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BPR Interview: Tim Gunn

Tim Gunn is a fashion consultant and television personality, and was the chair of the Department of Fashion Design at Parsons the New School for Design from 2000 to 2007. He regularly appears on the popular TV show “Project Runway” and wrote a column in Politico analyzing the fashion choices of various politicians. He recently sat down wih BPR’s Michael Chernin. 

Brown Political Review: First, I’d like to discuss celebrity endorsements. There are a surprising number of articles that actually argue against celebrity endorsements for causes or charities. They argue that the time and money would be better spent hiring professional lobbyists who know the nuances of government. What role do you think celebrity endorsements of gay marriage have on the legislative process? Could the movement have gotten as far as it did without the help of highly visible activists like Macklemore, George Clooney, Lady Gaga, and yourself?

Tim Gunn: I have a slightly different take on it, which has more to do with attracting an audience for the cause, as opposed to having this be more potent to a legislative body. I certainly don’t believe that my participating in the ACLU’s gay marriage campaign has any kind of impact with the legislature, but I hope it piques the interest of people out there because they do know who I am, or Macklemore, or whomever it might be. When they say time and money…I don’t know about other people, but I’m certainly not being compensated for this. The reward that I have is simply doing the work and being part of the cause. If they had offered to pay, I would have declined. I hope none of us do this work for that purpose, otherwise it compromises the work.

BPR: Well, I think the argument was that if they’re capable of looking at the issue with the legislative process in mind, it might be a more effective way of enacting change.

Gunn: I can certainly understand that. But I think we’re talking about an entirely different dimension of purpose, and that is to stimulate some interest and curiosity and hopefully get people to buy into the cause.

BPR: With respect to the court system’s relationship to public opinion, there seem to be two competing theories: either top-down or bottom-up. How do you see the relationship between court rulings and public opinion? If it’s a top-down relationship, that means Americans become confortable with an idea (like gay marriage) because it’s legal. If it’s a bottom-up process, people pressure the courts into changing existing laws. Which do you think applies more to gay marriage?

Gunn: Well, I’d like to think that it works both ways. At the same time, I’d like to view the Supreme Court as uncompromising, because that is what their role should be. They have to be completely emotionless. They have to call upon all forms of precedence, and they need to work in a responsible enough way that people don’t challenge the decisions that they make. I can’t help but think that they respond to—I won’t even say popular belief—but loudness. If I think about most of America, and maybe I’m terribly wrong…but I think most of America would say that they’re not in favor of gay marriage. But there is certainly a large cohort, not a majority but a large number of people, who are articulate and vocal and they’d rally behind this. They’re making their opinion known.

I hate to generalize, because I don’t have any statistics so it might be irresponsible to say this…but from my own experience, there are so many people who believe that the individual can change. The individual doesn’t have to be LGBT. That therapy or a “stiff upper lip” can change one’s orientation. I think that’s why it’s emotional, why it does stir up frustration, and why there are a lot of disbelievers. They think it’s something that shouldn’t be an issue. We know that’s ridiculous. But I know there are people who think otherwise. When I was working at Parsons, I spent a good deal of time in South Korea. I met with a senior official over lunch. He made a point to me—he said to me, “Mr. Gunn, I want you to know there are no homosexuals in South Korea.”

BPR: That reminds me of when the former president of Iran, Ahmadinejad, spoke at Columbia. Someone asked him about Iran’s corporal punishment for alleged homosexuality. He basically said the same thing… “We don’t have homosexuals in Iran…we don’t have that phenomenon like you do here.” So it seems like it’s viewed almost as a trend rather than an innate characteristic.

Gunn: It’s fear driven.

BPR: In 2013, you co-wrote an article with Ava Calhoun for Politico. In it, you analyze the fashion decisions of various politicians and explain the impact of their choices on how voters view them and their policies. You discuss Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, and others. Some have made fun of organizations like Fox News for overanalyzing candidates’ body language or speech patterns. While your article is very funny, is there something to be said for fashion analysis?

Gunn: Absolutely. I believe in the semiotics of clothes. The clothes we wear send a message about how the world perceives us. I will throw in grooming as well. I’ve spent a fair amount of time on Capitol Hill promoting an anti-piracy bill for fashion. Arriving on the Hill, people would be sending out texts and emails saying, “Tim Gunn’s here! Lock your door! Get out of the hallway!” I took one of these Capitol Hill women aside, and I said, “I don’t understand what the issue is. You’re an ambassador for your constituents! Don’t you feel a responsibility to present yourself a certain way?” And she looked at me all flustered. Look at Nancy Pelosi. How fabulous is she, in how she presents herself to the world? Look at Mrs. Obama. These are two Washington leaders. Why don’t women, and men are a whole other issue, feel like they have a similar responsibility? I don’t understand it. I grew up in Washington, and it’s a schlumpy city that seems to pride itself on it!  I think the excuse they would use is that they’re too busy working on behalf of their constituents to look put-together. But having spent 29 years in academia, it’s the same thing. You’re at Brown, how many fabulous dressing professors do you have? [Interviewer pauses]. Exactly. Why is there pride in being a schlump? That’s why I’m always talking about the semiotics of clothes.

