Smoking Gunn

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Project Runway‘s style guru offers timeless fashion advice to the masses

Since his reign began as the ebullient co-host and mentor for the four-time Emmy-nominated Project Runway, the reality show hatching ground for up-and-coming fashion designers, Tim Gunn has become a household name.

Last year, when Gunn, the former chair of fashion design at Parsons the New School for Design, took on the role of chief creative at Liz Claiborne Inc., the company became invigorated with Gunn’s visionary genius and indisputable leadership. Thanks to the insatiability of his fans, the debonair design guide now also stars in his own show on Bravo, Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style (based on his incomparably classy tome, Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style), where he assists women in synchronizing their wardrobe to reflect their true style autonomy and individuality without ever falling back on fashion trends.

In early November, the beautiful new Macy’s Lakeside Shopping Center, along with Liz Claiborne, hosted a Guess Who’s Coming to Town? event, replete with a holiday fashion show, prizes, refreshments, access to style advisers and individual photo sessions with a highly congenial Gunn. In addition, the fashion world’s favorite counselor entertained a Q-and-A session with a lively audience, offering tips on dressing to giving solid advice for aspiring designers, delivering it all with his trademark wit and genuine concern. New Orleans Living was incredibly fortunate to have met with Gunn right before hundreds swarmed over to the Liz Claiborne department in Macy’s for a major shopping marathon! The erudite style mentor’s first visit to New Orleans may have been a working one, but he vowed to return again and indulge in all the splendid fineries New Orleans has to offer.

Hello, Tim! Thank you so much for spending time with New Orleans Living Magazine. And welcome to New Orleans!

I’m thrilled to be here, Christine! I’ve never been here. And I must say, this dress is fabulous on you! You look beautiful!

Okay, I can die and go to heaven right now! Thanks so much, Tim. I am completely honored to be interviewing you. And every woman I told that I’d be talking to you gushed, “Oh, I love Tim Gunn! I love him so much!” This outpouring of adulation from everywhere must be incredible!

Awww! I am the luckiest guy in the world. I say it every day. And I also have to say that I pinch myself every
day, like, this can’t be happening to me! And I will tell you, when all this stuff happens to you after
you turn 50, you are so appreciative of it, you are so grateful, and you know how to bracket it. You know, it’s totally surreal! And it’s a phenomenon. It’s simply a phenomenon. I’m just the luckiest guy in the world!

You deserve it because you’ve brought joy to people’s lives by enlightening them to spruce up their wardrobes. People are sometimes intimidated by those who influence style, perhaps because they feel they can’t aspire to “lofty” fashion heights. But you seem to make it very digestible for everyone.

But do you know why? I never dreamed I’d ever have this role; the only critique role I’ve ever had has been with my students at Parsons, until this new reiteration of my life happened. And in talking to my students, it was always about channeling them and who they are and who they are aspiring to be and helping them reach their goal. The same is true when I talk to women about their personal style: Who are you? With whom do you interact? How do you want the world to perceive you? And then how can we help you achieve the best of that? So it’s never a pronouncement. I say I am not a fashion magician. I’m not a fashion Svengali or a dictator. I’m much more of a fashion therapist, because my approach to this is Socratic: It’s a question-and-answer session. I couldn’t dream of doing it otherwise.

You became even more integral in the fashion world when you became the chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne last year. What an astounding accomplishment!

Oh, I go back to saying I’m the luckiest guy in the world! I thought I would retire at Parsons in education. I never dreamed of leaving. And when I met the CEO of Liz Claiborne, Bill McComb, this incredible, dynamic visionary who had been there for six weeks at that time, I didn’t know why we were meeting other than a meeting between the CEO of Liz Claiborne and the chairman of fashion at Parsons, because traditionally we had done a lot of things together. So I thought Bill’s new, I’m meeting him. And until he dropped this incredible opportunity into my lap, the entire time I was saying to myself, how lucky is this company to have this incredible guy at the helm. And then when he said, “I would like you to join me,” it was like, oh my god! So it’s been an incredible journey! We have a great time at Liz Claiborne. It has energized me. And for someone who has lived most of his life in an academic bubble, to be out in the real world of this industry and see how the myriad moving parts of sourcing, production, quality control and marketing and how all of it interacts, it’s been an incredible learning curve for me. It’s been absolutely fascinating.

The Liz Claiborne holiday fashion show that we are about to witness here at Macy’s Lakeside Shopping Center is going to introduce women to some great pieces of clothing and accessories that can help maximize their wardrobe this season. What is the one piece that you feel is absolutely essential for the holidays?

Well, I am constantly surprised by how many women don’t own a black dress. It is such an essential item in my view because it’s so risk-free for anything after five o’clock, and because you can accessorize it so that it becomes more special for a particular occasion. But I can only imagine that our black sequin dress will be in the show, which is black with a touch of sparkle. And it’s still affordable—that’s what I love about this brand. This brand is incredibly versatile, and you can mix and match various components, and it goes back to Liz Claiborne’s own DNA, which was to provide this sort of fashion for women who were going into the workforce in droves, who had very few options available to them.

