Behind the Scenes of Project Runway With Tim Gunn

Playing it safe is never really safe, says Tim Gunn, cohost of Project Runway and author of Gunn’s Golden Rules. Risk taking in fashion is fun, and risk taking in our careers is essential. Here he describes how he took a chance and became involved with the now-successful TV show Project Runway.

How I became involved in Project Runway is a funny thing. The producers were looking for a consultant because they knew little about the fashion industry. They had produced Project Greenlight, about the film business, so this was a new world for them. A few people had given them my name, so they called me at Parsons.

I will tell you that I had my snob hat on as I was talking to them on the phone. Fashion reality? I thought. That sounds disgusting. Who’s telling them to call me — my enemies?

I was reluctant to meet with them, but I agreed to go. Truth be told, I was a little curious. The meeting went very well. I was instantly more interested when they said they wanted to work with real fashion designers. I thought, At least there’s some integrity operating here.

Then they asked me the question that, upon reflection, I realized they were using to get people. “How would you feel if we told you we wanted the designers to design and create a wedding dress in two days?”

“Well,” I said, very matter-of-factly, “they’d have to design and create a wedding dress in two days.”

They looked at each other meaningfully.

“Did I give you the wrong answer?” I asked.

“No,” they said. “You’re just the first person who said it could be done.”

“Why?” I asked. “What have you been hearing?”

“Everyone says it would take days, a minimum of a week, that they’d need help, that the process is so complicated . . .”

“Look,” I said, “in two days you’re not going to get an Oscar de la Renta wedding gown. You’ll probably get a basic column without sleeves, but it will be a wedding dress.”

They looked at each other again, and I thought I saw them smile.

I left the meeting feeling really excited about the project and hoping they’d pick me.

Then I waited and waited. I was feeling disappointed when they hadn’t called a week later. But then a couple of days after that they did call, and they said they wanted to work with me. I was thrilled.

We worked together for six months, and there were just two major points of disagreement. During their fashion-industry interviews, they had become convinced that the designers shouldn’t make their own clothes. In this scenario, there would be a sample room full of seamstresses and pattern drafters who would do the actual fabrication.

“Unless the audience sees the designers getting real and metaphorical blood on their hands, why would it care about them?” I asked. “Also, whom does Heidi send home? If there’s any problem with the garment, the designer can just blame it on the seamstress.”

We know I won that. The other point of disagreement had to do with the workroom. Originally, it was going to be in the Atlas apartments, where the designers would live. The belief was that they should have twenty-four-hour access to it. I said that would make the show a stamina test beyond the stamina test it already is. I insisted they be forced to go home at a specific time and then return the next morning.

Not only was it marginally better for them mentally and physically, it would give them some fresh perspective on their work, a break from what I call the monkey house.

I won that, too. (Essentially, the Bravo show Launch My Line is all the things I didn’t want for Project Runway.)

In the end, they didn’t have the budget to outfit Atlas with a loft like workroom, so they were scrambling for an alternate space.

“Do you want to look at Parsons?” I asked.

Once the show was a success, people started speculating about how Parsons scored such a huge coup. Well, now it can be told!

I called downtown to Parsons headquarters and said we wanted the uptown design building for filming over the summer. I asked what the feeling would be and how, if it was
indeed okay, we would facilitate it. The auditorium space where the judging happens had been used by outside people conducting seminars, and, ahem, sample sales. A staff person, Margo, was in charge of it. We talked to her about it, and Project Runway made a deal to pay the fee plus the cost of extra security and all the other expenses associated with keeping the building open after hours. Everyone was happy, or so I thought.

Two days before wrapping, one of the university’s executive VPs called and yelled at me. “I’ve just heard about this show!” she ranted. “You’re putting this entire institution at risk!”

I didn’t see the danger, but she kept insisting I had singlehandedly destroyed the college.

“We’re coming up and stopping this right now,” she said.

I went to see Margo, who had received the same call I had.

“What do we do?” she asked, starting to panic.

I thought about it for a second and then said, “I’ve been in academia long enough to know that when they say, ‘We’re on our way up there,’ it will be a couple of days.”

Sure enough, wrapping was long finished by the time the VPs arrived with their torches and pitchforks to shut it all down.

