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A Message to Midriffs: Please Stop Assaulting Tim Gunn

That plea also goes out to Crocs, by the way. In fact, an outfit consisting of Crocs, a shrunken and belly-exposing mini tee atop a pair of sweatpants might be enough to singe the eyeballs of style guru Tim Gunn, in town over the weekend to introduce the first Kate Spade apparel collection to over a hundred adoring fans gathered at Bloomingdale's in the San Francisco Westfield Centre.

We caught up with Gunn before his public appearance to chat about fashion, San Francisco, his new role as a Core Team member on the Dr. Oz Show and the one thing he wishes Heidi didn’t do on Project Runway.

How often do you make it to San Francisco?

Not nearly as often as I’d like. I think I was here last spring.

Do you have any favorite spots you like to check out when you have a free moment?

You know, I never have a free moment. I mean, I’d love to go to the Museum of Modern Art. I’d love to walk down to the harbor and the wharf, but I haven’t done any of that stuff. I’m in, and I’m out. In fact, I have to leave tonight.

So you get a quick by drive-by picture of the city…

I do have a beautiful view from my hotel room.

Where are you staying?

At the Westin. And I’m on the 34th floor and it’s stunning. This really is a beautiful, beautiful city.

You’re in town to introduce the Kate Spade collection for fall 2009 at Bloomingdale’s. What really jumps out at you as being fabulous about this collection?

The collection has a very unique niche. These are really dressy clothes. These are clothes that are really meant for women who want to present themselves to the world in a way that says I’m elegant, I’m sophisticated, I have polish. They remind me of Laura Bennett, on season three of Project Runway, who always looked like she was going to a cocktail party, whatever time of day it happened to be.

I’m crazy abut the miniature sequin dress, it’s in shades of fuschia to purple and it has sort of a watery feeling to the print of it. It’s stunning. It’s really, really gorgeous. but unless you were Deborah Lloyd, the design director, I don’t really see it in the work place. But I certainly see it knocking people's socks off at cocktail parties and outdoor tea affairs and things of that sort. You’ll never feel dressed down in Kate Spade.

As far as personal style goes, as I’m sure you’re aware, many San Franciscans like to get dressed up in an eccentric outfit every once in a while. We love a little eccentricity here.

Like what? I think of the residents of San Francisco as being very sophisticated and very polished. I think of this as being the New York City of the West Coast.

There are many people that are going to be so thankful that you said that.

Really and truly. And everything having to do with style and design, architecture, product design.

You caution readers in your book, Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style, and have said on your show, to be wary of unintentionally falling into that costume realm with clothing. Can you give some advice for being unique and having some flair, but not tipping over into the wacky costume realm?

I will say that there are people who can do it if it is really who they are, if it’s really their DNA. And those individuals, I’m thinking about Patricia Field, I’m thinking about some of the European fashion journalists, fashion editors. You believe them when you see them. You don’t think, what’s that wacky costume?

But when it’s an individual on whom the wackiness appears to be trying too hard, a contrivance, maybe even a bit insincere, it’s palpable. And that’s when they look like they’re a circus clown. So if it’s really who you are and it’s really in your DNA, people will believe you.

What trend pet peeves do you have these days other than –

Other than Crocs?

And sweatpants and flip-flops?

Well, a bare midriff, even a quarter of an inch of it, I find to be really inappropriate. Unless we’re at the beach. There are tons of fashion foibles on city streets that would look just fine at the beach. And that goes for women and men. It’s the little shrunken t-shirt thing and the lower-rise pant, and I don’t object to a low-rise pant, particularly when it comes to women, because it tends to fit most women better. But don’t show us what’s right above the waistband.

I loved your show Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style. Any plans to bring it back?

Certainly not on Bravo. And Bravo owns the show. So if there were another version of it, it would have to be completely reworked. And I’m not saying there aren’t conversations about that, there are. But I have another, similar kind of gig. I’m part of Core Team Oz, on Dr. Oz’s new show.

Tell us about the show.

I love Dr. Oz, and I feel that his approach to people’s health is so similar to my approach to fashion, and I think that’s why I am part of his team.

How comparable is the stress the designers on Project Runway encounter to the stress designers encounter in the fashion industry?

It absolutely corresponds. If they are going to have a meltdown on the show, then they don’t belong in the industry, to be perfectly honest. The industry couldn’t be more stressful. Michael Kors says this to the designers all the time, and he also says, you’re lucky you’re in this kind of fashion incubator on Project Runway as opposed to really being exposed to the world of editors and buyers. It’s tough, but that does not mean that those who are eliminated have any less talent than those who stay on the show.

I mean, I keep saying that it’s the Project Runway Olympics. Someone’s going to lose by a 100th of a second. 

And if anything, when Heidi says, you six represent the best and the worst. I wish it were the highest and the lowest scores. That would be my preference. In many of the challenges, I look at the work of each of them and think, any of this could go home and any of this could win, because it’s well executed, and, generally speaking, they’ve adhered to the outline of the challenge and there’s a very clear point of view. I repeat to them all the time, it’s anyone’s game and for the judges, it’s going to be a matter of taste and you just don’t know what to anticipate.

You have a skill for telling people the truth without offending them.

Thank you. Years of teaching…

How do you do it?

Well, I developed a vocabulary and a way of assembling the words that allows me to say with diplomacy and tact what other people might say with a very blunt instrument, because I know that if you come across as being mean-spirited, arbitrary in your thinking and your words or if you come across as simply wanting to criticize and not help, then the person on the receiving end basically discredits you and doesn’t listen.

And I really want the individual to listen, and it’s not that I want them to even take action as much as I want them to look at their work in the same way that I am, if only to understand that my particular lens on it or perspective is something that someone else may also subscribe to. And in the case of Project Runway, it’s a matter of preparing them for the judges and what the dialog might be. In the case of my students, it was always preparing them for external examiners and external critiques, and I’m the first to say I can be wrong and I can have an encumbered point of view and bring too many issues to it, but at the same time, I have a lot of experience, I’ve seen a lot and I don’t have a particular aesthetic bone to pick or axe to grind other than issues of quality, taste and style. Even taste is very subjective, but quality of execution, quality of point of view.

If you don’t have something to say, then you’re just a dressmaker. And I don’t say that disrespectfully. But there is a difference between being a designer and being a dressmaker. And designers can only hang out a mantle that says designer if, in fact, there’s some spirit of innovation, creativity, experimentation to what they’re doing. And if you want to say you’re a dressmaker, my hat’s off to you. Great. But if you want to say you’re a designer, there better be some innovation in evidence.