BPR: As you mentioned, you worked at Parsons and were in fashion academia for just about 30 years. You worked as a professor at Corcoran College of Art and Design, Assistant Director of Admissions at Parsons The New School for Design, then finally Associate Dean. In what ways has your involvement in fashion academia impacted your outlook regarding the industry?

Gunn: That’s a very good question. I will tell you this—and it’s a rallying cry that I let out when I was Chair at Parsons—the rallying cry was about how fashion is a serious academic discipline. I’ll also tell you that when I took over the Fashion Department at Parsons, I was truly horrified with what was there. I thought, “This is not a fashion department, this is a dressmaking school.” That is not what I’m here for. I’m here to bring some serious, robust content to this study. Fashion happens in a context that is social, economic, historical, and political. Good designers are barometric gauges of their society and culture. Our show became a vehicle to speak seriously, especially about the American fashion design industry. It’s so frequently dismissed, “Oh, it’s so commercial.” Well, of course it’s commercial! It’s wearable art. I take the industry very seriously. I developed a theory about why fashion is so reviled. The other academics of Parsons hated the fashion department. So this is my theory: it’s largely attributable to the technology that’s ingrained in fashion being unchanged since the 19th century. There’s still the whir of the sewing machine, and the oil…don’t you think? It struck me about the third year that I was there. There was a strong campaign from the central administration for the students to stop making clothes and do everything on the computer. And I said they have to know how things feel! And I’m the first one to tell people to break the rules. But you can only break the rules once you know what the rules are. The other thing is, fashion is the last design discipline to actually have academic texts and historical analysis. This is also underscored by how museums have treated fashion. The National Design Museum in NYC—there was a mandate up until recently that they’re not permitted to collect clothes. Textiles, but no clothing. It didn’t “belong there…” How can anyone say that? When we look at the history of culture and civilization, how do we see it? From the environments in which people lived and the clothing that people wore. And it’s fascinating history. I wrote a fashion history book two and a half years ago. And I learned so much; it was like going back to graduate school.

BPR: You mentioned that you worked on the Design Piracy Prohibition Act, which failed in the House. In 2012, Senator Chuck Schumer proposed another bill, the Innovative Design Protection Act, which takes the spirit of the original bill and extends a three-year term of protection for original articles of apparel. Do you think this new act does enough? As a follow-up, how can the industry change the public’s mindset about purchasing knockoff goods?

Gunn: Senator Schumer was the strongest advocate for the Design Piracy bill. My view is something is better than nothing, so I’m in favor of his new initiative. Regarding piracy and the public’s view—contextually, we’re the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have a design piracy act. I have a theory about this as well. It stems from the fact that, until World War II, we were a nation of pirates. All we did was copy the Paris collections. We sent people there to see the shows, and spy, and make drawings, and it was brought back here and manufactured. There was a disincentive to have piracy laws. So when the couture houses closed before WWII, we were suddenly faced with the challenge of creative innovation, and it completely changed the industry.

BPR: I want to ask you a question about gender norms in the United States. In your book, Gunn’s Golden Rules, you talked about men in Europe versus men in the United States. You write, “Men in Europe are more comfortable in their skin—or maybe it’s just that they’re more secure in their manhood. Men flirt with one another in France. They don’t want to go to bed together, but they don’t feel like their identity is threatened by finding another man attractive. A strong division of gender roles is so pervasive in America, and I think it’s dangerous.” Can you talk to me about what some of the dangers implicit in this division would be?

Gunn: The undertone to that whole statement was my belief at least that most men in this nation are afraid to show any sign of what they perceive to be weakness. My father was a macho, football-watching FBI agent. The testosterone level doesn’t get much higher than that—I believed once I matured into being a teen that he was a closet case. He was so homophobic, and I thought “He doth protest too much.” I think there’s this whole culture of masculinity that revolves around these identifying elements that are stereotypes. They’re so easily defined, and if you stray from them, it’s problematic. Why do men feel so threatened?

BPR: So do you think the fashion industry has helped dispel this gender binary, or promote it?

Gunn: I think the fashion industry would have a negative impact. I don’t know, what do you think? The pervasive idea is that if you’re a man in the fashion industry, you’re gay until proven otherwise. And of course there are lots of men who aren’t. But people make certain assumptions.