But I was still kicking around, so they took their anger out on me. I was royally raked across the coals by the Legal Department and by the president’s office. They scolded and shamed and told me what a disgrace I was and how much jeopardy I’d put the college in. Finally, I asked, “What did I do wrong? I called and asked you about it. You said to work it out with Margo. We worked it out. You got a hefty chunk of change. What’s the problem?”

Naturally, when the show was a big success, they were congratulating themselves on how bright they’d been to get in on the ground floor. I didn’t remind them how they’d almost fired me over it. I just said, “You’re right! Good job!” Take the high road.

The Runway producers were very hesitant to have me go on the auditions, because it was a lot of time and they weren’t paying me, but I really wanted to go anyway. I was curious and wanted the show to succeed, and I said, “I’ve invested this much time and energy into this project. I’d like to stay involved through each phase and help get the right people for this.”

So I followed them around to see the applicants. It was really interesting, and very hard work. We were doing twelve-hour days, looking through hundreds of portfolios and garments. In New York City, I did prescreenings out in the courtyard of the Soho Grand Hotel, where the interviews were being conducted, and I saw a procession of odd people who just wanted to be on a television show. They had brought clothing, but in some cases they were items from their closets, or pieces they had designed but not made. In some cases there were no clothes at all, just some drawings or photographs. It was a big potpourri.

I would say three-quarters were design students, and while I don’t object to that in theory, they’re still in an incubator. They almost never have their own point of view yet.

Some of the future stars of the show were in that line, and I had no early indication that they would make it on the show. Jay McCarroll, who went on to win Season 1, arrived pulling a wagon containing what I recall were dolls. Austin Scarlett was in the line looking incredibly androgynous and strange. Looking at the two of them, I thought: Is this going to be a freak show? But of course we wound up discovering some amazing talent, including Austin and Jay.

In Miami, on the last day of auditions, the producers came to my hotel room and said, “We think we need a mentor to be with the designers in the workroom. Would you be interested?”

I thought about it for a second and then asked, “Do I have to live with them?”

They laughed and said no, I wouldn’t have to live with them.

“In that case, sure!” I said.

When I called my mother to tell her I was being considered for a TV show, she responded, “But you’re so old.”

“I think I’m meant to be a counterpoint to the young designers,” I said. What I was thinking was, Gee, thanks, Mom.

But even then I still had to prove myself. Bravo needed what’s called B‑roll of me talking on TV. Luckily, I had done a couple of little fashion-related interviews that they could look at, including one on CBS Sunday Morning. Based on that, they gave me a chance. As you know by now, I’ve always been shy. Project Runway was either going to kill me or cure me. But I thought it was a great opportunity. I had to just do it and hope I didn’t die from fright. It made it easier that I didn’t think I was actually going to be on camera much, if at all.

No one has ever said this, but I am pretty sure that the producers speculated that if they just sent the designers alone into the workroom with a challenge, no one would talk. They would just work, heads down and eyes on their garments, and the tops of these designers’ heads wouldn’t make for must-see television. Sending me in to probe and ask questions would at least elicit some dialogue.

Accordingly, the entire time we were taping, I had every confidence no one would ever see me or hear my voice. I thought they were cutting me out and just leaving in the designers’ responses. So I was very relaxed, assuming I was just a ghost on the cutting-room floor.

As we now know, they wound up leaving me in as a character. I was pretty shocked when I saw the first season and realized I was not a disembodied voice or a mere prompter. But I was happy with how smart the show was and how much it revealed about the creative process. The rest is history.

I was an unpaid consultant for the first two seasons, and then I signed with an agent and began being paid for my work, which made the situation even better.

People are often shocked to hear that I was unpaid for so long, but I did it for the love of it, and (please don’t read this, anyone associated with the show) I would do it again for free in a heartbeat. And it all worked out. My West Village apartment was falling apart, so even though I couldn’t afford it at the time, I joined a waiting list for a more expensive place called London Terrace Gardens on West Twenty-third Street. I was nervous that my name was going to come up before I could afford it, but luckily, it wasn’t until I was given the appointment at Liz Claiborne Inc. that my name was called, and by then I had the means to move.

