Tim Gunn in Conversation with Bud Mishkin

Streamed Live under the aegis of the 92nd Street Y

In the best fly-on-a-wall situation, despite Tim Gunn’s promoting his new Amazon Prime series Making the Cut, one feels in the presence of two smart, articulate, friends. Bud Mishkin has apparently interviewed his subject several times over the years. His own, easy, well researched style fits Gunn’s demeanor perfectly. Admiration and comfort seem mutual. Laughter is frequent. Both men, it should be noted, are wearing suits and ties, though we learn early on that Gunn has on only shorts and socks below the camera’s eye.

Tim Gunn taught and was then made head of The Fashion Department at Parsons School of Design, lending his skills well over 25 years, then joined Liz Claiborne  as Chief Creative Officer. Gunn became a public figure on Bravo’s Project Runway fashion competition during which he mentored designers with the kind of savvy, sensitivity, and diplomatic tough love that personifies memorable and influential advisors.

No matter how that show evolved, from capable designers to people featured for weird  and unusual character, from viable challenges to creating an ensemble out of products on  the shelves of a hardware store, the one constant was calm, elegant, solicitous Gunn who acted like ballast, never appearing to be anything less than his own man. You’ll be pleased to hear, he’s just like that out of context.

“Let’s get right to it,” Mishkin begins. “Fashions for staying at home. Has your basic ethic changed at all?”

“I’ve had a profound epiphany,” Gunn says. “I used to condemn the whole notion of comfort dressing. I get it now…” To minimize the “assault” of putting on restrictive clothes whose adhesion he compares to a wetsuit, Gunn periodically dresses in work clothes. “I feel more productive when I dress.”

A segue about fencing – Gunn and Mishkin’s daughter both take lessons – precedes addressing the new series. The journalist asks whether his guest and Heidi Klum are consciously trying to differentiate Making the Cut from its predecessor. “Absolutely…when Project Runway began in 2004, it was seminal. It’s changed considerably since then. We realize the bigger issue is branding. It can’t just be a sewing show. What’s your trajectory, what are your goals?” Gunn says he and Klum share a sense of humor that keeps working together buoyant.

Mishkin asks for clarification of how ‘be true to yourself and your brand, but also your surroundings’ might work. “Fashion designers as opposed to clothing designers are a barometric guide. They assimilate their environment,” Gun replies. With apt distinction, he notes that L.L. Bean hardly changes while maintaining its place among wearables. (He, is, by       the way, a fan.) The new show wants to find out how designs “fit into the larger rubric of brand and advance the plot.”

Identifying one of his guest’s talents, Mishkin compares Gunn’s approach to the world of sports (about which he’s written). “They say it’s important to know which athlete needs praise to be at his best and which needs a firm hand…” Though we saw him but a few minutes with each designer, the mentor actually spent much longer. It was simply untenable to show extended time.

His iconic “Make it work” has morphed into Klum’s “cut through the noise,” i.e. separate yourself from the pack. It comes down to “how does something become what we have to have?” Gunn explains. “I’m confounded by all these athleisure brands. Aren’t all sweatpants the same?!” Standing in for most of us, the interviewee’s expression is priceless.

It seems the well spoken Gunn overcame stuttering. When first given the opportunity to teach at the Corcoran in Washington, he apparently threw up in the hallway and shook through class. At the end of a week, the newbie rehearsed his exit interview, feeling he was under untenable stress. Gunn delivered his prepared speech only to be met with: “This will either kill you or cure you and I’m counting on the latter.” He still had the job! Among things for which he’s grateful, this moment must be high.

“In time, I also learned I didn’t have to have all the answers.” The teacher began to use Socratic methodology, asking students to return with unique answers. “You’re responsible for your own education.”

How did notoriety outside the business begin? Hired only as a consultant to Project Runway, Gunn assumed the show had little chance of success. A couple of days before designers arrived, he was asked if he’d be willing to talk to them in the workroom. “I said, sure, that’s what I do.” The show needed dialogue. Suddenly he found himself on camera.

Episode 1, Season 1, a Bravo producer found him changing a sewing machine bobbin. She called him into the hallway. “Jane said, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”  He answered that a designer was having trouble. “I have news for you,” she told him. “This is a show about fairness. If you thread the bobbin for one designer you have to do it for all of them every day!” Gunn’s response? “Oh my God, I’m outa here!” It was, he says, a lesson in the difference between being a teacher and a mentor.

Mishkin inquires whether there was a moment Gunn realized things had transformed. It came simply, with a passerby saying she loved the show. Reaction is so honest and uncomplicated, one can see how open he is.

“I’m proud that ours is not a show about backstabbing,” Gunn notes, bringing us back to the present. How many reality series can you name that don’t fit that description? Participants acknowledge they’re encouraged to drink, raise voices and cross personal barriers for ‘good television.’ Even during Runway, he adds, “Whenever there was drama, we did everything possible to extinguish it. On Making the Cut, the group became a family who supported one another.”

Mishkin recalls a recent episode where one designer finishes sewing for another who is, essentially a competitor. That there was actually media pushback for helping is rather astonishing. The series includes observation of one another’s garments eliciting helpful comments not snide remarks. When they enter at the start of each challenge, it’s as if the group just came from hanging out together, reassembling without jostling for position.  

“People ask whether I feel responsible when a designer goes home,” Gunn muses. “No. Nor do I feel responsible when they win. Making the Cut exhibits kindness. I’m in love with the quality of interaction and proud to be a part of it.”

Apparently Season One’s designers arrived in New York unaware they’d shortly be on a plane to Paris. Nor did they know the purse would amount to a million dollars. Names of prestigious judges were secret until just before each runway walk. The reception we see occurs in real time. “Were designers intimidated?” the host asks. “Oh my goodness, yes!” “Are they intimidated by you?” he follows up. “I think we rule that out early on because I’m there to be a truthteller for them.”

What about Gunn’s fashion sense early on. “I had absolutely none until I came to New York in 1983 and it was altered again when I took over the fashion department in 2000.” This is not one of the legion of young out-of-towners who cut their teeth on Vogue and/or sewed for aunts and sisters. The young man arrived in an oversized Brooks Brothers suit, looked around at variety and attitude, and rejoiced. He calls it “an immensely powerful awakening.”

“In 2010, when I interviewed you, you said women above size 12 were a dismissed population. How do you think fashion is doing these days in terms of sizing and not shaming people?” the interviewer asks. Gunn believes things have improved, though nowhere near enough. This is clear from, on one side, increased use of large sized models – now called “curvy,” online and in catalogs and on the other, their rarity on runways.

“In terms of metrics, we’re the largest population to clothe. I’m concerned about peoples’ health…” Gunn remarks that opera singers, often large, look wonderful on and off the stage as if to wordlessly acknowledge a population living in leggings (not, according to Gunn, a good idea even if you’re slim) and skin tight tops.

Tim Gunn feels exceedingly lucky. “It’s a matter of what you do at those intersections in life, do you go on or hold back? I’m very cognizant of accepting things the way they are…” He must’ve been a helluva teacher.

Opening- Left, Tim Gunn; Right, Bud Mishkin Photos Courtesy of the 92Y

About Alix Cohen (814 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.