Interview: Tim Gunn on never settling for “good enough”

“I am certainly a blunt instrument, but all the designers know I want them to succeed”

Tim Gunn

“Nothing’s ever good enough. You have to make it work.” (Paul Morigi/WireImage/Getty)

Tim Gunn, host of Project Runway, just published his latest book, The Natty Professor. He tells us about getting the best out of people on a deadline, how to be a demanding mentor in the right way, and advanced wardrobe pattern-mixing.

Your new book is subtitled, “a master class on mentoring, motivating and making it work.” What makes you an authority on these topics?

I was a teacher and then program head at Parsons School of Design for 29 years, and I have been the mentor on Project Runway for 13 seasons. There is a lot of dialogue about education these days—people are questioning a lot of the older methods, and I decided I wanted my voice to enter into the conversation.

You’re famous for telling designers to “make it work!” Can you explain your in-your-face mentoring motto?

I think that when things go awry, we have this general inclination to just pitch it and start all over again. In my early days of teaching, I was accepting of that, but after a while I realized that by not allowing the student to abandon the project, and insisting they offer up a diagnosis of what’s going wrong and a prescription of how to make it work, it would expand that person’s problem-solving abilities and give them a greater bundle of resources moving forward. Nothing’s ever good enough. You have to make it work. I feel that way with the books I have written. If I had it my way, the first book would still be an unfinished manuscript.

On Project Runway, you are both a straight talker and a peacemaker. How do you find that balance?

I am certainly a blunt instrument, but all the designers know I want them to succeed and that I am trying to help. A lot of the bluntness is because of the clock. When you’re working to a tight deadline, it doesn’t do anyone any good to take a wait-and-see approach.

You’ve said that as a teacher, there is such a thing as being too prepared for a class. Could the same philosophy be applied to a business presentation?

Oh, definitely. It’s a matter of shoring up your resources and knowledge to such an exaggerated degree that you end up being a silo in the middle of a field. You can’t take anything in because it’s going to interrupt the narrative you have planned in your head. I see this all the time and think, Why are we even in the same room? You could be appearing by YouTube and it would make no difference.

So how do you prepare?

I will always go with an arc of information. I want to have a general idea of what I’m going to talk about and then be willing and able to get off that path. It’s a question of expecting everyone in the room to be a part of what’s happening. When I was teaching, I would say to my students, “This is a collaboration; we’re going to learn and discuss together.” It’s not a matter of being little birds in a nest and I’m dropping worms in your beak.

Your stage fright was once so bad that you barfed in the parking lot before a class. Any advice on getting over those kinds of nerves?

I don’t want to say time heals everything, but it certainly helps. You have to develop your own style, which helps you cope with the stress. I think a little bit of nervousness keeps you alert and agile.

I loved the part in the book where you say the only thing stupider than Kanye West’s $120 T-shirts are the people who buy them.

Yes! It’s not the celebrity necessarily. If Kanye were designing something beautiful and innovative, I would say hats off. This kind of goes back to a mentor of mine, Grace Mirabella, who was the former editor of Vogue. She had a saying, which was, “Don’t design dumb clothes.” The world doesn’t need people to design T-shirts. There are plenty of them already out there.

On the cover of your book, you sport a plaid suit, a checked shirt, a dotted tie and a paisley pocket square. Is that type of pattern mixing for experts only?

Anybody can pull it off—it’s intuition and experience. But I do have a trick, which is that if you squint your eyes and all the patterns start to blend together, that’s not good. You want them to be distinguishable parts.

I read somewhere that you attended Woodstock in grey flannels and a brass-buttoned blazer.

Yes, I did.

Did you feel out of place?

Oh, of course. But I knew that going into it. It was a group of us, and we were all in our school uniforms.

Did you enjoy yourself?

I hated it. It was disgusting, horrible. Not that I was such a fan of that genre of music. For me it was more of a socio-cultural excursion. People were filthy; the place was ankle-deep in mud.

Which of these sentiments reflects your opinion: When in doubt, wear a tie or when in doubt, don’t wear a tie?

Wear a tie. People disagree with this all the time, but I would much rather be the most dressed up person in the room than the least. Of course, it all depends on the environment. I’ve grown to accept anything when it comes to the tech world. Look at Mark Zuckerberg! The United States has become a nation of slobs, and I think it’s disgraceful.

The business wardrobe can be particularly precarious for women. Got any advice?

I do tend to think women look their best in clothing that fits them properly and doesn’t try to conceal their gender. My rule would be for skirts in a professional environment—no longer than the lowest part of your kneecaps and no higher than a couple of inches above the knees. Women tend to either become overly dowdy or Grandma Jezebel, which is highly inappropriate.

Your Project Runway co-star Heidi Klum recently offered women advice on wearing underwear. Have you got any tips for guys?

My advice is to wear it. I meet men who are quite willing to tell me that they’re not wearing underwear, and I’m just baffled by it.

So it’s never OK to go commando in a suit?

Definitely, not. Unless you’re in a bather suit, it’s not OK anywhere.