Tim Gunn Speaks on New Amazon Series and Why He Left the “Runway”

Written by | Entertainment, Screen

Fashion mentor Tim Gunn

(Tim Gunn image by Barbara Nitke; courtesy Lifetime)

Tim Gunn is ready for takeoff. After co-piloting Project Runway through 16 seasons and two networks, he and co-host Heidi Klum have left the show. And for the past several weeks, they’ve been hunkered down with the execs at Amazon Prime Video to develop a new series they’ll share.

Over the last two decades, Gunn’s work has appeared in nearly every medium known to man — including podcasts, movies, books and television. And a many of the descriptors used to identify him do provide a useful shorthand.

Spend 15 minutes spent watching any random episode of Project Runway and you’ll agree he is by turns deliberative, diplomatic and never anything less than poised.

What doesn’t come through is that Tim Gunn is actually cool. Cool in the same sense as Steve McQueen, the Rat Pack or Justin Trudeau or Sidney Poitier. We’re Talking Other Side of the Pillow Cool.

Welcome to the Gunn Show

Step inside his Upper West Side apartment (a penthouse that overlooks Manhattan to rival Hannibal’s view of the Alps), and there he is: black turtleneck, sky blue denim jeans and … socks. A tour of his bachelor pad takes less than a minute: There’s a bathroom in the throes of a remodel; an assortment of eclectic furnishings lining the entry, and a simple bedroom with a poster of Gunn and Klum blown up from the cover of Entertainment Weekly. At the heart of it all, there’s a cozy living room with books neatly occupying every square inch that remains.

Apparently this prized collection of literature allows the world’s most famous fashion mentor to live there peaceably, along with his tasteful assemblage of antiques and nicknacks. When the host steps into his kitchen to pop a bottle of champagne, there’s actually not enough room for two without invading a stranger’s body space. But there is an open marble divider between the kitchen and Gunn’s living room.

Winged Victory

Unassumingly taking up space there is his 2013 Emmy Award as outstanding reality show host. “Nice paperweight,” I quip, unsure whether the winged goddess lofting her globe is placed there as an afterthought, as a confidence booster or because its winner couldn’t conceive where else to put it.

“It really is heavy,” Gunn laughs while pouring. “Pick it up.” I agree. It’s substantial and would make headlines if used to take down an intruder.

When we sit, it becomes instantly clear why the dozens of Project Runway contestants hold him in esteem. He’s as interested in me as I am in him — a trait seldom seen among celebrities. He will twitch and adjust his glasses and stammer, but if Gunn imparts anything, it’s that nothing is cooler than being you. When I tell him how cool he is, his eyes instantly brighten and he howls with laughter.

Have I told you my asshole story? he says as if we’re teens sharing Study Hall gossip.

You’ve Got That Look

“I was on the streets of Los Angeles, walking,” he recalls. “It was early in the morning and I was walking to our set and wearing a suit for the first time that I’m crazy about and still have. It’s window pane. So I was wearing a checked shirt, a striped tie, and this couple behind me could only see me from the back. And she says to him, ‘Honey, I wish you’d dress more like that guy.’ And there’s a pause, and he says, ‘You mean like an asshole?'”

“So I call it my asshole suit. And you know comments like that don’t bother me, because I’m comfortable and confident in how I’m presenting myself to the world. Is it for everybody? Of course not. Marlo Thomas once said to me, You know, I wish that Phil would dress more like you, but I think only you can pull it off.”

Keeping Secrets

Timothy MacKenzie Gunn grew up in Washington D.C. and from an early age understood the importance of keeping secrets. His father occupied the office next to his boss, F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover. Gunn’s father, it’s widely reported, was devoutly homophobic and viewed gay people as “predators,” and yet was promoted from work as an agent to become personal speechwriter to the cross-dressing Hoover — who by most definitions would be considered homosexual in today’s world.

At one point, the young Gunn was so distraught with home life that he attempted suicide at 17. “I’m very happy today that attempt was unsuccessful,” he says in his video for the It Gets Better campaign, “but at the time it was all I could contemplate. I thought, ‘I need to end things right now.’ And I have to tell you, I woke up the next morning after taking more than a hundred pills and I was in a whole other level of despair. I thought, ‘I shouldn’t be here. This isn’t what was meant to be.’ I frankly just wanted to start life over again.”

It was a decidedly unorthodox childhood. He later told NPR that his father once asked if Tim and his sister would like to meet Vivian Vance, who starred opposite Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show on television.

“In the 1960s,” Gunn recalls, my father’s office was right next door to Hoover’s and my sister and I were visiting Dad at his office, which we did annually. During this particular visit, Dad said Vivian Vance was visiting the director. And I was a huge I Love Lucy fan. He said, ‘Would you like to meet her?’ Well, of course. So we met her. And it was thrilling and exhilarating.

Tim Tales

Many years later, we were having Thanksgiving dinner at my Mother’s. My father had already died, and all that stuff about Hoover and crossdressing had come out. I turned to my sister, and I said, ‘Do you remember that visit to Hoover’s office when we met Vivian Vance? And she said yes. I said, upon reflection — because this was decades earlier – ‘Doesn’t it strike you as odd that Hoover wasn’t in the office?’ And she just stared at me. My Mother asked, ‘What are you implying?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. You put a curly fright wig on J. Edgar Hoover and it’s Vivian Vance.

