SchoolArts Room

Off the Runway with Tim Gunn

By Nancy Walkup, posted on Mar 12, 2015

Since we didn’t have room in the April issue of SchoolArts magazine to publish Cassie Stephens’ entire interview with Tim Gunn, we are sharing it here. Tim Gunn will be a keynote speaker at NAEA New Orleans. I asked Cassie to interview Tim because of her unique talent for dressing as an art teacher. She seemed the appropriate choice. The fantastic illustration here is by Rama Hughes.

Tim Gunn

So most of y’all know that I had the wonderful opportunity to interview the one and only Tim Gunn. Way back in the fall, Nancy Walkup, editor of SchoolArts magazine, asked me if I’d like to conduct the interview and I jumped at the chance. She introduced Tim and I via email, even sending him the article that featured some of my stitched up artist dresses.

The morning of our interview, I took a half day from school to give him a call in the quiet of my sewing room. We spent an hour just chatting away (and by “chatting,” I mean me sounding like a blubbering idiot and Tim sounding, well, Tim-tastic). I was only able to share with you a small glimpse of the interview in the article. Today, I thought I’d share our chat in its entirety. Enjoy!

Tim Gunn: I love your work!

Cassie Stephens: Oh, thank you, that’s very kind of you.

TG: I couldn’t be more sincere. I love it that it’s very innovative. You’re marrying art and design and it’s very believable. Usually when I see work that falls into that category, which can be rather broad, it looks so forced and contrived and silly that it’s just so unbelievable. I’m a big fan.

CS: Thank you so much. I have a feeling that I’d be the first one to get the “costume-y” comment.

TG: (laughs) Don’t be too sure!

CS: Oh, no, you’ve not seen the rest of my work! But thank you so much, that means a tremendous amount to me.

TG: Well, you’re more than welcome, I’m just happy you are making this work and presenting it to the world.

CS: Ok, I was just curious, where did you get your amazing sense of style?

TG: Oh, well, actually, you flatter me. It’s been a long and very winding road, to be perfectly honest. And the style that I will say that I have embraced now is entirely attributable to a costume designer by the name of Rita Ryack. In fact, I think she’s been nominated for several Oscars—she may even have won. When I was doing the Smurfs movie in 2009, Rita was the costumer. And she said to me, we had a talk on the phone before I arrived on the set, “Oh, what are you talking about, I would never dream of telling you how to dress, you’re Tim Gunn! Just bring your own clothes and we’ll figure things out.” So that’s what I did and we taped for a day. I got home at about 10 o’clock that night and when I got home, my phone rang and it was Rita. She said, “I just looked at today’s rushes and your clothes aren’t good enough.”

CS: Oh my! I can’t believe someone would have the nerve to say that to Tim Gunn!

TG: I don’t know that I’ve ever told this story. And I was aghast and I didn’t think, I said, “Well, this is what I have.” And I’ll be blunt with you, it was all Banana Republic. I’m a huge fan of the brand and it’s affordable. I was a pauper teacher for most of my life and I’m used to working with a budget. So Rita said, “I’m going to go shopping in the morning, meet me at the tailor at Midtown in the afternoon and we’ll make it work,” as I say.

So I arrived at the tailor, I was taken into the dressing room and before I even tried things on, I was looking at the price tags and I came out of the dressing room and I said to Rita, holding up the price tag, “This suit is $4000, I’m not going to wear this!” She said, “Put it on.” She was very dictatorial and I was looking at a shirt that was $450 and this was more than my suit cost! And we had a battle. My objections primarily being about cost but also she was doing this crazy pattern mixing with me and I said, “I really don’t want to be your dress up doll! I like who I am.” And she was a steamroller: “Try it on. Try it on. You don’t have to wear it, try it on.” And the other thing that she did to me and it’s something that I have done to myself but would never wear them, she jabbed a pocket square into the breast pocket of my jacket. I said, “That’s it, I cannot do this.” She said, “What are you talking about?!” and I told her, I said, “I own a dozen pocket squares because I actually like them and I like how they look on other people.” And I’ve done many experiments with this. I’ll put the suit on my bed, I’ll put the pocket square in and I’ll think, you know that looks pretty good! Then I’ll put on the jacket, look in the mirror and think, “You look like an ass.”

