The Headmaster of Fashion

The Headmaster of Fashion


Published : April 12, 2007 / The New York Times

A deceptively sweet-looking Daniel Vosovic arched a dark brow beneath his willfully tousled curls, turned to the man seated to his right and cut straight to the bone.

“If you ever send an e-mail to me and sign it, ‘Best wishes,’ I’ll know you’re just trying to pacify me,” he said with a mocking tone that had the effect of a match dropped on kindling. Tim Gunn’s face turned as red as Laura Bennett’s hair.

This happened on Saturday morning in a Midtown hotel during tryouts for “Project Runway,” the Bravo reality series about dueling designers on which the meticulously unflappable Mr. Gunn serves as mentor, moral guide and cautionary sounding board to a cast of generally flailing contestants, like the fecund Ms. Bennett from the third season.

Mr. Vosovic, a second-season runner-up who was helping assess the incoming class of the fourth season, teased Mr. Gunn between his candy-coated send-off of the 20th applicant, a huffy Russian named Vladimir, and his abrupt dismissal of Rebecca, a substitute teacher with unnaturally red hair who described her work as “a combination of Martha Stewart and Tim Burton.”

Rejection is an art best crafted by experience. Mr. Gunn is the Michelangelo of the form. Here, a sampling of his words to a series of washouts:

“I don’t think you have the depth of experience yet. In fact, I know it.”

“This really is not what we’re looking for.”

“I appreciate what you’re trying to do. Do I love it? No.”

“We’re going to pass. Best wishes.”

Viewers of “Project Runway,” not to mention alumni of Parsons the New School for Design, where he was long a faculty member, will have no difficulty summoning up the posh, lilting voice of Mr. Gunn, who has been parodied on late-night television for the softly scolding undertones of intellectual feyness in his delivery of the word “designers.”

Ashleigh Verrier, a 2004 Parsons graduate, said that Mr. Gunn’s mannerisms are so ingrained in her mind that “I can still hear him saying, whenever I drape a piece: ‘Well, can she walk in it? Can she hail a taxi?’ ” Former students speak of Mr. Gunn as if he were Miss Jean Brodie or Mark Thackeray in a more expensive suit.

“I believe from a historical standpoint, Tim is going to go down as someone who brought fashion to an academic level and culturally put it on the map,” Ms. Verrier said.

As an academic whose role was intended to lend an air of dignity to a show about making stars of untested designers, Mr. Gunn, 53, was an unlikely candidate for breakout celebrity on “Project Runway.” Yet he has struck a chord with young people who admire his buttoned-up demeanor and the way he treats designers: as if he were a principal. Mr. Gunn, who until last month was the chairman of the Parsons fashion department, is the foil for all their flamboyance and inexperience.

His success has surpassed that of any of the winners of the show. Bravo has announced plans for a spinoff called “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style,” which is pegged to an actual guide Mr. Gunn wrote with Kate Moloney, an assistant chairwoman of fashion design at Parsons, published by Abrams Image.

And last month, Mr. Gunn was lured away from Parsons, where he began working as an admissions director in 1983, to become chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne Inc., one of the nation’s largest apparel companies. At the executive level, Mr. Gunn will serve as a voice for the roughly 350 designers employed by Claiborne’s 45 brands, a role the company has likened to a creative dean.

And he will continue to appear on “Project Runway,” which will return late this year.

With the show’s popularity, Mr. Gunn changed fashion in an abstract way, making it more appealing as a career to a generation of young people who see design as a ticket to celebrity, reflected in a flood of applications to design schools across the country.

Talking to Larry King in August, Mr. Gunn described the show’s appeal: “Fashion is so fully embedded in our culture today that there are mythologies about it. And if anything, this show demystifies much of that and really makes fashion very, very accessible to the public at large.”

Now, at Claiborne, Mr. Gunn is attempting a more concrete real-world makeover: to bring a sense of excitement about fashion to a corporate culture known for blandness and to effect a change in the perception of its brands, from outdated to fashionable.

Can Mr. Gunn, in his words, make it work?

IT’S a huge learning curve for me,” Mr. Gunn said last week at the company’s offices in the garment center, across Seventh Avenue from Parsons. “I’ve been living in a rarefied bubble, really, for a total of 29 years. Because we were dealing with theory, we could write our own scenarios, where nothing ever fails and nothing is ever lost in the shipping process. It’s a very different universe.”