Yes, those early days of Project Runway were hard work, but they were also deeply fulfilling. What if I’d said no because I wasn’t being paid? I would have turned my back on an incredible opportunity. I wanted to help them because I was concerned with the quality of the show. I wanted it to show reverence for this industry I love and prevent anyone from making a joke out of it. Luckily, the producers were all about quality and integrity. It was a great marriage.

What do they say: Do what you love and the money will follow? It’s always been true for me. I had no expectation of personal success through this show. I never expected there would be a second season, much less a seventh. And I never expected to get famous in a million zillion years. While we were making Season 1, I just thought, If nothing else, this is going to be great cocktail-party-conversation fodder.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Gunn is an American fashion consultant and television personality, best known as cohost of the Emmy-winning reality show Project Runway. He was the chair of the fashion design department at Parsons The New School for Design and is now the chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne. In his book Gunn’s Golden Rules (Copyright © 2010 by Tim Gunn Productions, Inc.), he shares personal secrets for “making it work” — in your career, relationships, and life — and dishy stories of fashion’s greatest divas, behind-the-scenes glimpses of Project Runway‘s biggest drama queens, and never-before-revealed insights into his private life.

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PHOTOGRAPH OF TIM GUNN BY HENRY LEUTWYLER

Tim Gunn

Why, When It Comes to Fashion, Comfort Is Overrated

Sure, oversize T-shirts feel soft on your body, says Tim Gunn, co-host of Project Runway and author of Gunn’s Golden Rules. But you know what’s genuinely comfortable? Being dressed appropriately for your surroundings.

Whenever I meet new people, almost without fail they say, “I was so afraid of what you’d say about my clothes!” The truth is: I really don’t take note of what other people wear unless their outfit blows my mind for good or for ill, and even in that case I will rarely say anything unless I’m asked.

When I was taping Extra! the other day, the camera guy said, “Oh God, I just know you’re going to be disappointed in what I’m wearing.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “You’re hoisting a camera and down on your knees and moving around. You need to be agile. It wouldn’t be right for you to be in a tailored suit! You’re dressed appropriately!”

I get a little shrill when I talk about it, because it seems like people are either too worried about what they have on or not worried enough. People are really intimidated by fashion, and as an educator and a fashion lover I think that’s such a shame.

Meryl Streep said in a 2009 Vanity Fair article that she was over trying to appeal to men. “I can’t remember the last time I really worried about being appealing,” she said.

I don’t totally believe that she doesn’t care. It is true that she’s really eschewed fashion. I think it’s smart, intellectual Meryl speaking, saying she’s too smart for style. But no one’s too smart for it. Providing we leave our cave, it matters to all of us.

When we look good, we feel better. That’s true for everyone. You feel better able to tackle the world. It’s not a good feeling going into an exam without having prepared, and it’s not a good feeling leaving the house without having dressed to be around people. Just the way it never rains when you have an umbrella, you’ll never run into people if you look fantastic. But go outside in pajamas, and you’ll run into every ex you have.

The key is not being dressy. The key is being appropriate. Someone at my neighborhood grocery store once said to me, “Wow, you really do wear jeans and a T‑shirt!”

“Yes,” I said, “at the grocery store.”

It’s all about context. I wear a suit to work, to weddings, to funerals, to the theater, and to church. When shopping at the grocery store or running errands, I have been known to wear jeans, because it’s totally appropriate. The jeans fit me and are clean, and I usually pair them with a jacket, but yes, jeans! Some people think of dressing up or being polite as a burden. They think having to wear a tie or use the right fork or send a thank-you card is a kind of shackle. To these people I say: Getting out of bed is a shackle. If you feel that way, stay in it! Invest in a hospital gurney and wheel yourself around on it when you need to go out.

I get very impatient with this whole “comfort issue” with clothing. Yes, you don’t feel as comfortable in clothes that fit you as you do in your pajamas and robe. That’s a good thing. You’re navigating a world where you need to have your wits about you. If you’re in a lackadaisical comfort haze, you can’t be engaged in the world the way you need to be.

Would I be more comfortable in a business meeting wearing my pajamas?

No! It would feel, honestly, very weird. I would think, Where’s my IV? When do I take my next meds?

