Most people know him from the reality show “Project Runway,” but fashion mentor Tim Gunn was instructing students long before television audiences discovered him.
He was associate dean at Parsons the New School for Design in New York before being named chair of the fashion department. In 2007, he became the chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne. He was hospitalized as a teenager because of an attempted suicide. It was hard for him to come to terms with his sexual identity as gay. Now he does public-service announcements encouraging teens for the “It Gets Better” project. He is famously single and not looking, and lives in New York. “Project Runway” airs Thursday evenings on Lifetime.
Q: So you turned 60 in July.
A: You know, I wouldn’t go backward for anything. Each successive day I feel a little older, a little wiser and a little more experienced. I wouldn’t take any of that away. I will tell you, though, the toughest birthday I ever faced was 29. It was the whole idea that it was the last year of my 20s and look what looms ahead. I had a fabulous, wonderful career as an educator. I mean, when you’re the chairman of the fashion department at Parsons, in terms of fashion education in this country, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Then, at 50, the “Project Runway” producers call me. This whole new iteration of my life during these last 10 years is just phenomenal to me.
Q: Were you always such an elegant person?
A: No, not even remotely. When I was an art student, I was something of a slob, to be perfectly honest. I was always covered with paint and glue and everything else imaginable. It’s not that I didn’t care about my appearance, but I was dressing for a studio.
When I started to teach — I was teaching art and design students — I started to dress up a bit. I thought I needed to be a role model to my students in more ways than just being a teacher, a mentor, a cheerleader. The clothes we wear sends a message about how the world perceives us. I wanted them to know just through my physical appearance and the way that I dress that this is my classroom and, in a manner of speaking, I was in charge.
Q: You have been open about having a tough time in high school and struggling with social anxiety. How did you conquer that?
A: Teaching certainly helped, but I had a major life crisis at 17. I made a very serious suicide attempt and there was a medical intervention. There needed to be, and a psychiatric one, as well. I was hospitalized for quite a long time.
I attribute my pulling out of all this to an extraordinary doctor by the name of Phillip Goldblatt. He really rescued me. He delivered tough love and he wouldn’t let me run away from myself. He made me confront my demons. He pulled me through it. My engagement with him as a patient gave me some extraordinary life skills in terms of a kind of critical analysis of things that are happening and to be able to examine them dispassionately in a way and think of solutions — think of ways out that are not self-destructive, that are positive.
Q: I read your parents were pretty homophobic. Did that get resolved?
A: No, [laughs] never. My father died close to 20 years ago and I always say, “Omigod, had he been alive for this whole ‘Project Runway’ and there is a Tim Gunn Barbie out, my superhero character with Marvel and the reprise of Models Inc. That would have killed him!”
It’s so funny. My mother for years would say to me, “I found the loveliest girl for you.” “Mother, thank you. I’m not interested.” About three to four years before she died, she stopped saying that. There are some things that may have made me feel better to get off my chest and discuss with my mother, but I thought it’s not going to make her feel any better. There are times when you just need to keep your mouth shut. Sometimes more is said by saying nothing.
Q: Did you ever think you would be on television or have ambitions beyond the fashion world?
A: [Laughs.] Never in a million, zillion years. When I was chair of the fashion program at Parsons, I actually had two little television opportunities that presented themselves. One was with three of my students and we were going on Ali Wentworth’s first show. We did a demonstration of how to iron decals onto jeans for kids. My hands were shaking so badly I actually dropped the iron. I was a wreck!
Then I did a “CBS Sunday Morning” segment about how American design is responding to the increasing girth of the American body. That was a little better. I never dreamed there would be any more of that. When the “Project Runway” producers contacted me, it was to be a consultant and I signed on and was thrilled to do that.
Then they said, “We think we need someone to be a mentor in the workroom. Would you be interested?” After thinking about it, I said yes. Bravo, the first network the show was on, wasn’t so confident about it. I thought the whole time: “No one needs to see me. No one needs to hear my voice.” So I was rather relaxed about the whole thing. The only time I was not even remotely relaxed was when I was with Heidi [Klum]. I was a wreck. There I am standing next to this breathtaking supermodel, totally in command and used to the camera and used to this whole world that was totally foreign to me.
Q: Last question: Has there ever been a fashion trend that you have reversed your opinion on?
A: This is more about accessories. There was a time when I put Crocs and Uggs in the same category. I have to say the Ugg brand has really evolved into something I feel is much more at home in the fashion world. Whereas Crocs, I fundamentally don’t understand it. Of course, every time I speak out against Crocs, their stock goes up. They open a new store, more people are wearing them. I do understand it. It is all part of the American comfort trap, which is something that I wish would go away.
I am constantly saying, “If you want to dress to feel as if you never got out of bed, then don’t get out of bed!” I am a suit guy. Am I comfortable? I’m not uncomfortable, but I don’t feel like I’m in my pajamas. When your clothes fit properly, your posture is better. Everything about you is more presentable.
I simply subscribe to the principles of silhouette, proportion and fit being in harmony and balance, and when they are, you look great no matter what you are wearing. Everybody benefits from knowing someone who can do some alterations. Most of us can’t buy things right off the rack. We can, but we shouldn’t wear them that way. Most American women and certainly men are wearing clothes that are at least one size too big for them.