His role at Liz Claiborne is a new one for the company, part of a mandate by Bill McComb, the chief executive, to foster an image of “irresistible product,” even if that requires raising some prices. The implication is that the company, which like many large, publicly traded apparel businesses, places a premium on financial performance, also recognizes the value of design.

And Liz Claiborne is in need of a face-lift. Profits at the $5 billion company dropped considerably last year, by about 20 percent. Mr. McComb, who joined Claiborne in October, said there was a feeling internally, among designers, that the company had become too numbers-oriented. He thought that Mr. Gunn would inspire them, as he does on the show, to take creative risks.

“If dollars and cents drive your design, you risk becoming a commodity line,” Mr. McComb said. “And that’s the death of a fashion business.”

Mr. Gunn, in a black pinstripe suit one day and a black turtleneck under a black leather blazer the next, may be well suited for the job. At Parsons, he revitalized a fashion curriculum that had not changed since 1952. He introduced students to critical thinking, fashion history and the realities of commercial business. He made the school’s annual runway show more competitive for seniors by presenting only the best collections, which had an unexpected result of making instant stars of its top graduates: Ms. Verrier, Chris Benz and Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler.

On the other hand, Mr. Gunn has faced criticism from some students about changes they perceive as encouraging those who fit an idealized, or commercialized, image of successful designers over independent, freewheeling thinkers.

Moreover, “Project Runway” has drawn complaints for trivializing the profession. Stan Herman, the designer, speaking on the industry last month at a panel organized by the Fashion Institute of Technology, said, “It needs to be taken with a grain of salt because there are many kids who don’t know anything else about fashion besides ‘Project Runway.’ ”

Mr. Herman later said that the show has had a positive effect on enrollment in design schools and credited Mr. Gunn with presenting a balanced picture of the business. But he was concerned, he said, about the show’s track record of producing more celebrities than successful designers.

“We are living in an era of instant gratification, and the show is built on that premise,” he said. “The fact is that fashion is an art form or a form of commercial art that takes years and years of development. I find when they just use personalities, they miss a lot of the hard work that goes into our industry.”

Since casting began in Los Angeles last month, Mr. Gunn has been insulted by rejected applicants and questioned about the future of the show after poor turnouts there on some days. Last year he sparred in the press with Jay McCarroll, the first winner, who was irritated by Mr. Gunn’s criticism of his slowness in starting a post-“Runway” career. Other contestants are quick to defend Mr. Gunn as supportive of the development of designers’ careers.

“He will be to Liz Claiborne what Anna Wintour is to Bernard Arnault,” said Emmett McCarthy, a second-season contestant, referring to the advisory relationship the Vogue editor has with Mr. Arnault, the chief executive of LVMH.

Mr. Gunn seems unfazed by his celebrity or the backbiting that ensued. People might assume that “Project Runway” had a halo effect on his personal fortunes, but he said this was not the case. “I couldn’t be any more single,” he said. At least he was able to afford a new rental apartment in Manhattan, in London Terrace, where he was on a waiting list for nine months.

“For the first time in my life I have a grown-up apartment,” he said. “There’s a closet in the bedroom!”

Even confidence came to him slowly, as an art student at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington and later as a teacher there.

He had been an unhappy child, introverted, a stutterer, spending sunny days in his room reading books, practicing the piano, playing with Legos, idolizing mad King Ludwig II, who spent his spare time designing castles. He was the last one chosen during mandatory team sports — a disappointment to his tight-lipped father, George William Gunn, an assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who served as the ghostwriter of J. Edgar Hoover. (His mother, Nancy, helped establish the library of the Central Intelligence Agency. His great-grandfather Harry Wardman was a builder of row houses and hotels in Washington.)

“I was the one they called the horrible slurs that ended up being prophetic,” Mr. Gunn said. “Little did I know.”

Between the ages of 12 and 20, he was enrolled in no less than a dozen schools — not for academic reasons, but because he could not handle the social interaction. In college, he discovered his passion for design. The assemblage work of the sculptor Joseph Cornell held a particular sway over Mr. Gunn, who was attracted to the neat boxes of photographs and the surprising juxtapositions.

“I thought there must be a way of synthesizing all the different parts of my life in my own way,” Mr. Gunn said. “I really think it was Cornell who caused me to have the confidence to say I’m going to be an artist.”

But his epiphany came, oddly enough, at a moment when he was faced with rejection, and what would seem in retrospect to be one of many prophetic moments. An artist looked at his student work at Corcoran and told him, “I’d rather look at the space this work displaces than look at this work.” Best wishes.

As we know, Mr. Gunn did not become a great sculptor.


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