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.
MORE ARTICLES BY THE AUTHOR
- A Dishy Tale of Outrageous Fashion Divadom From Project Runway‘s Tim Gunn
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- Why, When It Comes to Fashion, Comfort Is Overrated
- Read an excerpt from Gunn’s Golden Rules and find out how Tim Gunn’s “make it work” philosophy came to be
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PHOTOGRAPH OF TIM GUNN BY HENRY LEUTWYLER