Wanting to look good in public has to do with the respect that I have for myself and the respect that I have for the people around me. One of the things I love about New York City is how much people dress up for one another. Walking down the street is such a pleasure, because people are really turned out. Yes, it probably took them more than five minutes to get ready, but it was so worth it. They make the city a prettier place.

In her wonderful memoir D.V., Diana Vreeland (who was born exactly fifty years to the day before me — lucky me!) talks about how she prepared nightly for the arrival of her husband. She dressed up for him every single night:

Isn’t it curious that even after more than forty years of marriage, I was always slightly shy of him? I can remember his coming home in the evening—the way the door would close and the sound of his step . . . If I was in my bath or in my bedroom making up, I can remember always pulling myself up, thinking, “I must be at my very best.” There was never a time when I didn’t have that reaction — ever.

That’s kind of lovely, I think. It’s always better to err on the side of beauty over comfort. It might get tiresome in practice, but it’s a sweet idea.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Gunn is an American fashion consultant and television personality, best known as cohost of the Emmy-winning reality show Project Runway. He was the chair of the fashion design department at Parsons The New School for Design and is now the chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne. In his book Gunn’s Golden Rules (Copyright © 2010 by Tim Gunn Productions, Inc.), he shares personal secrets for “making it work” — in your career, relationships, and life — and dishy stories of fashion’s greatest divas, behind-the-scenes glimpses of Project Runway‘s biggest drama queens, and never-before-revealed insights into his private life.

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A Dishy Tale of Outrageous Fashion Divadom From Project Runway‘s Tim Gunn

Out-of-touch behavior is certainly nothing new to the fashion world, and Tim Gunn, author of Gunn’s Golden Rules, has an infinite number of less-than endearing stories where it morphs into outrageous divadom. Here he shares a one of his favorites about Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue.

In the summer of 2006, a writer named Robert Rorke called to interview me for a New York Post story about Project Runway. He asked me, “Of all the things you’ve seen since you’ve been in the fashion industry, what’s the one thing you will never forget?”

And I said, without hesitation, “That’s easy. Anna Wintour being carried down five flights of stairs from a fashion show.” He said, not surprisingly, “Tell me more,” and I told him what happened. He ran only one line about it, but I’ll tell you the extended version, including the ridiculous epilogue.

I was at Peter Som’s show at the Metropolitan Pavilion on West Eighteenth Street. It was held on the fifth floor, and there was one large freight elevator. Knowing Anna was a Peter Som fan and knowing she famously dislikes riding in elevators with other people, I thought, How will she ever get down? I didn’t have a seat so I was standing, coincidentally, in a place where I could see Anna sitting in the front row with a bodyguard on either side of her.

An announcement is made — “Ladies and gentlemen, please uncross your legs” — which they do so the people in the front row won’t accidentally trip the models walking by them and so
the photographers’ shots aren’t obscured. Anna is the only one who doesn’t uncross. Her foot’s sticking out there ready to put some unsuspecting model into the hospital. But anyway, the show ends. The models survive. And as the lights come up, bam, Anna’s gone!

I was there with a colleague from Parsons, and we had been discussing the will-she-or-won’t-she-take-the-elevator question, so we ran over to the elevator bay to see if Anna would deign to get on. She wasn’t there. Then we looked over the stairway railing. And what did we see but Anna being carried down the stairs. The bodyguards had made a fireman’s lock and were racing her from landing to landing. She was sitting on their crossed arms.

I ran to the window to see if they would put her down on the sidewalk or carry her to the car like that. They carried her to the car. And I thought: I will never forget this.

So the Post printed the following version of that story on July 9, 2006, a day that will live in infamy: “After leaving a fashion show held in a loft building with only one freight elevator, Gunn wondered how the Vogue editor, who doesn’t ride with mere mortals, would get downstairs. ‘Her two massive bodyguards picked her up and carried her down five flights of stairs and then — I looked out the window — they carried her into her car.’ ”

I didn’t think anything of it, but then the next day, Monday morning, Patrick O’Connell, Vogue‘s director of communications, called and left a message that I was to call Anna Wintour right away. I was too scared to call her back that day, but on Tuesday I called Patrick and was told, “Hold for Ms. Wintour.”

Forgive my language, but I’m thinking I’m about to have diarrhea, I’m such a wreck.

He comes back on the phone and says, “I’m terribly sorry. She’s unavailable at the moment.”

