KANSAS CITY, Mo.—The answer to one question sealed the deal for Tim Gunn to join Bravo’s “Project Runway” as mentor to the aspiring designers.
“Can you make a wedding dress in two days?” the producers asked him.
Gunn, the chairman of the Department of Fashion Design at New York’s Parsons New School of Design, is long accustomed to pushing students through deadlines.
He shrugged and said, “Well, sure.”
“You’re the only person who has said yes,” replied the surprised TV producers, who were looking for a consultant.
More than two years later, thanks to the walloping success of the reality show, Gunn is a high-profile personality with major celebrity status.
Last month he drew an admiring crowd estimated at 350 people to Macy’s Leawood, Kan., store in an appearance with Angela Keslar, a designer from the recent “Runway” season. Macy’s, was a show sponsor, and Keslar created the winning design that was incorporated in its I-N-C line.
Gunn is a gentle, soft-spoken man with graying hair, a stereotypical professorial look and a weakness for Banana Republic clothes. (The first season the retailer supplied his show wardrobe, then took it all back at the end.) At 53, he appears in People magazine’s “Sexiest 100 Men Alive” issue along with George Clooney, Bill Clinton and Harrison Ford.
“I’m having the time of my life,” he says. “And it all happened to me after I was 50.”
Every season the television show brings together a group of upstart designers. Each has a clear personal aesthetic and distinctive, quirky personality. Each week the group is given specific challenges. For example: create an outfit with materials from a grocery store; dress a dog; design new postal uniforms.
Throughout each exercise, Gunn is their teacher, hand-holder, counselor and timekeeper. He tends to jump-start them with such signature lines as “Carry on,” “I am concerned” or “Make it work.”
At season’s end, four contenders create collections that are sent down the runway during New York Fashion Week. One person is named the overall winner and gets a mentorship and money to start their own line.
Certainly a high point in the show’s history came in the first season when it won an Emmy.
“We felt so validated,” Gunn says. “It was a non-network show. And we won.”
Judges include the host, model Heidi Klum, Elle magazine’s Nina Garcia and designer Michael Kors. Guest judges have included Kate Spade, Fashion Week executive Fern Mallis and Teri Agins, a Wall Street Journal fashion writer.
Gunn has no interaction with judges and doesn’t hesitate to voice his thoughts when he disagrees.
“I say hello and goodbye,” he says. “And then at times I want to run up to them and shout and scream, `Are you crazy?’” he told the Macy’s audience at Leawood’s Town Center Plaza.
He was, for instance, stunned when, in Season 2, Chloe Dao won out over the more creative Daniel Vosovic. As Gunn tells it, after a long session of deliberation, Garcia suddenly launched into a glowing pitch for Dao, and the judges shifted gears.
The judges’ comments are decidedly harsh, and the more complimentary observations are usually edited out. But Gunn is the quiet, kindly voice helping contestants polish their visions and pump their egos.
Sometimes the designers rebel like teenagers who don’t want to listen to their parents.
“There was a time when I was very rude to him,” Keslar says. “I felt terrible.” He assures her it was a healthy emotional outbreak.
“We are a family,” he tells her. “It is much better to get out the anger than let it fester.”
His ability to critique in a non-combative way, he says, comes from long years of teaching. It did not come from his own upbringing in Washington, D.C., which he describes as terrible.
“I had a miserable childhood. It took years of psychiatry to get past it.” Unhappy with himself, he says, he withdrew, played the piano, wrote poetry and didn’t come into his own until he discovered art.
He studied at Yale and entered the art world at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. At one point he designed architectural models for four years.
Twenty-three years ago he moved to New York and Parsons to become associate dean. The move was difficult, he says. He was overwhelmed by the contrasts of the polite, civilized Washington with the raw, rough-edged New York.
In 2000 he was named chair of fashion design and is credited with raising the quality and profile of the school. The award-winning design team of Proenza Schouler brought acclaim to the school when, as students, they designed such a successful collection that Barney’s, the upscale New York retailer, purchased it.
Gunn’s “Runway” experience has been transforming. Always shy and hesitant even in his early teaching days, he says his role on the television show has changed how he feels about himself. He has gained confidence and a better sense of himself.
As for the future of American fashion, observing from his unique view in the classroom and on the show, Gunn says he is optimistic. “I have never seen more opportunities,” he says.
At the end of Macy’s formal presentation, Gunn and Keslar gave autographs and posed for photos. To keep things orderly, the retailer had placed stars on a select number of tickets, entitling those holders to a chance to meet the guests.
Waiting in the long line, Leanne Zumbrunnen of Lenexa, Kan., said she had a special interest in the activities because she studied fashion design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.
“She should be a contestant,” her friend said.
Jenni Cullen, an elementary school teacher from Overland Park, Kan., described Gunn as “very generous.”
And waiting patiently, Lily Timberlake, 10, of Overland Park, clutched her thick sketchbook of fashion designs she hoped to show Gunn.
“I have some evening dresses and some other dresses,” she said, sifting through the pages.
“It’s the best hour on TV,” said her mother, Maria Timberlake.
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