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PATT MORRISON ASKS | TIM GUNN : On the 'Runway'

November 14, 2009|PATT MORRISON

To employ catchphrases from two Teutonic giants -- Heidi Klum and Arnold Schwarzenegger -- Lifetime TV's "Project Runway," which wraps up its season this coming week, has bid auf Wiedersehen to Los Angeles for now. But it'll be back.

So too will the man whose own catchphrase, "Make it work," gets shouted at him from admiring strangers in taxicabs. I cannot sew on a button properly, but I wouldn't miss "Project Runway," in large measure because of the urbane and droll Tim Gunn. If there's a Tim Gunn character, I might even play the forthcoming "Project Runway" video game.

"Project Runway" fans may think of him as a fashion god, but Gunn regards himself as an educator, counselor to the designer/contestants toiling among the toiles. He strolls from dressmaker's dummy to dressmaker's dummy, either worried or pleased, as the garment under construction deserves.

Gunn spent a quarter of a century as a teacher and administrator at Parsons the New School for Design in New York. Now he's the creative director and "brand ambassador" for the Liz Claiborne company.

Even if you only see "Project Runway" as you channel-surf on your way to PBS, you have to admit he's an especially able wordsmith. Who else can so credibly toss out words such as "diaphanous" on television, or speak comfortably about "the semiotics of clothes"? He crafts and stitches his phrases as meticulously as the couturier Balenciaga composed his dresses.

So I'll tweak Shakespeare to say this about Gunn: His "glass of fashion" is always full.

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This is the first time I've ever begun a phone conversation -- with a stranger, at least -- by asking, "What are you wearing?"

[Laughs] Charcoal pinstripe suit, white shirt and a silver and gray version of a rep tie.

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Did your style change while you were in L.A.?

Absolutely. I got to the point where I felt like I was walking around like a mortician. I thought, this is ridiculous. I stopped wearing ties. I wear them on the day someone's [eliminated from the show], out of respect. But in the workroom, no, it's too silly.

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The current season is in L.A. The next one, which was already shot, is in New York, but the season after that, you'll be back in L.A. Do you like the idea?

I love the plan. We needed a booster shot, and L.A. provided it -- more than that, it gave us a whole new threshold.

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But you came here kicking and screaming.

I'm a creature of habit and [resisted] the idea of not being in my own bed at night, being on foreign turf, and I didn't want to have to use any transportation other than my feet. But it all worked out beautifully.

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Pedestrians here behave better than New Yorkers.

You're superb! I wish we in New York observed the same pedestrian rules. I realize that it's also very serious. Police will hand out tickets; I never got one, but I saw it happening.

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In New York the entire street is a runway; people want to be seen. Where's the public runway in L.A.?

In everyone's car! [In L.A.], fashion has to be [about] a destination, and in New York, the destination is merely the city. In Los Angeles, what you see depends on the destination; there's a fashion culture associated with the gathering.

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Do you know when you sensed that the buzz is wrong, that L.A. is not a fashion wasteland after all?

The Emmys were happening when we were arriving, so we were going to use them for our first challenge. Some people associated with the show were very woeful about the whole thing -- oh no, a red carpet dress, what a ho-hum way to begin the season. Ho-hum? It's the Emmy awards! All the high-end carpet [events] happen in Los Angeles. That's when the doors of the epiphany began to open.

Until World War II, when the couture houses of Paris closed, New York was nowhere in fashion land. We were a city of copiers of Europe. The hotbed for fashion design and innovative thinking was Hollywood: Irene Sharaff, Gilbert Adrian. It was all about Los Angeles. I thought, "This has been part of my fashion history for a long time -- why did I have such a memory loss?" It was great to rediscover that.

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People who don't know peau de soie from peanut butter watch this show. What is it that -- well -- makes it work?

There are different iterations of love for the show. On the one hand, people love the fact that you don't know where the challenge is going to take the designers, but you believe in their talent. But I had a mother of a 9-year-old come up to me in an airport. She said the show teaches young people how important qualities of character are: It teaches you that hard work pays off, that cheaters never prosper, that it's better to play nicely with others than to be a diva. I'd never thought about the show that way. It's really a lovely thing.

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You're there holding the designers' hands, letting them know whether they're going off the rails. How did you come to have that role?

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