“I can’t handle the suspense,” I said. “Can you please tell me what this is in regards to?”

“Yes,” he said. “She wants you to have the Post print a retraction of your statement.”

“That would imply it’s not true,” I said.

“It’s not true,” he said.

“It’s very true,” I said, “and I can tell you exactly when it happened.” Thankfully, I keep a diary. I looked it up and told him the exact date, time, and location.

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” he says. “I’ll get back to you.”

There are then many more phone calls, each one insisting upon a retraction or at least an apology. I refused.

“I didn’t malign her character!” I insisted, and still do. “My statement was a matter of fact.”

“Ms. Wintour knows how to work a Manolo,” Patrick finally said, angrily.

“Is that what this is all about?” I asked. “If you want an apology from me, here it is: ‘I apologize if I implied that Ms. Wintour doesn’t know how to work a Manolo.’ The goal for her departure from the fashion show was clearly speed, and that’s what she received from these bodyguards. Furthermore, I wasn’t alone in seeing this. Dozens of people saw it.”

In his next call to me, he said, “We’re going to have to get the lawyers involved.”

By this time I am not only a ball of anxiety, I’m also spitting mad. I said, “Well then, you’ll please permit me to get some corroborating witnesses.”

As luck would have it, that afternoon a fashion executive was in my office. He asked me why I looked so distraught, and I said, “I’ve been through hell. That person over there at Vogue is threatening me over a quote in the Post.”

I told him the story.

There was a pause, and then he burst out laughing. “I was at that show!” he said. “I saw exactly what you saw!”

He grabbed the office phone and called Patrick right then. Just like that, my nightmare was over. He told Patrick that he, among many others, could attest to the by‑now-infamous stairs story. After days of torment, I was off the hook.

But I knew Anna still must have been seething, so I decided I was going to take the high road. I called Richard, the florist I use, told him the basic situation, and asked for a fabulous and tasteful arrangement of all-white flowers to be sent to her office. I got on the subway and delivered a card of my stationery, on which I said something like, “I apologize if my comments in the Post caused you any unrest or unease. It was never my intention. With respect and regards, Tim Gunn.”

There was never any acknowledgment, but I felt like I’d done everything I could to put the matter right. And thankfully, I never heard a peep about any of this again. When I met Patrick in person sometime later, I told him, “I am so happy to see you. I was afraid that Anna had hurled the floral arrangement at your head and you were in a coma somewhere. It’s good to see that you are alive and well.”

He laughed, and I felt like I had closure on the whole ordeal. But it made me think that perhaps the devil really does wear Prada. I couldn’t believe how sweet she seemed in that great movie The September Issue. Of course, she did know the cameras were on . . .

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Gunn is an American fashion consultant and television personality, best known as cohost of the Emmy-winning reality show Project Runway. He was the chair of the fashion design department at Parsons The New School for Design and is now the chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne. In his book Gunn’s Golden Rules (Copyright © 2010 by Tim Gunn Productions, Inc.), he shares personal secrets for “making it work” — in your career, relationships, and life — and dishy stories of fashion’s greatest divas, behind-the-scenes glimpses of Project Runway‘s biggest drama queens, and never-before-revealed insights into his private life.

MORE ARTICLES BY THE AUTHOR

LEARN MORE

PHOTOGRAPH OF TIM GUNN BY HENRY LEUTWYLER

Tim Gunn

Fashion Rules to Follow — and Break — From Tim Gunn of Project Runway

You can wear anything, as long as you wear it well. It just comes down to silhouette, proportion, and fit. At every age. But there are a few “rules” you should keep in mind. From Gunn’s Golden Rules by Tim Gunn, co-host of Project Runway

I love writing my fashion advice column for Marie Claire. Those are real questions. One question I received was from a woman who said she had a Hervé Leger dress in dark purple, which I assume was the famous Leger color aubergine. She was wearing it to a swanky Beverly Hills engagement party with a beige patent-leather peep-toe stiletto. Her mother said her clutch should match the shoes, and my questioner asked if that was indeed the case.

I began by saying I love Hervé Leger and I love aubergine, but why would you wear beige with that? Matching is hard. Make it easy on yourself. Go with a metallic! Beige dresses things down. Really, a good rule is no beige after five.

