Once upon a time, Tim Gunn was known primarily as the chair of the fashion-design department at Parsons. Now his main claim to fame comes courtesy of Project Runway—he’s the always incisive, occasionally blunt, and memorably mimicked mentor to the show’s aspiring designers. Tara Ariano spoke to him about his newfound influence and whether you can ever get away with costume jewelry.
Were you a fan of reality TV before Runway?
No. When the producers first told me about it, I said, “Ugh, this sounds horrible and cheesy!” But then they said they wanted to work with real designers and I completely changed my view of it.
Is it hard not to develop favorites among the designers?
Well, the longer the designer’s on the show, the closer I get to them. Which is not to say that there aren’t designers who stay longer than I would like them to. But I feel like all the designers are my children: Some are better behaved than others.
Do behind-the-scenes shows like Project Runway make it harder for new designers to do something totally unexpected?
Well, yes. There are two extremes in fashion. One is the basic Gap T-shirt, and the other is the float in a parade on the runway in the Paris couture. And those are both really easy to do—it’s what fits in between that’s difficult. I say to my students all the time, “Look, I’m not putting any constraints on what you design, providing that you can get into a taxi wearing it.” Otherwise, it’s just wearable art. Or not-so-wearable art.
Are you ever tempted to offer fashion advice to strangers? Perhaps in the form of an anonymous note?
You can’t help walking around and doing an assessment: people who look great, people who’ve made a mistake. Occasionally, I’ve said to someone to whom I’m introduced, “You look absolutely incredible.” But I would never say, “Hello, nice to meet you. What were you thinking?”
What fashion mistake does the average person make most often?
It’s the fit. We each have to be really objective about what we look good in. I say to people all the time, “Shop alone.” Don’t go with a friend who encourages you to get something and then you get home and think, Why did I buy this?
What about knockoffs? Can you spot one at twenty paces?
Not that often—there are some awfully good knockoffs out there. I hate to say this because I’m so respectful of brands, but why spend $2,000 on the Chanel bag? I don’t believe in jewelry for men, but women’s jewelry—what’s wrong with cubic zirconia? I say, if it looks good and it works, do it.