Macy’s is celebrating its 150th birthday this year. You must be excited to be part of this fabulous grand opening and to see this awesome new store. It’s thrilling for New Orleanians to have Macy’s back for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, and it’s a big part of our ongoing rebirth.

Oh, I know it is, and it will probably continue to be for some time. I’m truly honored to be part of this and to be here and to fully participate in it. It is thrilling. And of course, it goes without saying how much we support Macy’s. And I’ve never been in a brandspanking new Macy’s! This store is absolutely stunning. When I entered it I felt like I was in Oz! [Laughs]

You’ll be holding a Q-and-A session in conjunction with the Liz Claiborne fashion show. And there are a lot of ladies lined up to see you. I bet you’ll hear some lovely things from women today for influencing their wardrobe choices.

For one, it makes me very emotional to hear that. And it makes me own a sense of responsibility for what I say and how I conduct myself, and it’s the loveliest thing in the world to hear, actually, when people say that to me. It truly is.

Season six of Project Runway will hopefully debut in 2009. You must be excited as ever to have mentored yet another new batch of talented young designers. That show is the most divine thing to ever happen to television!

Oh, thank you! Season six is wrapped, other than Fashion Week. At this point we don’t know when it will air. And, yes, I am excited by these new designers. This is the way I would feel every semester teaching at Parsons. It’s a whole new crop of students, a whole new set of ideas and plenty of not knowing where they’ll take us. Yes, it’s very exciting.

How was the transition of filming the sixth season of Project Runway in Los Angeles instead of New York, where it had always been filmed?

Absolutely seamless and fantastic!

That’s amazing coming from a New Yorker!

[Laughs] And I will tell you, I had my doubts! It turned out to be a fabulous season, and we’re fully embracing Los Angeles. We weren’t pretending we were somewhere else; we embraced Los Angeles for all that it has to offer in fashion. I was reminded while I was there, and it was so dumb of me to ever have lost sight of this, that prior to World War II, fashion really ascended in this nation and America became a fashion force. I reflected on Parsons; we began the first fashion program in the country in 1906. And where did those early graduates go? They went to Hollywood! And it was really the Hollywood film industry that inspired people about how they wanted to dress. The big important fashion designers before World War II, like Irene Sharaff, Travis Banton, Edith Head and Gilbert Adrian, who was head of MGM’s costume department for over 30 years, were Hollywood people, and they were the designers people knew. So I was reminded that L.A. is where it really began.

You also currently star in your own show, Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, which airs on Bravo. It sort of spun off from your timeless book, Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style, released last year. Both the show and the book really help countless women discover their signature style. And the 2009 boxed calendar that includes style tips from your book, which shoppers will receive today in the Liz Claiborne department, is the perfect stocking stuffer this year.

Oh thank you! Can I be honest with you, Christine? I did not want to do this book. I said “I’m not a makeover person, that’s not what I do.” And Abrams Image, the publisher, said, “Well, we have this void in our publishing, and we’re really looking to flesh out self-help, and we want you to do this,” because they approached me. And I, of course, went out and researched every makeover book I could find—and boy, are there a lot of them—and I just came back to them and I said, “I just can’t do this. I can’t tell people they have to wear X, Y and Z; I don’t want these photographs that have captions.” And I went to my guru, Diane von Furstenberg, and I said, “Diane, I need your help.” She said, “Well, first of all, they came to you to do a book. Are you crazy? Do the book!” And then she said, “The only advice I can give you is don’t lose your voice as an educator.”And that’s what guided me through the whole thing.

And your distinctive, supportive voice is clearly audible in the book. So do you feel you’ve changed at all since we first met you on Project Runway?

I used to say, “Oh, the show hasn’t changed me at all. I’m still the same person, I still ride the subway, and I still do all the things I always did in terms of how I navigate my life,” but then I started thinking about it, and I thought: Sarah Jessica Parker calls me up! [Laughs] My life has changed!

In 2006 you were named one of People magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive!

Preposterous! It was a desperate year!

What does your mother think of that moniker?

Well, I’ll tell you her general refrain, and the first time I heard it was when I told her that I was not just a consultant to Project Runway, but that I was actually going to be on the show. She said, “Are they crazy? You’re so old!” [Laughs] I think that’s what she said about People magazine.

Thanks, Mom! That might explain why you are so down-to-earth and relatable, because your mom keeps you grounded.

Well, when all this first started with season one of Project Runway, she would say to me “Well, it’s your fifteen minutes of fame, and the clock is ticking!” [Laughs] Then I would tell her that there was an article out with me in it and that she may want to get it, and she asks, “Well, is there a picture?” Then it got to a point where she would say, “I just read People magazine and why is Nina Garcia reviewing ice-skating outfits and you’re not?” [Laughs]

Tim, what have you done so far in New Orleans? Anything besides work?

I flew in late last night, had room service because it was late, woke up this morning, did a television interview, then came running here and we had our brunch with some of the top customers at Macy’s in the area and now I’m meeting you. So the only part of New Orleans I’ve seen has been in a car traveling from point A to point B, and I have to leave today. But I was looking at the New Orleans book in the hotel, and I knew already there were a lot of seductions in New Orleans, but there are really a lot of seductions! I’ve got to come back to New Orleans, and I will!

We can’t wait to have you back, Tim. Make it work, and soon!