If it’s after five, people call it “nude,” but that’s not in my vocabulary because it’s a racist color name. Depending on what your skin tone is, that beigy color may or may not be nude.

Now, wearing a true nude, meaning matching your skin color, is a whole different matter. You usually look odd, I think. It’s like a body suit even when it’s a voluminous dress. Kirsten Dunst does that all the time, and I don’t consider her a fashion role model. (Sorry, Kirsten.)

You don’t know what colors work for you until you try a bunch of things on. If you’re pale and you look at Iman and think, That color’s fantastic on her. I’m going to get that dress, stop right there!

Dark women are blessed in many ways, because they have so many more colors that look great on them. Lighter women don’t know it, but there aren’t as many colors that work with fair skin.

So try to think outside the box and try on colors you would never consider. You’ll probably be surprised that some unexpected color — persimmon, coral, or teal — works like magic with your skin.

And don’t worry about the so‑called rules of colors. The No White after Labor Day rule was meant to be broken. But it’s true that white is not very practical in New York City. I have a pair of white jeans that the J. Crew catalog convinced me to buy. What I learned once I put them on: thin white pants need to be lined, because otherwise they reveal the line between your leg and your underpants, and that’s not my favorite look. The jeans have languished in my closet.

What’s another “rule”: Don’t wear black and brown together? That’s ridiculous. You do have to be careful about the brown. It shouldn’t be tan or some midtone, but chocolate brown is really chic. I once saw a woman on the street wearing chocolate suede boots with black opaque tights and a black dress. She looked fantastic.

I will say that I think it’s funny that strangers take my fashion advice when my own family completely ignores it. Case in point: During the holiday season, my family wears Christmas sweaters every single day. Christmas sweaters! Is there a bigger fashion don’t?

But for those of you who do listen to me, here’s my general advice about keeping your wardrobe fresh: It’s helpful just to drop into stores and try things on for information whenever you think of it. It’s essential to get a sense of what cuts and colors look best on you, and you can’t always do that when you have to find a dress for a wedding during your lunch hour. You can learn so much just by asking yourself objectively, “Does this look good on me?”

Size is difficult, because different brands run small or large. So you’re likely to have a range, 8–10 say, or 2–4, or 14–16. But if you don’t spend the time figuring out your range, you’re likely to be very frustrated each time you go shopping, because you won’t even know what sizes to pick off the rack.

Figuring these things out is just a part of everyday life.

You know how I am about all these matters. You can reject any or all of what I say, obviously. These are just the things that I think are good rules of thumb for enjoying your life as a social being. I also have no problem if you want to find a cave and have someone roll a boulder in front of it. To each his own.

In a recent memoir about filming Some Like It Hot, the 1959 comedy with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis says at first he was resistant to dressing in drag for the role. He was a sex symbol and was embarrassed that he had to put on a dress. But then when he did, he had a new concern: He wasn’t pretty enough! He and his costar, Jack Lemmon, went back to the wardrobe people and demanded better makeup, higher heels, and bigger falsies. His logic: If he was going to be a girl, he was going to be a pretty girl, by God.

That’s how people should be about everything: whatever you’re doing, give it your all.

That’s one of the things I love about Project Runway. It’s about each designer being the best at whatever it is he or she wants to do.

Whenever I do makeovers, I like to bring out whatever it is in that person of which they are most proud. I hate almost all makeover shows, because they tend to make everyone look the same: still frumpy, but slightly more upscale and slightly more put together than before.

I like to learn about the person and to find out how she really wants to look, what energy she wants to put out into the world. You can see it in the eyes of the people at the end of the show: they feel like they had a hand in the process, and the look they end up with is really them. It’s not just a costume. It’s about who you are and how you want to be perceived.

When I did a photo shoot for More magazine, we had two female lawyers, very different body types. I asked one of them, Karen, “Do you think you’re Hillary Clinton?” All she had were these very masculine pantsuits. She looked so dowdy and off-putting. When I told her this, she said, “I’m fifty-four years old. Aren’t I supposed to be dowdy?”

“No! No! No!” I told her. I don’t believe anyone ever has to look dowdy, and it’s perplexing when they do.

