As the sage mentor who counsels young designers on Bravo TV’s Project Runway, Tim Gunn is anything but the typical reality TV star that has made a small screen career out of behaving badly. In fact, the personable style expert, who breezed through town on Tuesday for a fashion show promoting the Monet jewelry line at Macy’s Union Square, showed up exactly on time for our interview and—just like his TV persona—spoke thoughtfully and candidly about his take on all things fashion. Here’s what we learned about the former Parsons The New School of Design fashion chair, Chief Creative Officer for Liz Claiborne, Inc. and host of a second Bravo show Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style before he took to the stage.
What were your impressions of SF style?
This is a style capital. It’s unimpugnable. You can tell by the stores people have access to. There’s a sense of city chic here that I feel is profound.
Anything that raised an eyebrow while you were walking down the street?
Well, I saw some flip flops and thought, ‘Why are they out in December when it’s certainly not 80 degrees!”
As a style expert, is there ever a moment when you need style advice?
If I can’t solve it myself, I’m in trouble. When it comes to style advice for me, when I do need help, it’s visceral. What is my gut instinct reaction to x, y or z?
I take some style risks. I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s good to step out of your own fashion box, because we each have one. I will say at 55, I’m very conscious of not dressing like a kid. And I live in Chelsea in Manhattan and there are a lot of guys my age that dress younger than they are or should. You can get immune to that, and I vow not to.
Do you think people get a little self-conscious when they first meet you? Thinking that you’re going to be …
Judgmental? Yes, they do. And they’re very mistaken. I’m not. I accept people for who they are and how they present themselves. Do I ever say to myself, “This person could look better?” Sure. Have I ever inflicted it upon anyone? No. I mean, maybe this is how they want to look. I don’t believe in fashion interventions. I don’t believe in taking someone who is a certain way and just saying, “You need to change!” If someone self-declares, “I need some help,” I’m more than happy to work with them.
You’re now headed into the 6th Cycle of Project Runway…
We’ve taped it. We have the home visits next month in January and then we have Fashion week in New York. So we will find a winner. We’re down to the finalists now.
How do you think the show has evolved since the very first season?
It’s changed tremendously. I mean, season one even we didn’t know what we were doing. People didn’t know who we were the people who showed up for the auditions were largely design students I would say 85-90% of the people that showed up were students. Designers in the industry didn’t know what we were doing so they were still dubious about working with us as judges. I still remember calling Diane Von Furstenberg to judge for us saying, “Diane, please do this we really need you!” [And she said:]
“No, I cannot, it’s summer. I’m going to my island. Leave me alone.” And then when the show started to air, she called me: “Why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t you tell me about this opportunity? I would have done this in a heartbeat!”
“Diane,” I said, “I’ve called you twice.”
Do you see the show changing in any way with the switch from Bravo to Lifetime?
We’re in Los Angeles. I mean, the shift in the show from New York to Los Angeles for that one season really had nothing to do with Lifetime, it was really [host] Heidi [Klum] who said, “I don’t want to be away from my family for two seasons in a row.”
What would most people be surprised to find in your closet?
Surprised to find in my closet? Probably they’d be surprised to find half a dozen pairs of jeans. And three pairs of Converse no-string sneakers.
Even Heidi [Klum] said to me once, “You’re never in a pair of jeans,” and I said to her, “You never see me on work room days.” You know, days when I’m in the workroom with the designers or I’m not frequently in jeans but sometimes in jeans. I always get dressed up for the runway show because it’s both like a celebration and a funeral and I want to be dressed sort of somberly.
What was your most recent fashion purchase?
John Bartlett, who’s designing the Claiborne menswear line. I bought a windowpane black to medium grey John Bartlett blazer. It’s really stunning. I haven’t even clipped the labels off of it yet. It just happened last week.