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See, they were princesses all along

'Tim Gunn's Guide to Style' is another take on the familiar fashion fairy tale. It's cute.

September 05, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

We are never too old for fairy tales, if television is anything to go by. All day long it tells and retells the story of the beast revealed to be a king, the ugly duckling grown into a swan. A hovel becomes a palace, a house, a home. Again and again the ashes are wiped from Cinderella's face to reconcile outer beauty with inner, and it is as good the thousandth time as the first. Welcome to the makeover show.

The latest of the medium's fairy godpeople is Tim Gunn, already well known from "Project Runway," where he plays the friendly professor to Heidi Klum's Teutonic headmistress. "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style," which premieres Thursday night on Bravo, pairs him with erstwhile supermodel Veronica Webb in what amounts to a Fifth Avenue version of TLC's "What Not to Wear." Reversing the usual order of such things, the knockoff looks more expensive than the original.

It's a bit of a disappointment at first, given that "WNTW" hosts Clinton Kelly and Stacy London already do this job as well as anyone ever will. And there is something in the way that "Tim Gunn's Guide" pours on the name-designer cameos, top-rank beauticians and expensive swag -- guests are made "presents" of shoes and handbags and jewelry -- that seems to be bullying the more homespun original, as when a well-funded chain coffeehouse moves in next door to a funky local spot. But there is room enough for everyone in the fairy-tale world, after all.

The arc of the two shows is identical: A woman is seen to need help dressing herself; an intervention is arranged. Old clothes are thrown away, old habits examined. The subject herself is broken down, made to confront her true shape and actual age. Armed with a set of "rules," she is sent shopping. (Gunn's Rules hold that clothing is a matter of silhouette, proportion and . . . I forget the third thing. And also that every woman's wardrobe needs 10 core items.) Her hair is cut and her makeup done.

Finally, she is presented to her friends and family, who are at once amazed and not in the least surprised by the transformation of the person they knew into the person they always knew she was, really, all along. The subject has come to "own" her look. "How can you have confidence if you don't own your look?" Gunn rhetorically asks, as if we will all know what that means.

As on "Runway," where his is the one really invaluable presence, Gunn is best when showing us what he knows, reacting critically to the thing in front of him rather than speaking lines meant to jog the narrative or jack up the drama. (There could be more of this, frankly.)

Having spent more than two decades in academia -- if not actually as an academic -- as a dean and then a department chair at Parsons the New School for Design, he has earned his charmingly pedagogical manner. ("Make it work" and "Carry on" are his familiar "PR" catchphrases.) Peering over his glasses -- apparently not ready for bifocals, is our Tim -- arms folded, head tilted back, brows furrowed, he is both arch and endearing.

Webb is a tall splash of color next to the comparatively conservative Gunn. (Webb & Gunn -- it sounds like a '70s police series, and it kind of is.) "You're being a little straight for me here," she tells him at one point, in a disagreement over leggings.

And where Gunn is known for using "fancy" words like "enervating" and "untenable" -- not really television words -- she is given to left-field similes and metaphors and pop-cult aphorisms : "You would think that the curtain was about to come down on Russia the way she was hangin' on to that stuff." "That rut is so deep there's like magma down there." "Once they've seen gay Paree, you can't keep 'em down on the farm." They are fairly cute together, though not as cute as they might be later, when they relax into these roles.

There is drama, naturally, and there is trauma. Because it's life that these shows are about, ultimately, not fashion. Bad clothes are held to be merely symptomatic of an inability to see oneself clearly -- the manifestation of the refusal to become truly fabulous. When those walls come down, when the scales fall from the eyes, the effect can be big and satisfying.

As one man notes of his daughter-in-law's final reveal, "There was not a dry tear in the place."



'Tim Gunn's

Guide to Style'

Where: Bravo

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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