But when it came down to what direction to take her in, I was confused. I took her sister aside and said, “Talk to me. Karen is working a very strong masculine look. In fact, is this who she is?” I didn’t want to put her in flowery prints if she was more of a truck-driver gal.

“I don’t think so,” she said, “but I’m confused by it, too.” This was interesting, because I’d half expected the sister to say, “Yes, she’s a diesel dyke.” And then we’d have worked with that. But that wasn’t the case here.

So I took Karen aside and said, “What’s going on here? Are these really the clothes you like wearing? Is this pantsuit you?”

“No” she told me, “but I don’t know how to be professional as a woman and not dress this way.” She was in court all the time and felt she had to convey authority. “I’d love to look more feminine, but I just don’t know how.”

In my first book, Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style, I talked about style mentors. It’s great to look around and find people in movies or books or pop culture whose style you want to emulate. Is it Audrey Hepburn, Debbie Harry, or Law & Order‘s Mariska Hargitay? It’s helpful to think of your icon when you are constructing your own personal style. But this lawyer was just looking to male lawyers to construct her look.

I told her, “You’re wearing menswear-tailored clothing. Matching jackets and pants. There are other ways to look professional, you know. Right now you don’t look professional. I wouldn’t be drawn to you — unless I saw you at a leather bar.”

Luckily, she was open to showing off her figure and trying new things. She instantly had a whole new world available to her. Well, the transformation was thrilling. She felt unshackled. She realized that it’s looking good that makes you comfortable and confident, not just wearing casual or shapeless clothing.

Now she has the courtroom in her pocket, because she looks so much more accessible and she’s so much surer of herself. And still she gets to wear her favorite leather pants on the weekend.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Gunn is an American fashion consultant and television personality, best known as cohost of the Emmy-winning reality show Project Runway. He was the chair of the fashion design department at Parsons The New School for Design and is now the chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne. In his book Gunn’s Golden Rules (Copyright © 2010 by Tim Gunn Productions, Inc.), he shares personal secrets for “making it work” — in your career, relationships, and life — and dishy stories of fashion’s greatest divas, behind-the-scenes glimpses of Project Runway‘s biggest drama queens, and never-before-revealed insights into his private life.

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PHOTOGRAPH OF TIM GUNN BY HENRY LEUTWYLER

Tim Gunn

Celebrities Behaving Badly: Inside Scoop From Tim Gunn of Project Runway

If you got rid of everyone in the fashion world who was high maintenance, says Tim Gunn, author of Gunn’s Golden Rules, there wouldn’t be many people left. But even if you’re in a crazy world like that, it doesn’t mean you have an obligation to drop your standards of behavior just to fit in. Here, he shares stories of terrible behavior by Isaac Mizrahi, Alexis and Martha Stewart, and others.

A celebrity who shall remain nameless announces to an underling, “I’d like a Diet Coke. I want a twelve-ounce glass and five ice cubes, each no bigger than three-quarters of an inch in length.” Once the Diet Coke arrives, the celebrity says, “These ice cubes are at least an inch, and I count six. This is unacceptable.” And fling! He throws the drink across the room.

In academia, too, you see this kind of outrageous behavior. I knew a dean who had soup delivered to his office. I once saw him bring a spoonful up to his mouth, scream, “This soup isn’t hot enough!” and hurl the container across his office onto a wall, which I noticed already had stains on it.

Is this really happening? I thought. But I was glad I saw it, because if someone had told me the story, I would say it couldn’t possibly be true.

What enables this kind of behavior? What allows people to think that they are permitted to behave that way? Don’t even get me started on Isaac Mizrahi. In my view, he’s one of the world’s biggest divas.

One time, Isaac threw a fit about a security guard from the second-floor showroom at Liz Claiborne Inc.’s Times Square offices. Why, you may ask? Was he stealing? Harassing guests? Showing up late? No, he was wearing brown.

Can you imagine having your senses so offended by something that it provokes such an extreme reaction?

You just never know what’s going to set people off. One time when I was on Martha Stewart’s show, she visited me in the greenroom. I threw out my arms to embrace her, but in lieu of a greeting she asked with a tone of horror, “Who let you in here with that?” She pointed to the Diet Coke I was drinking.

“No one,” I said. “Someone brought it to me.”