BPR: You’re in a position where people pitch you ideas constantly both fashion-related and otherwise. You’ve also been in a position where you’ve had to pitch ideas. I think a lot of students right now are trying to figure out how to brand themselves and “pitch” themselves in order to get jobs after college. Having been on both sides of that line, from your position, what do you think is a successful way of marketing oneself?

Gunn: This may sound so obvious, but for me, it’s all about honesty, integrity, and knowing what your brand is, and being able to define it succinctly—and not to waver from that. I’m not saying compromise isn’t a huge element in life. But you need to know what your values are. When TV networks didn’t “get it,” when they didn’t want to pick up our show initially—I actually thought the same thing—who’s going to watch this? Teenage girls and gay guys, that’s who. But the most profound moment I ever had in relation to the show was walking by a construction site, and having this guy shout out from the girders, “Tim Gunn, you’re killing me with that show!” And so I thought, “Okay, we’ve reached a demographic that I’ve never dreamed of.” And I think it’s because we are authentic. This goes back to your question about branding. You need to know who you are. Whenever my students in fashion would struggle, I would ask them who’s the client? And they would look confused. That’s the problem. Once you know who your “client” is, you’ll be on the straight and narrow road. When you write unique cover letters for internships, it makes sense to personalize them because the reader will feel that you genuinely care about that position.

BPR: There’s something called the “ethical fashion movement,” which has gained some traction in recent years. It is considered “an approach to design, sourcing, and manufacturing of clothing which maximizes benefits to people and communities, while minimizing the impact on the environment.” These are things like conscientiousness around ethical labor practices and sustainability. Being that you’re on the front lines, have you noticed any shift in the industry towards conscientious manufacturing and labor practices?

Gunn: Speaking from my Liz Claiborne days—with the factories with which we worked—we became very concerned with the labor practices there and eventually moved out of China altogether. But here’s the real conundrum: Especially when you’re a wholesale brand—the conundrum is the relationship to the retailer and the price point. The issue is what the consumer is willing to pay for it—generally speaking, these ethical initiatives are going to cost more money. I mean, if I had my way, everything would be sourced and manufactured in the U.S. But what we were talking about earlier, how the American consumer has been trained to pay less for purchases, they’re not going to pay more money, which is required if we engage with these initiatives. I’m all in favor of ethical practices, and I’d like to think that the whole world’s going to change, but I don’t think that’s the case. I really believe in doing the right thing, but I’m doubtful. The UN and other international bodies need to instill more severe penalties for destroying our globe.

BPR: You’ve been involved in a few different anti-bullying campaigns, including the Friend Movement and It Gets Better. You have often drawn upon your personal experience with bullying to help demonstrate the importance of school programs that help combat bullying. What would your ideal anti-bullying school program look like?

Gunn: When I was growing up, no one referred to it as bullying. It wasn’t a verb—it was a noun. You could be a “bully” and what you did was taunt or tease or torture, but nobody called it that. For me, the whole term is relatively new. In many ways it formed who I am. If anything, I worry more about it with young people today with the Internet, and the ability for the tormentor to be anonymous. At least I knew who my bullies were and I could avoid them. But today, it’s really frightening and sick. I think it opens up the venue to so many more people because they won’t be known. I really object to anonymity period. I believe people are more responsible when their name is attached to it. I think all the digital devices should be collected at the beginning of the day and given back when the kids go home. I think there needs to be more done around internet safety protocols.

BPR: Your show is very technical. And I don’t say that as a qualitative judgment, I just mean it’s meant to showcase the technical, finer elements of the industry. Do you think that with the rise of online retail, there comes a loss of appreciation for these technical elements? What changes have you seen in the industry with respect to retailers who rely on websites and social media as opposed to brick-and-mortar stores?

Gunn: I think with respect to brick-and-mortar—I’ll be surprised if there’s anything left in 100 years. I still think that the appreciation happens upon receipt of the product. But you’re quite right…And I live in New York, and I have an ever-growing amount of cynicism about my store experiences, because if they don’t have my size or color, the constant refrain is, “Go online.” I think people are more quality-minded today, in terms of value dollar-per-dollar. They want something that’s good. I don’t necessarily think that the online experience diminishes the customer’s critical eye. It’s another hugely transformed experience for us.

About the Author

Michael Chernin '15 is an interviews associate and former BPR editor concentrating in political science (international and comparative track). His interests include security studies, foreign affairs, and strategic communications. He also serves on the editorial board of the Brown Journal of World Affairs. He has a passion for jazz, funk, and Latin percussion. Twitter: @Michael_Chernin