Elegant, rigorous, devastating and funny, Tim Gunn has been coaching designers on Project Runway for 12 seasons. A best-selling author of several books on fashion and manners, his Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible was just released in paperback.
Karen: Tim, please tell us how you discovered Etsy.
Tim: I can’t navigate the world on any given day and not intersect with Etsy. In many ways, Etsy was very prophetic about the values we are holding so high today: Made in America, Made in New York, bringing back the Garment District. I am crazy about what Etsy is doing and has done. It was a brave, bold move to start.
Karen: It seems like part of American culture now, but a lot of people might be surprised to know that your role on Project Runway was a last minute decision by the producers.
Tim: It was decided I should have a role mere days before we started taping. My own conclusion is that the producers were terrified. Since the designers spend the bulk of their time in the workroom, the producers were terrified the designers wouldn’t talk and there would be no show. So by sending me —or someone like me — into the workroom, I could probe and ask questions and the designers would talk. I never thought I would end up in the final cut.
Karen: You had no ambitions for a television career?
Tim: Good heavens, no! I was perfectly happy at Parsons. In terms of fashion education, I don’t think it gets any better. Then, six months after I turned 50, Project Runway called.
Karen: Do you have any advice for how to respond when life delivers a new opportunity?
Tim: When something good comes, it will always feel like a risk at first. I never thought there would be a Season 2 of Project Runway, let alone a Season 12. Not a single day goes by that I don’t pinch myself and say, “I can’t believe this is my life.”
Karen: Sometimes on Project Runway, when you don’t like what a designer is developing or you think it’s badly made, you might say it’s “crafty.” Now, around Etsy, “craft” is a good word. Isn’t the construction of clothes a craft?
Tim: Absolutely. I revere the world of craft. A lot of what is wrong with art today is that there is simply no evidence of skill or craft in it. On Project Runway, I will be critical if the work does not have the sophistication and refinement that I believe it should have. “Happy hands at home,” is what I sometimes say if it has failed to rise to the level of execution that wows us. So absolutely, I revere craft, but not “crafty,” which is a word I sometimes use for poor execution or embellishments that don’t correspond to the concept.
Karen: Any advice on how to audition successfully for Project Runway?
Tim: I’d be thrilled to have Etsy people audition. My advice? You need to know who you are as a designer, have a point of view, and own it. I just finished home visits with the designers this season, and each designer believed so intensely in what they are doing. They all said, “I don’t care if I win, I know this is me.” You can’t worry about what the judges will love. If there ever was a fickle quartet, it’s the Project Runway judges.
Karen: Let’s talk about fashion. If you watch fashion television or read magazines, there’s a lot of emphasis on trends. But there’s another school of thought that puts personal style first. What is your position on this?
Tim: I am very loud about calling myself the anti-trend guy. I am constantly telling women and men it’s only good if it works for you. Do a closet analysis. Ask yourself, “What do I wear, what do I not wear? What will multi-task?” I profoundly believe in shopping on a budget. I am also quite cynical about trends.
Karen: Are these ideas connected to why you wrote Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible?
Tim: Fashion Bible is the book I wanted to write since I became chair of fashion design at Parson’s. At that time, no course in fashion history was offered. The department didn’t want students to know fashion history because they didn’t want them to be influenced. Are you kidding? I was horrified. We developed a three semester required sequence of fashion history, but so many of the available books were snooze stuff. I wanted to write something accessible and relatable.
Karen: Your book, Gunn’s Golden Rules, is very much concerned with manners. Could you talk about the role of manners in business and personal life?
Tim: One of the few things we have any power and control over is our own behavior. I believe so profoundly in good behavior. We should be thoughtful and responsible, we should think about others, and treat others the way we want to be treated. When you take the high road, you put yourself in a better position vis-à-vis that other person and yourself. When I do it, I feel more buoyant. Just be careful that you don’t take the high road so high you get a nosebleed.
Karen: Your “It Gets Better” video is very moving and speaks for itself, but is there anything more you would like to say about it?
Tim: In some ways the message in that video is related to what we have been saying about the artisans and designers on Etsy. Life is a big collaboration. We can’t navigate the world alone successfully. We need good people around us, and we need to enlist them when we need help. This is especially important when you are in an incubator alone. I was a sculptor who worked in a studio alone, and I know those feelings. We need an outlet and we should surround ourselves with healthy people. We don’t need people around us who are soul-suckers.
Karen: For those who do work alone, do you have advice on how to self-critique?
Tim: I believe in the self-critique. But you must clear your head to do it. Go to a movie, take a walk, get out of the studio, feel refreshed and unencumbered. Another set of eyes can be helpful, but you must know that person will be a truth teller and will genuinely look at your work critically and analytically, or you will wind up quasi-delusional.
Karen: You know, you could visit Etsy sometime. They’re just over in Brooklyn…
Tim: I would love to visit Etsy!
Karen: Maybe you could do some kind of Etsy-style handmade challenge some day…
Tim: That’s a great idea. We could call the episode “Craft, not crafty!” Seriously, I will speak to the producers about it. I’d love to do it.