To most Americans, Tim Gunn, 63, is best known for encouraging designers to “make it work” on Lifetime’s long-running reality show “Project Runway.” To fashion-conscious New Yorkers, he is an influential educator, who spent 24 years mentoring students and retooled the curriculum at Parsons — where he was, somewhat controversially, appointed chair of the Department of Fashion Design. But to friends and acquaintances, Gunn is a champion for decency at time in America that he compares to the last days of Rome.
I was snooping through the books in Gunn’s living room — an old-looking copy of “A Farewell to Arms,” Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine,” “Exotic Taste: Orientalist Interiors,” and “Bravehearts: Men in Skirts” — when he arrived. It was a Sunday morning and the hottest day of the year. Gunn had been fencing at Olympian Tim Morehouse’s club on the Upper West Side, about a block from his modest penthouse apartment. Fencing is Gunn’s latest addiction.
“It’s incredible. I’ve never felt more physically fit. It’s a workout for the body and the brain. It’s like chess. You have to go into it with a plan. Even though you are thrashing about, it is very civilized.” Gunn tells me, standing next to his Emmy at the kitchen counter. I agree. I spent the last year trying to learn épée at the Fencer’s Club on West 28th Street, but Gunn says that I have to try saber.
“I’ve been beaten by 11-year-old girls and 15-year-old boys. I’ve never won. But I find saber to be the most fulfilling of the weapons. There is something about saber that is so…I don’t know, jock-y. I am determined to compete.”
When Gunn isn’t fencing, he is taping. He is working on the second season of “Project Runway: Junior,” a spin-off of the design show for kids. He also voices the Baileywick character on the Disney Junior show “Sofia the First.” He tells me that this is his only weekend off for months and that shoots have been dragging on for 18 hours at a time. Nevertheless, he says that he is always looking for opportunities to voice his support for the Democratic presidential candidate.
“I’m pounding the tom-tom for Hillary Clinton. We all have to pound that tom-tom,” he says, adding, “I think we need more social services. Tons more.”
“The clothes we wear send a message
about how the world perceives us.”
Gunn tells me that he’s been thinking about the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Empire a lot lately. He’s currently reading, “Augustus: First Emperor of Rome” by Adrian Goldsworthy.
“I’ve become an ancient Rome fanatic,” he says,. “There were generations of Caesarian rule and then Augustus declares himself emperor and it all starts to unravel. The democracy ends. There were 12 Casers, and then Augustus says, ‘I am now self-declaring that I am emperor. Anyone who goes up against me shall be slayed.’
“But part of my interest [in ancient history] is driven by this crazy Trump stuff and this nation. I mean think about it, 300 years of Romanovs, 500 years of Roman rule of most of the western world. I keep thinking is our time up? I hope not. I keep hoping the [we] will be the exception.”
After coffee, Gunn pauses to shower and dress for portraits. I reexamine his home: walls of bookcases, oriental furniture, a decanter and the ingredients for a Manhattan, images of hounds on decorative plates, a large portrait of an 18th-century barrister William Gunn (no relation), dozens of neo-classical architectural models, reproductions of antiquities and leopard and zebra print throw pillows. The whole thing reads British colonial, a style that remains the basis of good, conservative taste for class-conscious Americans.
Gunn returns dressed in a blue pin-striper, tie and pocket-square. It’s the go-to uniform he developed as a teacher in dire need of respect from his students, and it earned him the nickname and title of his fourth book, “The Natty Professor.”
I ask if television was a difficult transition after a career spent in the classroom.
“Oh my god, yes. I told them I didn’t want to meet with [the reality show producers]. I said, ‘Fashion reality!? This industry is in enough trouble without that,’” Gunn says. He was only convinced to come onboard as a consultant after learning that they would cast real designers and after some slight changes to the original concept.
“When we were taping season one — and who would have dreamed there would be a season two? I never imagined I would be in the cut of the show. I thought, ‘No one needs to see me and no one needs to hear my voice.’”
Today we are used to harsh reality show “truth tellers,” like Gordon Ramsey or Simon Cowell. And, for the uninitiated, Gunn plays a similar role on Project Runway, which recently finished filming its 15th season and debuts this month.
On the show, his primary role is entering the design room to drop truth bombs on ill-conceived and overly ambitious ideas. Yet, unlike Cowell or Ramsey, Gunn’s version of truth telling, is constructive, interrogative and sans ad hominems — if still hard for the designers to swallow.