I said, “I feel crazy enough with all of these patterns.” At any rate, I broke through a wall, suddenly, I loved what she’d done, I loved the new me. I was no longer in solids and neutrals. But then the problem was, the only way to replicate this was to go shopping at Bergdorfs and Saks and Barney’s and spend a fortune on clothes. And I’m always supplying my own wardrobe, with the exception of the Smurfs movie because she didn’t like my clothes but, um, I’m responsible for everything that I wear. So I would feel physically ill. To me, I loved the clothes but I was spending a fortune.

So about two and a half years ago, there was an article in the New York Times about a brand new store opening here in New York called, it has a horrible, horrible, horrible name but it’s a great brand. It’s called SuitSupply, one word. It’s out of the Netherlands so I think that it is something of a riff on English. It’s been a popular brand in Europe for years. It has 40 stores in Europe. New York was the first non-European outpost. I went in with a lot of cynicism and disbelief, to be honest and I was blown away. These suits are about $500 and they were equivalent to what I was spending $5000 on, I couldn’t believe it. And I’ve never been back to Bergdorfs, Barney’s or Saks since. So it’s Rita Ryack responsible for my, I’ll call it my ascension.

CS: I noticed when you all were in Rome, you had on a very spiffy suit. It was a plaid with a vest underneath and I thought, “Wow, look at Tim!”

TM: Oh, thank you. I will say SuitSupply has been so wonderfully supportive. And they have offered repeatedly to provide wardrobe for Runway and I have repeatedly declined because, I’ll tell you, I don’t like free stuff. There’s something about it that just bugs me and I feel beholden and I don’t want to feel that way. I’d much rather talk enthusiastically about a brand and not have people later find out, “Oh, well, they’re giving him clothes!” No, they’re not.

CS: That’s very interesting. I think most people would assume that your clothes were bought for you.

TM: Exactly! But I can’t do that. Whenever anyone offers to give me something, whatever it may be, some item of apparel I always say, “Look, I have great respect for the brand” if I do, otherwise I wouldn’t say anything, “but, no thank you. I’ll go buy it myself.”

CS: So, if I send you a Campbell’s soup can suit, you’re going to reject that?

TM: (laughs) Well, we have a different relationship. Now whether I would wear it or not is another matter.

CS: I was doing a little bit of research. And you have been an actor, a voice actor, you’re an author, a fashion consultant, a TV personality, I mean, you’ve done it all, it seems. What do you feel like is your proudest accomplishment?

TM: Oh, my proudest accomplishment without hesitation is repositioning the fashion department at Parsons. It was the most difficult challenge I’ve ever been presented with and it’s what I’m proudest of.

CS: I read that took you 29 years, is that right?

TM: 24 of them at Parsons. And the last 7 and a half I was chair of the fashion program. But the reason it was such an incredible challenge was because it was much more than examining a curriculum and saying, “Gee, this hasn’t changed in 50 years, let’s change it.” There was pedagogy attached to how the curricular content was delivered and the whole place was a mess. And I never dreamed it was such a mess when I received the assignment. I knew it was going to be a challenge I just didn’t know how great a challenge but that’s what I’m proudest of, honestly. And I wouldn’t have the courage to do it today. I just wouldn’t.

CS: It was that difficult of an undertaking?

TG: It was. And what propelled me forward the entire time was, “What’s best for the students?” And that was the question I constantly asked myself. Because the faculty, not all of them but way too many of them, their response to any probing that I did about content was, “This is the way it’s always been.” I know that! But why are we doing it today and why is it relevant to this industry today? So at any rate, that is definitely what I’m proudest of.