“I wrote about it in a book called Gunn’s Golden Rules. And I know that because Simon and Schuster’s legal team had to research everything I wrote about. And on this topic, they went to Vivian Vance’s two biographers, and neither of whom had any record of her having visited the F.B.I. or Hoover. And then they went to the F.B.I. visitor logs: no Vivian Vance.”

“So my father was great enabler.” Looking back, he says his father’s running buddies from the office “were all homophobes, while at the same time, there was this camaraderie among them that just smelled of … you just protest too much. Among these six people, four of them died of gunshots to the head. That’s pretty violent way to go. And four of the six wives were horrible alcoholics.”

Ultimately Gunn attended the Corcoran College of Art and Design, where he earned a BFA in sculpture. He was nearly 30 when he came out to his sister. As the legend goes, Gunn had his heart broken by a young man in the early ’80s and has been resolutely single ever since.

Gunn Takes Aim

Gunn began his career with Parsons in 1982, where he served as associate dean from 1989–2000. That year, he became Fashion Design Department chair. Eventually, he was lauded for rebuilding the program from the ground up.

“The reason that I believe I was successful in that role was because I was charged with bringing the department into the 21st century,” he says simply. “Because the curriculum had remained unchanged since 1952. Can you imagine such a thing? It’s fashion!”

But Gunn’s drastic reboot didn’t sit well with everyone. “What was best for the students is what moved me forward,” he’ll say now. “That involved getting rid of a lot of faculty and bringing in a lot of new blood. And there was just, there was an uproar about it, saying, ‘You may not do this; you are here temporarily and what you are doing is upsetting this system permanently. And that’s never true.

“As the dean said to a whole group of rioters, ‘This is an experiment, and if it doesn’t work, we can try something else if we need to, we can go back to the way it’s been. But if you think about this critically and analytically, the department has to evolve in the same way the industry has, and it hasn’t. So, at any rate, I think my neutrality was a benefit. Because I met with dozens and dozens of people and asked hundreds of questions. It was like going back to graduate school.”

In 2004, Gunn joined Project Runway during its first season. In short order, he became as much a reason to watch the show as the fashions that strode the catwalk. By dint of his humanity alone, he transformed the show from a reality program about designers vying for recognition into a show about how people can grow under the constructive guidance of a benevolent mentor. He Made It Work.

Departing the Runway

“We were completely taken by extreme surprise when it was decided Project Runway was not returning to Lifetime,” says Gunn. “We had been there for 11 seasons. We liked the fact that Lifetime left us alone and just let us do our thing. And and in a way, they really spoiled us. So returning to Bravo caused Heidi and me to huddle and ask ourselves, ‘Is this a juncture that is an opportunity for us?’ We’d done the show for 16 seasons, and for me it was really 19, because we also had a season called Project Runway: Under the Gunn without Heidi. And I had two seasons of Project Runway Junior, a show with the teens.”

In Gunn’s words, they decided it was time to “throw the dice. Let’s do something that will expand on this experience and be something entirely new. And we love our show runner for eleven seasons, Sara Rae. She’s just phenomenal. And we thought, let’s talk to Sara and see if she has some thoughts and ideas. And Heidi has a lot of contacts at Netflix. So we met with Netflix and the meeting was fantastic. Then out of the blue, Amazon Prime Video contacted Heidi’s agent and my agent and said, ‘We hear you’re in conversations with Netflix. We’d like to have a conversation, too.’ And when we met with Amazon – and Jennifer Salke was only recently there as the head – we were blown away by the conversation with Amazon.”

The structure of the new Klum/Gunn series is very much still in progress, but announcements about the show are described as “imminent,” and all Gunn knows for sure at the moment is that the new venture will likely be shot in both New York and Los Angeles, with other possible locations to be determined. “It’s very important to Jennifer that we get this right. And it can’t be Runway,” he laughs, “because we’ll get sued.”

Cleared for Takeoff

Gunn will be replaced on Project Runway by designer Christian Siriano, who won Season Four of the series. Just last week, Siriano set the fashion industry and Hollywood on its ear by creating the custom velvet tux gown that Billy Porter took down the red carpet at the 91st Academy Awards gala.

Siriano will no doubt bring his own spin to the mentor role. He’s already said he believes that having someone who actually works in fashion will set him apart from Gunn, who came to the role as a teacher.

“I have great respect for that,” Gunn responds. “And that’s certainly a point of view. I have my own set of beliefs, and one is that — and this comes from 29 years of teaching – the last seven and a half of which I chaired the Department of Fashion Design at Parsons. I believe I was successful because I’m not a fashion designer and I wasn’t educated as a fashion designer. So I didn’t have any biases.

“I will say this – not about Christian by any means, because I don’t know his work in this role – but about designers in general. And this comes from experience, both with visiting critics and the fashion department, but more specifically with the guest judges on Runway who were fashion designers. With precious few exceptions, they look at the work through a lens of their own work. So they they project themselves into it. Michael Kors is a definite exception to that. And, and the other big exception who I’m always in awe of, is Diane Von Furstenberg.

But, but the others – they just, it’s always, ‘Well, I would have done X, Y or Z.’ Well, it’s not your work. So that’s irrelevant.

Also check out: Gay “Project Runway” Alum Viktor Luna: Still Raising HIV Awareness

Last modified: April 2, 2019

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