“W-what?” she stammered. “I don’t allow Diet Coke in this studio. It’s not to be anywhere around me. I’m going to find out who’s done this.”

And she stormed off. Then later she made an off-camera announcement to her audience about how they shouldn’t drink Diet Coke, either. She gave me a lecture in front of the audience about how bad Diet Coke is. Something about the chemicals? I couldn’t even focus on what she was saying because of how vehemently she was saying it.

About a year later, I was at a table with colleagues from Liz Claiborne Inc. for an event at which Martha was the honoree, so I offered up my Diet Coke story. They didn’t seem to believe me, and no one laughed. Everyone acted as if I’d made it up.

Later in the evening, Martha, while at the podium, pointed to me, and said, “Tim, I see you’re here! I hope you’re not drinking Diet Coke!”

My table exploded in laughter because they had the bizarre backstory. I think the rest of the crowd was a little confused.

Now, while we’re on the subject of Martha, who incidentally appeared in my first book as a fashion icon: Martha’s daughter, Alexis Stewart, strikes me as one of the angriest people I have ever met. Alexis and I did a commercial together for Martha’s Macy’s line. Whoever was directing the commercial was wise enough to have Alexis and me do our lines together before bringing Martha in.

Alexis kept cursing under her breath in anticipation of her mother coming, saying things like, “goddamned bitch,” almost as if she had Tourette’s syndrome. I was shocked that she could be so disrespectful toward her mother in front of total strangers. I also found it deeply ironic that the domestic goddess seems to have such an odd relationship with her daughter.

Speaking of irony: The domestic goddess and her daughter were at the Four Seasons for Thanksgiving dinner in 2009. I read Martha Stewart Living, and I always love looking at her calendar and seeing all the things she’s doing for Thanksgiving preparation: “Get the turkey” . . . “Make cranberry sauce.” The truth in this case was “Make reservation” . . . “Put on fancy clothes.” Not that I begrudge her a meal out. Sometimes even if you’re as domestic as Martha you’d just as soon let someone else whip up the Riesling gravy.

But back to the commercial shoot. We were out on a sound set in Queens and they’d totally re‑created Macy’s Herald Square at Christmastime, right down to the last detail. It was
magnificent. But when Martha first arrived at the studio, she took a producer aside and said, “I thought this was going to be a closed set. What are all these people doing here?”

“We’re supposed to be at Macy’s during the holidays,” he said. “They’re extras acting as customers. They’re shopping.”

Meanwhile, Alexis seems to be tensing up. I’ve always thought that having famous parents must be hard on a person, but there are ways around it: go into a completely different field, make your own way, change your name . . . anything to carve out a little space for yourself. But Alexis’s world seems to revolve around Martha. And yet she has appeared genuinely furious at her mother every time I’ve seen her. There’s something Grey Gardens–y about the two of them.

During one of our little breaks on the Macy’s commercial set, Martha gestured to the piles of linens and towels from her new collection and said, “Alexis, any of this you want for your apartment, please take it. I want to give you a housewarming present.” It seemed like a touching and generous gesture.

“I wouldn’t touch a single solitary item of this crap!” Alexis said, glowering.

Well, it rolled right off Martha. I thought, Yikes! She must get this all the time.

Abuse of power really can go both ways. If you’re a boss, a parent, or a child, it’s best to wield whatever power you have over your employees, children, or parents wisely. If you can’t be gracious, don’t spend time together. There’s no gun being held to your head that says you have to associate with people who make you crazy. My family may be a little eccentric, but I would never talk cruelly to them—and certainly not in front of other people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Gunn is an American fashion consultant and television personality, best known as cohost of the Emmy-winning reality show Project Runway. He was the chair of the fashion design department at Parsons The New School for Design and is now the chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne. In his book Gunn’s Golden Rules (Copyright © 2010 by Tim Gunn Productions, Inc.), he shares personal secrets for “making it work” — in your career, relationships, and life — and dishy stories of fashion’s greatest divas, behind-the-scenes glimpses of Project Runway‘s biggest drama queens, and never-before-revealed insights into his private life.

MORE ARTICLES BY THE AUTHOR

LEARN MORE

PHOTOGRAPH OF TIM GUNN BY HENRY LEUTWYLER

Tim Gunn