CS: When I was reading about that, it made it sound like, well you did, you completely revamped the curriculum, you breathed new life into it. What do you feel like were some of the most important changes? I ask because as art teachers, we are always looking at our curriculum and trying to figure out what’s best for the students.

TG: I’ll tell you, I’ve been on a number of curriculum review committees for other design schools. So it’s been interesting, I’ve been on the other side of the process as well where I’m not looking at my own program, I’m looking at the program of other schools, other people, really. The biggest change was taking away from the program what I thought was the jewel in the crown. It was a program called the designer critic program. It was founded at Parsons in 1948. Many other schools copied it, in fact, many schools still engage in it. And what it was was a program that brought in top tier designers and had them work with small groups of students where the outside designer is the master and students are the apprentice. And when I took over the fashion program in 2000, those people included Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, I mean really illustrious names and they’re also alumni. So they had been through the program, they had loyalties to it and I was looking at this thing, thinking, initially, proudly, “This is so great, this such a wonderful opportunity.” And then I realized it was infantilizing the students and didn’t really care about who they were creatively.

CS: So maybe they were just copying? Or trying to mimic the style of those they were learning from?

TG: Well, they were not involved in the decision making for what they were actually making. They make one garment a semester so they would work with a different designer critic each semester and we had 10 different designers a semester in a class of 70. So each designer would work with 7. I’ll give you an example: there were several stages of this process. And I’ll use Donna, unfortunately, I’m going to use her as a bad example and she’s not, she’s actually one of the strongest critics we ever had, in my view. So Donna would come in and present concepts. And say, “This is the theme, this is the direction I want this to go in, so do illustrations and technical flats and I’ll be back in a week.” They do that, she comes back, she looks at the drawings and there will be 40 – 50 from each student. She’s not mixing and matching across students, but within one student’s body of work, she says, “Okay, we’ll take this jacket, we’ll put it with this pant and with this top. We’ll do this and we’ll do that.” And the student’s basically a cypher. So the student’s not involved in any of this decision-making. Then the next phase is the muslin proto-type. So she says, “l’ll be back in two weeks and I’ll review the muslins.” We have the muslins on the models and Donna would sit there with a pair of scissors and cut it up! She’ll alter the proportions, she’ll be pinning the arm and shoulder in a different way, and there’s no dialog as to why. Why is this happening? There’s no dialog at all! So, then new muslins are made and it’s time for fabric selection. Rather than sending the students to Mood, the designers would bring in fabric! Now, let me add another dimension to this, since you’re a teacher, you’ll appreciate this, the other dimension was the instructors and the most adept students sewed all the final garments.

Cassie, the place was hemorrhaging! And I thought I cannot do this again. Oh and there’s a whole other aspect to this designer critic thing which had to do with waiting. So, I’ll go back to Donna. Donna was coming in to look at the muslins and her office calls and says, “Donna is tied up Moulin, doing fabric research and she can’t come in for another 10 days.” So, nothing could happen. The faculty had no authority over the designs, the students certainly had no authority, so everyone just waits. And I thought this is repugnant! Not only is this a waste of everyone’s time, it’s a terrible waste of the student’s talent! And, 10 percent of the faculty and all of the administration that I inherited, their refrain whenever I would say that the students weren’t challenged, how this was a waste of their time, they’re so much more capable, their refrain was always, “No, they’re not. They’re a bunch of dummies.” Can you imagine? And I would say, “What motivates you to get up in the morning and come in here if you really believe they are a bunch of dummies?” So I’m horrified by that and the students had just been undervalued. I had very long-winded responses to these sorts of things.

CS: That’s fascinating. I would have never imagined that any college teaches, what I would imagine, teaches creativity and growth and creating from one’s own ideas was run like that. And for so many years.

