Fashion expert Tim Gunn used to bemoan what he called the “comfort trap” — clothes that prioritized comfort over style. Now, after weeks of self-isolation in his New York City apartment amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s reconsidering his stance.
“I’ve gone through an evolution in these last five, five-and-a-half weeks,” he says. “Why should we be self-isolating in clothes that constrain us and constrict us and are not as comfortable as something that’s a little looser and more forgiving?”
Gunn became famous for his role as a mentor on the fashion competition series Project Runway. His new fashion competition series, Making the Cut, is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
As a TV host, Gunn’s typical attire is a tailored suit and a complementary pocket square. In recent months, because of the pandemic, he’s spent more time than usual in a white T-shirt, pajama pants and a cotton robe. But no matter the circumstances, Gunn maintains some fashion rules.
“I won’t leave my apartment — I won’t even go to the trash chute at the end of the hall — wearing that,” he says. “It’s a kind of pact that I make with myself.”
On initially feeling ambivalent about the fact that Making the Cut would begin airing during the pandemic
My co-host, Heidi Klum, and I talked about this when we heard when the show was going to start airing and we were really concerned about it. And we thought, “This seems to be in very egregious bad taste to do this now.” And Amazon listened to us and understood and said, “This is really a feel-good show. It’s uplifting. It’s inspiring, and people will want this at this time. People feel shaken. They feel derailed, off-center. And the show is very grounding, and it’s a good time to release it.” And I thought, “They’re right. It really is.” And the response has been quite phenomenal.
On how he had debilitating anxiety when he first began teaching at Parsons School of Design at the New School
I was a wreck. … The very first day I pull into the school’s parking lot and I promptly throw up all over the asphalt and I’m shaking, and shaken, and I get to the studio where I’m teaching and just the mere anticipation of the students coming into the room has me trembling. So I brace myself against one of the walls. My back is against it, because if I step away from it, I’m just going to collapse to the floor. I needed that support. …
I rehearsed the meeting I needed to have with [my mentor and teacher] Rona [Slade]. And on Friday I had the meeting and the rehearsal was brief, because it didn’t require many words. And I just said, “I can’t go on like this. This is just completely debilitating. My health is suffering. I’m not sleeping. I’m an emotional wreck. I can’t go on like this.” And Rona, who is Welsh, said in this very clipped voice of hers that she trusted that this experience would either kill me or cure me, and she said, “and I’m counting on the latter. Good day.” And who knew, 29 years later, I was still teaching. I grew to just completely love it.
On his method of giving criticism and feedback
I learned early on that you can’t soft-pedal and sugarcoat things, because it doesn’t help the student. I also learned early on that you can’t be too blunt an instrument in delivering critical analysis, because if you are, you’re discredited. The student just dismisses what you say as being mean-spirited and unkind and believes that you don’t understand their work. So I developed what I call a very Socratic approach. I pummel people with questions, because I need to know where they’re coming from. I need to know a context before I dive in with my own analysis. And for me, the ideal is — this is what I really strive for — the ideal is to get the individual with whom I’m speaking to see what I see.
And on Project Runway for 16 seasons and on Making the Cut for this one season, there are occasions when I disrupt production, in a manner of speaking because of the camera placement, and I asked the designer to come stand next to me so they can see their own work from my point of view. … I want that designer to see the silhouette, the proportions, perhaps even the construction. … So for them to stand by me and say, “Oh, I see!” That a-ha moment for me is the sweetest, most wonderful thing in the world. It’s like, “OK, I can leave you now because you get it. You see it. What you do about it [is] completely up to you. But at least you see what I see.”
On being moved to tears by the designers’ work
Tearing up with the Project Runaway designers, and now with the Making the Cut designers, it’s more about bearing witness to the triumph of the human spirit and how just reassuring that is about the quality of life and us as human beings, and it’s a great honor to bear witness to that. This happens to me at the Met all the time. I was looking at a Rembrandt painting of Flora, one of his models, and I was reading the caption and then looking at the painting again, and I had to step away because … I was just welling up with tears. It’s the triumph of the human spirit. It never ceases to make me emotional. Same thing happens with reading beautiful words. … Beautiful things that pluck at my heartstrings make me tearful. I own it. It’s just part of who I am.
On a memory he has of his father, an FBI agent who worked for J. Edgar Hoover
[My father] was very private and secretive. … He brought home the Warren Commission [Report, about the Kennedy assassination] before it went to Congress. And I don’t know what possessed him, I think he was just proud to have it, and he told my mother. Well, after dinner, I can hear the water running in the bathtub of my parents’ bedroom, and dad’s watching television or something. Mother’s gone and it turns out mother’s in the bathtub with the Warren Commission [Report]. So dad figures this out. He knocks on the door. It’s locked. He asks her to open the door. She refuses. He gets an ax and takes the door down to get the Warren Commission out of her hands.
On how the current pandemic has brought back memories of the AIDS crisis
I really didn’t come to terms with my sexuality until my early 20s, and I had only one partner to whom I was extremely loyal and wouldn’t betray, and we were very close. After a long relationship, he said to me, “I don’t have the patience for you.” And I knew he meant sexually, but I was devastated. I was in his bed watching M*A*S*H* with him and he said to me, “I want you to leave, and this is over.” I was so devastated. I drove to my apartment. I had to pull off the road because I was hyperventilating. And this was in 1982. … He told me … that he had been sleeping with dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of other people.
So the next day was a moment of reckoning for me, and I went from being distraught and feeling worthless and just emotionally devastated, and that evolved into incredible anger, because I thought he may have given me a death sentence. … And that experience has caused me to reflect upon the situation that we’re in now and about how people need to wear masks. They need to social distance. They need to be rigorous and responsible about this. This is not something to be taken casually or lightly. And when our elected officials are walking around maskless in hospitals, I’m thinking this is absolutely an abhorrent message to be sending to people that, “We don’t have to do this.” You could kill people or you could be killed yourself! But in this particular case, I’m more worried about being asymptomatic and killing other people. I’ve reflected a lot about AIDS and the devastation that it wrought, and my own experience with the crisis and as I said, thankfully, nothing happened. The man to whom I was so close for so many years, I don’t know what happened to him. We never spoke again.
Lauren Krenzel and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.