Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Arts: Q&A: Tim Gunn: Mobilizing Fashion Forces

By Almie Rose Vazzano & Nadia Chaudhury

Tim Gunn is trying to make it work. “Everything is going wrong today,” he says, showing two Inprint reporters to his office. His train ran late and he apologizes emphatically as he takes our coats and offers us tea. “I would much rather you keep me waiting than me keep you waiting.” We settle into his chic and comfortable office, decorated with a mix of the expected (a framed photo of his Entertainment Weekly cover with Heidi Klum) and a few surprises (a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a signed photo of Rue Machlanahan, and a Tim Gunn bobble head doll).

Inprint: How was fashion week? Any highlights?

Tim Gunn: Fashion week, in general, I am always really enthusiastic about because it is exuberant, it is over the top, it’s a public relations extravaganza. I come away from it with ‘there’s something for everyone’ point of view and it’s good, it’s good for fashion, and it’s good for the customer because once the customer has that kind of diversity in front of him or her they don’t want to go back, they do not want to be dictated to. So American fashion has changed dramatically in the past 2 decades, the last decade and a half.

I: Could you elaborate?

G: Sure, to begin the United States was nowhere on the fashion map until after World War II. Look at the case of this department, which was founded in 1906, the early graduates went to Hollywood, there wasn’t a 7th Avenue, and American dressing was pretty prescriptive. The “fashion” on the streets was all influenced by Europe and more specifically Paris. Early graduates of Parsons went to Hollywood and made a huge splash in the film industry as costume designers. In fact, the most famous ones you can think of, with the exception of Edith Head, were all from Parsons.

So, WWII hits Europe and it’s a calamity, and Paris couture houses close so there was no fashion in Europe and America has been percolating in terms of fashion design and suddenly people begin to rise to the top, most notably Claire McCardell and Norman Norell, two graduates of the school.

[When I came here in 2000, after being Associate Dean for many years], there was a crisis at Parsons. This program was suffering from atrophy, it hadn’t changed since 1952 when a revised curriculum was put in place and the view of the department was that it if the graduates had been so successful, what could possibly be wrong? There was no dialogue up here, no one spoke except for the faculty, and it was awful. Basically it was a dress-making department if you ask me, and I do not mean that in a nice way.

I: Where did it come from? Your interest in fashion?

G: I have had a bit of architecture; I have had a lot of fine arts. As someone deeply interested in architecture, there are some similarities between that way of thinking and fashion. What is very different about fashion is the context. Fashion happens in a context that is societal, historic, cultural, and economic and political to a degree too. I have to make a distinction between clothes and fashion. We need clothes, we do not need fashion. There is a difference and I am proud to say we are educating students in fashion here, fashion with a capital F.

I: The big question: why are you leaving?

G: I tell you, I thought I would retire here. I never dreamed of leaving. Bill McCone (the new CEO of Liz Clairborne) calls me and says ‘Lets get together, I would love to talk to you.’ Such an incredible guy, he’s filled with great ideas. We had been talking for about an hour and said ‘I need you…I need someone to serve as a mentor to the 350 designers among all the brands.’ You could have knocked me over with a feather. I was in a state of shock. I was not expecting this. As I keep telling the seniors this year I leave here with my butterfly net picking you up and taking you over there to work.

I: What will you miss most about Parsons?

G: What I’ll miss most is working with highly creative, intelligent young people who are fearless. You tell them something in the studio for them to do and the thrilling, exciting thing is that I never know what they are going to do with it, except I know that I will be completely wowed by it.

I: Will Project Runway still be at Parsons?

G: It’s supposed to be. The university wants it to come back. The producers want it to come back. The only thing that would prevent the show form coming back is the schedule. We have to tape it between the end of the spring semester and before Labor Day. That’s our window, but everyone wants to come back. Otherwise we would have to build a set. It should come back, the only difference being that my office is Heidi’s dressing room and Heidi will have to find a new dressing room.

I: What trend is over?

G: I hope it’s the low-rise jeans.

I: It seems like there is a distinct twenty-something New York look. I was standing outside and it’s such a treat watching Parsons students enter, it’s like a fashion show. What makes this look different or unique?

G: Students here mix it up that is unexpected by taking various pieces and using them in ways that are innovative. Or the way they embellish something, I saw a great jean jacket completely covered in thousands of safety pins. And it’s Vivienne Westwood inspired, but the pattern of the safety pins was great and fun.

I: Are you doing another show for Bravo?

G: It’s based on my book. A fashion makeover show. I am not a fashion Svengali, I am a fashion therapist.

I: Will we see you again on Ugly Betty?

G: I hope so. That was fun! What did you think? No, don’t tell me!

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