TG: I know! Well, I wrote a manifesto that was for the dean and I thought, you know what? The faculty needs to read this. It was 7 – 10 pages long. It was a state of the state of the union, basically. And, among the things that I said was, this is not a design school. This is a dress making program. And that all has to change. By repositioning with this collection, it was really an acknowledgment of how much the American fashion industry has changed. At the time the designer critic program was founded, leading a fashion program, you were not going to go out and start your own line. You were going to work for another designer. So this was the correct thing to, it was responsible. But by the time we hit the 90’s, it was a dusty old dinosaur. I wasn’t interested in the students merely get a job, I wanted them to lead the industry. You need to be lofty when you are in education, you need to think high and lofty. And I’ll add, when I took the designer critic program away, the industry went crazy with rage.

CS: Were all the fashion schools run in a similar manner?

TG: No. Not at all. But there were so many alumni in the industry that thought I was bashing their alma mater and taking away the core of their own studies. And, well, I was (laughs)! But it needed to be done! It’s fashion!  With any design education, it has to change and this program had not changed in 50 years. The following fall, which happened to be 2001, I was summoned to the dean’s office and there were four designer critics with the dean. And I thought, “Oh, God.” So the dean and, god bless him, said, “I summoned Tim because I wanted him to hear me tell you that this is a big experiment and we’re going to see where it takes us. If it’s a disaster, we can go back to the designer critic program or we can try something else, but I stand behind him on this.” And I thought, bless you, dean! There were decenters throughout that entire year about this new program. And then when we had our senior fashion show, they came up to me and they said, “We never thought the students were capable of this, it was phenomenal, and never go back.” So once they saw, they believed.

CS: That’s amazing. So much of our curriculum changes a lot. A lot of it when I was in school, in the late 90’s was teaching the children about artists who are no longer alive and then having them replicate or copy that work. And that sound similar to what you are saying except we are educating children. But it’s the same kind of concept. Since, that’s changed. Now I think it’s important to teach art history, but I had a student ask me before, “Are all the artists dead?” And I thought, oh my goodness, what have I done?

TG: My hats off to you, Cassie, you are also listening to your students. And synthesizing what they have to say and making judgements, “Well, do I make some alterations here or do I not?” When I stepped into the fashion program at Parsons, you’ll love this, there was no fashion history. Why? The response was we don’t want the students to be influenced. What do you mean, “Not be influenced”?! Good design is cultural, historic and it’s economical and policital. What do you mean? So I put in place a three semester fashion history that was required of every student. I mean, everyone had to take it. And it transformed things in the department. It gave the students and understanding of their own place in this greater rubric of discovery. When you tell the history of fashion, in any design field, you are telling world history in a matter of speaking because it is relevant to society and culture and historic events.

CS: I just cannot believe what an undertaking Parsons was. I can understand why that was your proudest accomplishment.

TG: And I’ll tell you, there was great consternation even on the student end. When we had our first fashion show with the new program, in the past, since each student made one garment a semester, there would be 140 looks walking the runway. If you rehearse, you could have a show in 30 minutes but that’s still a long show. And suddenly, we had over 500 looks. You can’t have a show with 500 looks, that’s preposterous! So there was editing that was not done by me it was done by an outside jury. So when I posted what was in and what was out, the students and the faculty went berserk that they wrote a petition to the dean demanding my resignation. There was all this placating to do. I wasn’t apologizing, I was explaining. You’re living in a delusional world. This is not the world operates. The following year, they were even more organized and prepared. Hell with going to the dean, they went to the president. They went to Women’s Wear Daily and went to the main fashion editor and talked about me. About how awful this whole thing is and how it’s got to change and the editor, being a responsible journalist, called me and we had a long talk. The irony was, the day that the story was published, was the day of the second year of this new iteration and it was on the cover. I got through it all.

CS: I can see why you say you wouldn’t do it again. You were very brave. It sounds as though you made a lot of enemies. But all for the best, all of the sake of your students.

TG: Yes. Absolutely. And it’s helped transform this industry.

CS: One thing that I admire about you, and I’ve only been able to see it on Project Runway, of course, is the way you talk to those designers in such a way that you are candid, you’re sincere but you are never hurtful. How is that done? Where did you learn that skill?

