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Project Runway's Top Gunn

Tim Gunn on revolutionary fashion, the "It Gets Better" campaign, and why you're never too smart for style.

MJ: How did your own personal style evolve?

TG: My role as the chair of the fashion department at Parsons put me face to face with all the big designers, retailers, and editors. Since I was moving in these new circles regularly, I realized I needed to do something about my own personal style. It was really Diane von Furstenberg who gave me the nudge. She said "Darling, you really need to do something about this look of yours." I needed to look a little hipper, a little more modern, and a little less stuffy. If you can believe it there was a time when I was even stuffier than I am now.

MJ: You've said that no one's too smart for style. And there's that moment in The Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep does this takedown of the smart girl for thinking her regular blue sweater is fashionless. Why do we think it needs to be an either or, intellectual or fashionable, or is that changing?

TG: Fashion is the F-word in that world. One of the first meetings I went to as [Parsons design] department chair the head of the Economics Department said to me: "If I'd known you were going to be here, I would have brought my jacket with the missing button." Can you imagine? Of course, later I thought of the perfect retort: "Well, if I'd known you were going to be here, I would have brought my taxes." People believe that if you're concerned about the clothes you're wearing and the larger aspects of your appearance, that it's anti-intellectual. I say "Hogwash!" The clothes we wear send a message about how the world perceives us. And then people will say to me, "Oh that's so shallow, that's so inconsequential, don't say that." Well it's true! Let me put it this way: When someone new walks into a room, the first thing we notice about that person is probably their gender. And the second things is what they're wearing. And based on what they're wearing, we start making certain assumptions about them. And people will shout back at me "I don't do that!" To which I respond: If you're at a cocktail reception, how do you know who the wait staff are? You know by how they're dressed! I would never dream of telling people how to dress. but I do say to them, however you are dressing, accept responsibility for it. And also, unless asked, I don't judge. And if asked to judge—I would approach it socratically, I would approach it with questions. Because I say all the time: That person on the street who looks like a circus clown. Maybe they are.

MJ: Is fashion misunderstood? What would you say are common misperceptions?

TG: Well. That somebody who cares about clothes is missing something intellectually and spiritually. And that it really doesn't matter. It does matter. And I will also say—as disturbed as I am by people wearing sweats to the theater I'm just as disturbed by fashion victims. By people who have to have the latest thing. When they're head to toe in expensive designer clothes and accessories. I'm just as unnerved by that. So, I like striking a happy balance of those things. And being yourself. That's what's so critical. One of the fashion icons I have is Martha Stewart. People say "Martha Stewart?!" Martha Stewart's figured out how to present herself to the world. You know it's Martha. She looks sophisticated and polished.

The red carpet is a whole other matter. I look at red carpet clothes the way I look at wedding clothes. They're so occasion-specific, they're not really meant for navigating the real world. But I'm frequently taken to task by other commentators, or by the press. For instance, I think it was the 2008 Oscars where Tilda Swinton wore that black Lanvin cocoon. And I thought it was magnificent—that she was magnificent. Spectacular. She was one of my top picks for the red carpet. But I was attacked on The Today Show the next morning by Stacy London saying "you're crazy, that black plastic garbage bag? Who would wear that? Who could wear that?" I said, there's one person who can wear that, and that's Tilda Swinton! I'm not talking about taking that dress off of her and putting it on Sally Field. It's about the semiotics of clothes! That dress sends a message that says "I'm not marching to the beat of everyone else. I'm not a classicist, I'm a bohemian. And I listen to my own voice. That's what that said. How magnificent a statement is that?

MJ: And yet, some people feel like fashion's inaccessible. Like, why is Anna Wintour, and the word couture for that matter, so intimidating?

TG: Well, Anna Wintour is intimidating. But that's because she's made herself intimidating. She does not have a Socratic approach to anything. She just lays down edicts. And whether you're the editor in chief of Vogue or you're a college professor—that's bad. It's simply not the way to operate. And the word couture—it's so wrongly used. And I'm constantly correcting young people and fashion students in this nation when they say "Well, I do couture." By definition, you don't. You have to be licensed by the government of France to do couture. So don't use that term. You can say that you do one-of-a-kind, you can say it's custom, but you can't say it's couture—because it's inaccurate. Today there are seven couture houses in France. In the 1960s—you won't believe this—there were more than 200! Can you imagine even naming 200 designers? I can't. But, they are intimidating. And I will also say, I really love shopping on a budget. Personally, but also for everyone else. I find the whole notion of the multi-thousand dollar dress to be thoroughly repugnant. It's not necessary. It's how I feel about Kim Kardashian's $2 million engagement ring. How about spending 1.5 million, and giving half a million dollars to charity?

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