Do Go On, Mr. Gunn

An extended transcript of our chat with Tim Gunn

Do Go On, Mr. Gunn
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The Chronicle recently chatted up Project Runway fixture Tim Gunn in advance of his appearance at Barton Creek Mall on April 21. A shorter version appears in this week's issue, but – even though we know Gunn's a big proponent of self-editing – we couldn't resist posting the whole transcript.

Austin Chronicle: You originally got a BFA in sculpture and later transitioned into teaching design. Can you talk a little bit about that transition and how you see those fields overlapping?

Tim Gunn: I studied fine arts, and about five years before I studied architecture – for only a semester and I hated it. I spent most of my life wanting to be an architect, and I was just so disappointed by what I experienced educationally. At that time, in the Seventies, there wasn’t computer technology, and everything had to be rendered by hand. It didn’t matter how great your idea was, if you had one little slip of that pen, your work wouldn’t even be considered. I just found it to be extraordinarily frustrating. I thought, This is ridiculous! I’d rather be studying Japanese calligraphy. My sculpture was very architectural… They were abstract. When I graduated I was very serious about it, but I also wasn’t making any money and I supported myself by building architectural models for three architecture firms in Washington, D.C. So that was a segue into the chairman of the Fine Arts department at the Corcoran [College of Art and Design], asking me to teach three-dimensional design to freshmen.

At the core of design and at the core of fine arts, just in terms of presenting your work and representing your ideas, there are a lot of similarities. Conceptually, of course, they’re very different: Fine artists create the problem that they can spend 10 years solving if they want to. And designers have to take a problem outside of themselves, make it their own, turn on a dime and do it again. I’d like to think that both design and fine arts are barometric gauges of our society and our culture. But design is such a very different undertaking. And I’ll add, you can’t be a responsible practitioner in either aspect, either fine arts or design, without having a very comprehensive base of art history.

Austin Chronicle: So how do you see a contemporary art world and a contemporary design world informing each other at this particular moment?

Tim Gunn: Well from my point of departure I feel that the various design disciplines, and even the various disciplines in the fine arts, are in a silo. Unless you’re in an extraordinary place where all the disciplines are commingled, and unless you as a practitioner are interacting with the other disciplines, I think they’re very much in a silo. Which doesn’t mean it has any kind of impact on their relevance or their integrity, or their seriousness of purpose, but I feel they’re somewhat isolated.

Austin Chronicle: Did you get a chance to see the big Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

Tim Gunn: Oh, I actually saw it four times. The Costume Institute is a maligned curatorial department. And yet it’s the only profitable department, and the one that attracts the largest crowds.

Austin Chronicle: Yes, that show broke records. Do you have any thoughts about these massive auteur designer retrospectives: Alexander McQueen at the Met, Jean-Paul Gaultier at the Dallas Museum of Art, and Yves Saint Laurent in Denver?

Tim Gunn: Well, providing that one has earned a place in the history of the discipline, I think it’s absolutely wonderful, and I celebrate these exhibitions. Especially when they’re attracting large crowds of people, because attending an exhibition is a form of education. What I loved about the McQueen exhibit, and largely because people think of him as being so incredibly avant-garde and, to a degree, unwearable, when you saw – what was at the core of the exhibit – you’re presented with this staggering tailoring. That’s the underpinning of everything he did. It’s like looking at Picasso’s early work or Mark Rothko’s – there’s at their very beginning a mastery of the drawing or painting medium. So these are choices that they make as opposed to… “Oh! I can’t work any other way.”

Austin Chronicle: One of the underpinnings throughout your career seems to be education as a mode of empowerment. How do you see the event you’ll be participating in here, as part-and-parcel of that larger motivation?

Tim Gunn: I’m so glad you asked, because Leah Caruso-Salak [Liz Claiborne’s Director of Marketing and Special Events] and I co-host the event, and what we say right before we go out is, “Let’s just hope that people come away from this feeling a little smarter, a little wiser because we’ve given them some information that they can apply to themselves. Or share with someone else.” Everything that I do, I try to make it about giving people information. And not a day goes by when I’m not on a quest for more information. I see myself as a constant, perpetual student. It makes the world an exciting place, it makes the world an adventurous place, and that’s wonderful. It’s quite thrilling – I love the unknown. We’re working with real clothes, we’re not working with Alexander McQueen fashion abstractions. We’re working with clothes that people will wear. We demystify what goes into a fit and what goes into proportions, how to wear items in multiple ways, how to transition things. I think it can affect how people live day in and day out. For me, that’s the greatest honor possible.

Austin Chronicle: So as the perpetual student – how do you teach curiosity?

Tim Gunn: Well, one of the things we’re very lucky for, is the people who attend our events will know something about our brands, they’ll know something about me, and will be there largely propelled forward by a curiosity. In a way, we already have the converts. I like reaching those people. But I also love reaching those people who say, “There’s nothing in this for me.” I have a refrain which is “I can’t want you to succeed more than you do,” but perhaps here it’s “I can’t want you to be curious more than you do.” So I feel bad for people who don’t have a spark inside of them, that they want to ignite occasionally, or all the time. I think it’s kind of a lackluster way to navigate the world. They do whatever they do.

Austin Chronicle: You were an administrator at Parsons during a time in New York which is really an important time for queer communities – you have the advent of ACT UP and Queer Nation in response to the onset of AIDS. How do you see those terminologies – queer, gay and lesbian – working in the contemporary world?

Tim Gunn: Oh, absolutely. Well, I remember a time when queer was pejorative. I’m happy that it’s accepted in an entirely different form. When I speak to young people, and I speak to young people a lot, and especially those who are LGBT or questioning, they are so lucky to be in this world now. I also speak to young people about AIDS prevention, about being responsible when you’re engaging in sexual activity, because they didn’t grow up at a time when people were dropping like flies. The Eighties for me, what the Eighties did to the fashion industry is forgotten, they have no memory of how devastating it was. And how many enormously talented people we lost. I get very passionate about this.

Austin Chronicle: I enjoyed your “It Gets Better” video and found it moving, you spoke of suicide and empowerment. Many times the salvo in those videos is, “One day you’ll find someone who loves you, someone you love” – intimating a single partner long-term relationship is the only way to ameliorate hatred and create self-worth. You’ve spoken about being single long-term before and I’m wondering if there’s a way that we can also empower queer youths to have affective relationships besides the single-partner relationship?

Tim Gunn: Well sure!

Austin Chronicle: And how do you see that happening?

Tim Gunn: I think about that all the time. I’m very lucky to have some very close, wonderful friends. And I’m very satisfied and I find I’m sated, in a manner of speaking, by these relationships – and it’s not even remotely about sex. I don’t like spending any portion of my life on a quest for something that I feel I don’t have or I feel I want or need. I'd much rather accept the here and now, and make it as impactful, robust, and meaningful as I can. You know, I haven’t been in a relationship for 29 years. I’m not looking for one. Does that mean I’d turn my back on something if the opportunity presented itself? Absolutely not. But it’s not as though I have my radar up and I’m looking for that man. And who knows? A meaningful rest-of-my-life relationship could be with a woman – it wouldn’t involve sex – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be meaningful.

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Tim Gunn, Project Runway

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