Tim Gunn on Project Runway, Enraging Subway Behavior, and Heidi Klum’s Halloween Costume

You can keep your hair-pulling, Chardonnay-swilling reality stars; all I need is Tim Gunn, the most amazing human on television in New York in the world. He’s empathetic. He’s incredibly smart and incredibly articulate. He confronts bad behavior directly, but kindly. He’s impeccably mannered, but never stuffy. He’s passionate and knowledgeable about his profession. He’s brave. He is, in short, a wonderful man we should all emulate.

The Project Runway star has a new book out, Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible, and it’s the ideal holiday present for anyone who enjoys TV, fashion, great writing, and/or Tim Gunn (aka everyone alive). I emailed with Mr. Gunn about his book, Dom’s win, Heidi’s costume, and more:

It was so wonderful to see Justin LeBlanc prosper on Project Runway this season. I really admired the way the show treated him not as a mascot, but as a talented designer who happens to be deaf. Can you talk about what his presence on the show meant to you?
In addition to being a terrific designer, he is a genuinely wonderful person. I loved his home visit. He and his parents are all teachers and have a real love of education, which endeared him to me even more. Justin also took the high road when other designers squabbled, and in that he was an example to us all!

Dom’s win was a delight, both because she seems so sane and cheerful, and because I felt she got unfairly overlooked during the run of the show. Were you pleased to see her win?
I love your assessment of her as “sane and cheerful”! I was delighted by her win. As I said in the reunion show, she won on the strength of her collection, but her utterly winning personality was icing on the cake.

I binge-watch Project Runway, as do many viewers. Which TV shows, if any, do you watch for hours?
Anything on HGTV. I also love Downton Abbey. And old movies on TCM.

I’m always surprised by the number of Project Runway contestants who balk at designing for non-models. They say—they brag!—”I’m not used to designing for real women.” Is this attitude equally pervasive among designers working in the real world?
Sadly, yes. This is one of the things I beat the drum for all the time. In my capacity working for Fifth and Pacific (formerly Liz Claiborne Inc.), I am out at malls around the country talking about fashion with women of all shapes and sizes. They are stylish, and they want to look good, and they are constantly frustrated by how little is available to them. Too few designers are making fashion-forward clothes for women bigger than a size 6. I talk about this in my book Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible, and offer some suggestions for how to look at the history of fashion for inspiration on how to craft a look that’s compatible with your own body type and personal style.

The way we dress shapes the way people perceive us, which can be stressful for those who want to create a good impression, but don’t have too much money. What advice do you have for the broke but would-be stylish?
My mantra is silhouette, proportion, and fit. If you look for clothes that fit you well and have a line flattering to your body, you will look polished no matter the price point.

I was so struck by Heidi Klum’s Halloween costume this year—dressing as an old woman, in the era of sexy-everything costumes, is subversive and thrilling. What was your reaction to her costume? And do you enjoy dressing up for Halloween, or other costumed events?
I LOVE Heidi, and I found her costume thrilling. I am not a big dresser-upper, but I loved making my niece and nephew’s costumes for them when they were young, and I love how much my co-author’s son loves dressing up (she wrote about it in the New York Times, here). Costumes can be liberating and inspiring, as can wearing a regular outfit in which we feel particularly special.

You’ve said you believe profoundly in good behavior. Do you think smart phones have made New Yorkers less well-mannered? It seems to me that everyone is wandering around like a zombie, playing Candy Crush and checking Facebook instead of enjoying the wonders of the city. But maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy.
Well, if you are, I’m right there with you! I love walking around the city, and everything that goes with that: engaging with those around me, admiring the architecture, and not being hit by cars. I do find it dispiriting how many people seem engrossed in their phones. They’re missing out. And they’re risking their lives!

While I’m being a curmudgeon, can we talk about the subway? I know you take it every day, and I’m wondering which behaviors drive you craziest. For me, it’s 1) people who stand in the doorway and refuse to move to accommodate those trying to board, 2) people who don’t get up for the elderly, pregnant, or infirm, 3) people who push onto the train before allowing others to disembark…and the list goes on and on from there.
I do take the subway every day. I would agree with you on all these, and add to that list people who cross their legs on a crowded train so that their leg sticks out into the center of the car and makes it impossible for people to pass. You can’t fling your legs out in the front row of a fashion show, and you shouldn’t do it on the subway. I talk a lot about etiquette in Gunn’s Golden Rules.

You weren’t thrilled with the way your first book was “sliced and diced.” Did you have more control over your new book?
Well, I love all my books. They’re like my children! And I’ve been told that that first book is a handy guide to people who are trying to figure out how they want to dress. But I did wish there had been room in that book for anecdotes. Luckily, in my book Gunn’s Golden Rules, I was able to tell stories. And then in The Fashion Bible, I was able to tell more stories and also to write a sweeping history of western fashion. It nearly killed me, but I am thrilled with the result!

Which works of art do you visit regularly when you go to the Met?
I love just wandering through the Met, trying to see things I’ve never noticed before, whether it’s a particular work of medieval art or a Greek sculpture or a nineteenth-century landscape. I feel like I see something—and learn something—new every time I go.

You have a notably large working vocabulary, which makes me think you must be an avid reader. Which authors were especially important to you in your childhood? Whose work do you love as an adult?
Thank you for that. I love language, and I love reading. My apartment is filled with thousands of books. Among my favorites are Thomas Mann and James Agee. I loved pop-up books as a child, and I still do!

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