TG: I had some bad experiences and I learned from them. Consequently, it’s more second nature to me now but for a number of years, before I would say anything to a students, I would play it through in my head and think, “How would I react if these words were presented to me?” If you are perceived as being harsh, meanspirited or unhelpful, the student shuts down like a garage door and discredits you and doesn’t allow you back in. Then you’ve lost someone. And, as a teacher, that’s the worst thing that could possibly happen, to lose a student. So I’ve learned through trial and error. In my experience, the two most difficult students in class are the weakest and the strongest. Because you have a responsibility to the weakest and hopefully they will ascend, and you have a responsibility to the strongest. When I inherited the fashion program at Parsons, the strongest students were sample hands to the weaker students. And I was like, “Wait a minute, no! This is not acceptable.” So we had the faculty making clothes and these strong students making clothes for other students? Absolutely not, they need to be pushed further. I say that because for students to present fabulous work, I have a responsibility to them to push them to take their work further. Instead of just saying, “Oh this is great, keep doing it.” When I make the rounds on Project Runway, when we begin with 16 designers, one round takes 4 ½ to 5 hours.

CS: So you spend about 30 minutes chatting with each one about their design?p>

TG: Well, it’s closer to 20 minutes because then we have to reposition cameras, everyone needs to move. I’d love to be able to navigate the room seamlessly, just naturally. Once I land at a designers table, it’s all me but before then, we are all starting to reposition, the director is looking at everything on the monitor. So it’s about 5-7 minutes between each critic so it takes a long time. If you watch the show, you think I’m with a designer for 30 seconds.

CS: So who are the hardest students to teach?

TG: I always tell my students that the worst characteristic anyone can possess is stubbornness. Because it doesn’t allow you to let anything in and you must. You’ve got to be a sponge. And it’s everyone’s downfall, even on Project Runway. Stubbornness gets them nowhere.

The first year in the collections at Parsons, there were 14 students who were completely eliminated from the show. When I met with the students, I said to those 14, I want you to know about the decision making here. I said, collectively, between the 14 of you, it wasn’t that the designs were bad, although sometimes they were; it wasn’t that the execution was poor, although sometimes it was; it wasn’t that the installation was bad but sometimes it was. There’s one common denominator between the 14 of you and it was stubbornness. You would let nothing in, you wouldn’t budge, you would not let go of your idea, you wouldn’t even examine it critically and objectively from afar; you were stubborn! And it’s come back to bite you.

CS: That being said, who is an ideal student for you? I guess one that is a sponge.

TG: One that who would have intense curiosity about the world one who is tenacious in horning their craft, one who is equally tenacious about excellence and one who can look at their work critically and objectively, that’s the ideal. And that’s certainly where I have always tried to push my students.

CS: I think that has to be taught. If you wait around for a sponge to come, you are going to be waiting a long time. So instilling that in students is very difficult. Do you have advice on how to do that?

TG: In my experiences, that first day of class when I am attempting to access a class, I raise the bar beyond the grasp of what I feel is the highest student among them. Because if you place the bar of expectation in a place that is really attainable, that’s as far as the students will go. If you raise it well over their heads, they are going to exceed even their own expectations of even themselves. That’s the barometric gage, that’s the benchmark. That’s been my guide through all my many years of teaching and it’s worked for me.

CS: Speaking for us, I mean, we are teaching a class about creativity. What I find so wonderful about what we do, is that the answer isn’t in the back of the book. It’s all about them, the students, really. What I find is that when a student gets it, they understand what’s really at the core of this creative process, it helps them in their other studies. It unshackles them, it’s liberating.

And there you have it, friends! My interview with Tim Gunn. What can I say? This interview speaks to the amazing teacher and person that is this man. I'm so thankful to him for agreeing to this interview and, of course, to Nancy Walkup of SchoolArts magazine for asking me to chat with him. I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed the interview!