public speaking events.
“And I know what it is about,” he said, tearing up and pausing in an attempt to gain his composure. “And I am very proud to be that person,” he continued, still choked up. “To say: ‘Look, it is not an easy road ahead. It is going to be filled with obstacles and you have to navigate them, and we learn from these things. But you need the help of people around you, people you trust, people you feel comfortable speaking to, whether it’s a family member, friends, a teacher, whomever it may be, because I would not be here if it had not been a for a major intervention and hospitalization.’ ”
Just before he turned 50, and a few years after being named chairman of the fashion department at Parsons (“In fashion education in this nation it does not get any better than that”), Mr. Gunn was approached by the production team of Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth of Magical Elves (then best known for their involvement with “Project Greenlight,” a reality series about fledging filmmakers) about a show in development called “Project Runway.” Months later, he agreed to be a consultant.
But then, after seeing Mr. Gunn interacting with the young designers at the auditions — reviewing their portfolios and asking about their goals and inspirations — the producers changed their minds. “They said to me, ‘What if you were the mentor in the workroom?’ ” Mr. Gunn said, remembering his first reaction was concern that he would have to live in the same residence as the designers.
“Conceptually, I was not altogether persuaded that when it was all said and done, this whole show wouldn’t be about sexual antics at the Atlas apartments,” he said, laughing.
During the development of the show, Mr. Gunn was responsible for two major changes. First, he insisted that the designers make their own clothes (the original plan had been for a roomful of seamstresses to sew the competitors’ patterns), and second, he argued that the workroom should close every night so as not to become a competition of endurance rather than talent. (It was planned as a 24-hour work space.) “Some people can survive on four hours of sleep like Martha Stewart, and others are frail flowers who need nine,” he argued. (The change also gave the added tension of a clock ticking away, as the hour that the workroom had to close increasingly neared each night.)
Still, he said: “I couldn’t really believe that ‘Project Runway’ would end up being a show that was really about the creative process. I wanted to believe it, but fundamentally I had doubts.”
He wasn’t alone.
While observing the judges being taped in a question-and-answer session with the contestants during Season 1, a woman standing next to him suddenly said, “Who wants to watch this?”
“She corroborated my worst thoughts!” he recalled. Later, Mr. Gunn said he learned that woman was Lauren Zalaznick, then the president of the Bravo Network, the NBC channel that had bought the series. (Project Runway moved to Lifetime in Season 6, creating a contract dispute with NBC that was eventually resolved.)
Indeed, early signs were not good. Initial viewer ratings for the first few episodes hovered around the 350,000 mark, and it seemed the show was destined to be a one-and-done failure. “I don’t want to pretend that we cried ourselves to sleep at night,” Mr. Cutforth told The New York Times in 2005, “but it was really quite depressing.”
But Ms. Zalaznick turned out to be a believer, running repeated episodes of the show so viewers would find it, and by the time the show’s finale was broadcast in February 2005 — with Mr. McCarroll named the winner — its audience was about five times as big and a second season was ordered. The show later went on to be nominated for an Emmy in the outstanding reality-competition category.
Versions of it sprung up from Belgium (“De Designers”) to Brazil (“Projeto Fashion”), complete with mentors and judges. But it would be hard to imagine any mentor doing the job better than Mr. Gunn, whom Ms. Rea, the show runner, says, “is not playing a part but just himself.”
Though seen critiquing the designers’ work for a few minutes during the weekly challenges, Mr. Gunn actually spends a good hour, if not more, with each of the contestants, giving advice on their ideas, urging them to follow their instincts and bolstering their confidence.
“Everyone believes in you here, Alexandria,” Mr. Gunn reassured Alexandria von Bromssen during the taping of one episode this season, when she was upset by Ms. Garcia’s criticism that some of her garments were not “show worthy.” “You can’t please everyone; Heidi liked everything,” he told her reassuringly. “Wipe it out of your head,” he said, stroking her arm.
Justin LeBlanc, the first beneficiary of the “Tim Gunn Save” (which was introduced this season to give Mr. Gunn one chance to overrule the judges’ decision to eliminate a contestant), said: “I have goose bumps talking about him. He is the same on camera as off. He taught me the confidence to stay true to myself.”
As for the show’s lack of big-name success stories, Mr. Gunn says that within 30 seconds of meeting the most famous alumnus of the group, Mr. Siriano, he knew the 21-year-old contestant was “an old soul and a design prodigy.” (Most recently, Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men” wore a well-received Siriano gown to the Emmys.) As for the others, “Not everyone wants to be Michael Kors” — meaning that some have other ambitions than to be a commercial designer — and “the recession has not helped.” He said that the Season 2 winner, Chloe Dao, did not want to leave her family and hometown, Houston, to move to New York, but is still doing very well in Texas with her own retail store and regular appearances on QVC.
“There are many ways you can establish your own path,” he said, sounding very much like the teacher he is. “The reason I love my catch phrase, ‘Make it work,’ is because it is not just about what is happening in the workroom, it is about life. Taking the existing conditions, the things we have available to us, and rallying them to ascend to a place of success.”
As for his own future, Mr. Gunn, who is single and has been for decades, says that he can see himself growing “older and wiser and wrinklier with someone,” but that the person could be a man or a woman and the relationship wholly platonic.
“In terms of romance and that element of dating — yuck, no thank you, I don’t need it,” he said, adding that his life is already so busy he often feels “a hair shy of a psychotic breakdown.”
He says this with the air of someone who knows that all that he has now was not exactly preordained.
“Had I been successful with that suicide attempt,” he said in a quiet moment back at his apartment, “none of this would have happened to me.”http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/13/fashion/tim-gunn-a-lifetime-of-making-it-work.html?ref=television