In fact, Gunn publicly trashed the last season of Project Runway. “Season 14 was the worst season in the history of the show. It was awful,” he says. “The designers didn’t have enough fire, they weren’t hungry.” He adds that in contrast, the upcoming season went very well.
“Is that a problem that extends beyond the show?” I ask. Are young New Yorkers not as hungry as they used to be?”
“I think this may be a problem with people in general. I hear stories about this from friends and colleagues all the time,” Gunn says, “We have a career fair every spring at Parsons for the graduating class, and its fantastic. People want our graduates. A lot of companies come and the head of HR for Donna Karan set up a number of appointments [with students]. She called me one morning and said, ‘I had an appointment with so-and-so and she hasn’t showed up. Do you know anything about her?’”
She wasn’t in class so I called her. No answer. Called again. No answer. Called a third time. And this sleepy sounding voice answered — it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon — and I said, ‘So-and-so, what happened with your interview at Donna Karen?’ She said ‘Oh, I thought about it last night. I really don’t want that job.’
Gunn says he flipped out. “You should have seen me. ‘DON’T. WANT. THAT. JOB! You haven’t been offered a job. And if I have anything to do with it you never will be.’ I hung up. Can you imagine? She didn’t even have the courtesy to call and say, ‘I’m not going.’”
“Is this just a New York rich kid problem?” I ask.
“If so,” Gunn says, “They should just live off their trust funds and go to clubs. Don’t bother working. Just speaking for myself, I feel lucky and privileged to have a job at all. I blame these parents. I really do. You created these monsters.”
That willingness to speak his mind has also earned Gunn enemies in the fashion industry, perhaps most notably Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Gunn once told the press that the most unforgettable moment he’d ever seen in fashion was watching Anna Wintour being carried down five flights of stairs by two bodyguards. She allegedly demanded that Gunn retract his story, with her director of communications writing, ‘I’ll have you know Ms. Wintour knows how to work a Manolo.’” But Gunn refused.
“She’s a history revisionist, in her mind it never happened basically,” Gunn said. Wintour responded by blacklisting Gunn from the Met gala, which is just as well to him.
In his most recent book, Gunn writes that people often ask if he is afraid that his bluntness will make him a social pariah. To which he responds, “From your lips to God’s ears. I go out far too much as it is.”
Gunn has also gone on the record against the Kardashians (“just why?” he asks) and rapper Kanye West (“ughhh”), who he says helps give the fashion industry its bad reputation.
“Do we really care about ‘athleisure’ clothes at that price point?” he says referring to Kanye West’s fashion line. “It just seems repugnant. How many people are buying a pair of $1,200 sweat pants? The only thing dumber than designing $1,200 sweatpants is buying them.”
Part of the problem he says is that the people who do spend that much money on casual clothing seem to feel they have the right to wear them anywhere. As an example, Gunn recalls having an unfortunate lunch with Adam Glassman, the creative director of O, Oprah’s magazine.
“This was actually our second scheduled lunch. The first one he just didn’t show, didn’t call. And he invited me! So the second time, he arrives first and it was this high-end restaurant. He was wearing a white t-shirt and a pair of beaten up jeans. That’s it. I don’t have a good poker face, and I think I had that look. He said, ‘My t-shirt is Dior and my jeans are Alexander McQueen.’ And I said, very matter-of-factly, ‘Does it matter?’”
“It’s as if to say that because I spent a fortune on these two items I’m now entitled to wear them where ever I want. I just thought, ‘This is gross.’ It’s just repugnant. I’m always talking about the ‘slobification’ of America.”
However, Gunn added, “Everything did fit him well.”
“I think the culprit is the ‘celebrification’ of fashion. Anyone now can have a fashion line, the Kardashians among them. On the one hand, it makes me happy, because the celebrities aren’t really designing, and they hire the people who may have been my students. A former student of mine is doing all of Rachel Zoe’s line. But on the other hand, it dilutes it. You can just hang a shingle and say, ‘now I am a fashion designer.’”
Despite his celebrity, one thing that Gunn has never claimed to be is a fashion designer. As a child, growing up in Washington D.C., he dreamed of being an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright or Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. But he says that most of his childhood energy was spent trying to be invisible. He suffered from a lisp and struggled with his sexuality, calling himself a neuter until he came out as gay to his sister in his late 20s.
“Who would have dreamed
there would be a season two?”
His father, George William Gunn, was an FBI executive and ghostwriter for the infamous bureau director J. Edgar Hoover. Gunn describes his father as distant, private and likely repressed.
