The world of fashion isn't pretty. That's one reason Tim Gunn first agreed to work on "Project Runway." On the Lifetime show, which premieres its eighth season Thursday at 9 p.m., clothing designers compete to win demanding challenges. Gunn serves as a firm but gentle guide through their journey. As he recalls, the show was initially met with horror by many fashionistas.
"There was a whole segment of the industry that didn't want the creative process to be exposed," he says by phone from New York. "They liked the fact that everyone thought it was so glamorous and so elite and so special, when in fact it's just difficult, daunting and tremendously hard work, and you sweat profusely, which isn't ever particularly glamorous."
Fortunately, the show also had its share of fans in the fashion industry who were grateful that someone was finally lifting the veil of mystery on the business. Gunn was among them. "Unless you truly have a profound love and passion for design, don't do it!" he says.
And if you are going to do it, by all means listen to Gunn's advice. Having spent 24 years on the faculty and administration at Parsons the New School for Design in New York, he is clearly committed to helping designers realize their visions.
"He's very sincere and engaged in those critiques," says "Runway" executive producer Sara Rea. "Yes, there are cameras there. But he's focused on what he's saying to that designer at that moment. When we have 16 designers at the beginning, it's an exhausting process. He still gives 100% to the 16th one." (And cocky designers, take note: "To date, the winner of the first challenge has never won the season," Gunn says.)
During the show's development, Gunn signed on to work as an off-screen consultant. But the producers soon realized that he was a valuable on-screen asset, and by the first episode his mentoring talents were in full view. Eight seasons later, it's impossible to imagine the show without Gunn's admonitions to the designers to "make it work." He and the show are established in the pop culture firmament. "I had Conan O'Brien telling me that the show's given him a vocabulary to shop for clothes," Gunn remarks. "And I thought, 'Good heavens, it's had a big impact.' "
He wishes he could diminish his own role on the program a bit. "I'd like to excise me from all the calling of time," he says of his weekly entrances in the workroom to warn the designers that the clock is ticking on their challenge. Those moments could be better spent focusing on the creative process. And as much as he loves his compatriots, judges Heidi Klum, Nina Garcia and Michael Kors, he finds himself baffled by some of their calls.
"I call them the crack-smoking judges," Gunn declares. "I really do not interact with them; I believe in the separation of church and state. I will tell you, I say hello to them when they come on the set. I frequently don't say goodbye, because I'm mad." He sits quietly in the back of the auditorium, watching and wondering at their choices. Klum always knows he's back there, she says, "because I can see his glasses shining in the dark."
The supermodel and executive producer and host jokes, "He's like my gay husband. We have this funny romance with one another." For his part, Gunn says, "I constantly have this out-of-body experience where I look at her and I become very aware of myself and think, 'I'm standing next to Heidi Klum.' It never ceases to give me a chill."
His sense of joy infuses everything he does these days. "Project Runway" didn't just change the way the world looks at fashion; it transformed Gunn's own world. A few years back, Bill McComb, chief executive of Liz Claiborne Inc., created a position for him. His background overhauling his fashion design department at Parsons impressed the CEO, but so did his work on the show. Gunn says McComb told him, " 'I know how you interact with people, I know your demeanor and your character, because I watch you on "Project Runway." So I know you won't be a threat to our designers.' "
That same temperament led him to write "Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons for Making It Work," which will be released Sept. 7. "I wrote it as though I were sitting in my office advising students about how to be a good citizen. We have a responsibility to navigate the world with a respect for ourselves and our fellow human beings." The book was written with Ada Calhoun, who Gunn says shaped it out of his stream-of-consciousness ramblings. "Were it not for her, I would have a big box full of computer printouts." His praise is a prime example of his own manners. But the book isn't just about good behavior. When he encounters people who aren't taking the high road, he happily names names.
As much as the dapper Gunn likes to dish on misbehaving fashion figures such as Anna Wintour and André Leon Talley in his book, he also turns the focus on himself, telling tales that are in turn poignant and hilarious. He discloses a miserable youth battling a debilitating stutter and being bullied and beaten at a long line of boarding schools. Now his life is such a dream, he says, that he pinches himself every day.
"I'm in the new Smurfs movie because of 'Runway,' " he exults, adding that he's star-struck all the time. "There I am, running around with Neil Patrick Harris and Hank Azaria and Sofia Vergara, and Smurfs! I'm having the best time of my entire life. I'm about to be 57, and I'm telling you, I feel like a teenager." One with impeccable taste, naturally.