Gunn says other children tormented him and his father appeared not to notice.
“I wore a flag that basically said, ‘kick me’ during most of my childhood,” Gunn says. “I was constantly coming home battered and bruised. There was barely a month that would go by when something like that wouldn’t happen. And what strikes me as being really odd is that he never once did my father say, ‘I’m going to teach you to fight back.’ Never once. The result was that I became a biter and a hair puller.”
However, Gunn says once a year his father would open up his world and take them on a tour of the FBI and to see Hoover. One of those times proved to be unforgettable.
“Dad’s office was directly next to Hoover’s. There was a door connecting them like hotel rooms. When my sister and I would go to visit he would say, ‘I know Mr. Hoover would love to say hello to you.’ But one particular time, dad was uncharacteristically excited. He said, ‘Guess who is in Mr. Hoover’s office? Ethel Mertz!’” Mertz, of course, was actress Vivian Vance’s role as Lucille Ball’s sidekick on “I Love Lucy.”
“So we went in and she was lovely,” Gunn remembers. “It was a story I told forever. And then many years later in the early 1980s, when all the rumors came out about Hoover’s cross dressing, we were sitting at Thanksgiving dinner and I said to my sister, ‘Upon reflection, don’t you think it was odd that Hoover wasn’t in the office, too?’”
Convinced he actually saw Hoover in drag, Gunn added the story to his book “Gunn’s Golden Rules.” Simon & Schuster’s legal department looked into the salacious tale and contacted Vivian Vance’s two biographers. They knew nothing about a trip to visit Hoover. Then they went to the visitor logs at the bureau, which are kept in perpetuity. There was no record of Vivian Vance having ever visited.
“I will say this about the culture around the upper echelon of the bureau, and I include my father in this, I think they were all a bunch of closet cases. I really do. They were all very handsome men of a certain type and you just had the feeling that they were cherry picked [by Hoover].
“Football Sundays at our house with these guys, upon reflection, were a pretty gay scene…They were also all a bunch of drunks. I mean serious alcoholics, where Sunday morning you would find people on the lawn.”
Gunn says that of the six men that made up the top brass of the FBI in that era, four died by self-inflicted gunshots to the head. The only two that didn’t commit suicide were Gunn’s father and Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat of the Watergate scandal.
“Don’t you think that’s bizarre?” Gunn asks. “It’s an awful way to go. It leaves a horrible mess.”
Even as an adult Gunn, struggled to find his voice. He studied literature, then sculpture. He made architectural models, and eventually one of his old teachers offered him a classroom job.
“I was completely and totally terrified. In fact, I felt like a sham,” he says. “I drove to the school on the first Monday morning, and I was so filled with terror that I opened the door and just threw up all over the place. I went into the studio and I had to brace myself up against the wall because my knees were shaking so badly. I was a mess. And this happened every morning that week.”
But Gunn grew into the role. By August 2001, the dean of Parsons asked him to reposition the school’s fashion design program, which had become anachronistic.
After taking on the job he quickly discovered how maligned the fashion design department was by other academics.
“I was horrified by it,” Gunn says. “My own peers and other department chairs, would say, ‘Ugh, that department. Who wants to tell other people how to dress?’ ‘Who wants to work with materials that are so ephemeral’… I introduced myself the head of the economics department at the university’s reaccreditation committee and he said to me, ‘Oh, if I had known you were going to be coming I would have brought my jacket with the loose button.’ Can you imagine? I didn’t think of a retort quickly enough. Later, I thought I should have said, ‘If I had known you were going to be here I would have brought my taxes.’”
Gunn purged faculty, fought backward practices and threw away most of the curriculum. It was a painful process. Students and teachers threated him. A black rabbit was left in his office — some kind of Eastern European curse, he says. His controversial changes landed him on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily. He frequently turned to his “guru” Diane von Furstenberg for support.
But he says, “I was determined to raise the bar, to speak about fashion in academic terms and to celebrate its history.” And although he is no longer in the classroom, he says his mission and role as an educator are still the same.
Gunn will argue with anyone willing to listen that fashion matters both historically and as a barometric gauge of society. In other words, fashion teaches us who we are at a given moment, and is a window into how we see the world today. He calls this the semiotics of fashion; how the clothes we wear send a message about how the world perceives us.
For Gunn, beneath one of the most ostensibly shallow and mocked industries is a well of ideology.
“But more broadly,” he says, “my mission is to be an advocate for good citizens of the world, for being respectful of yourself, of others and of behaving responsibly. I believe that is very important.”