How Tim Gunn Is Connected To J. Edgar Hoover, And Other Surprises About Project Runway's Favorite Father-Hen

Loving Tim Gunn is nothing new. He's just always so Tim Gunn. And during an appearance at NYC's 92nd Street Y last night, Tim did not disappoint. The Project Runway favorite ruminated on his life so far and we fell in love with him all over again. "Every day I pinch myself and say, When am I going to wake up from this phenomenal dream? It's all been a phenomenal dream," he explained as we basked in his glow. More on the event and what he had to say about his childhood, his career, and, of course, Project Runway, after the jump.

Childhood: Gunn, raised by a career FBI agent father and a homemaker mother, admits that his parents weren't always sure what to do with their first-born, a boy with a "debilitating" stutter who was painfully shy and preferred the company of adults to his peers. "I became an avid reader, was obsessed with Lego — which was my passion, studied piano and wrote lots," he said. His father, interestingly, worked directly under J. Edgar Hoover as the director's second-in-command.

I don't even know if you need to know this, but here's this FBI guy and here's his first born who is building fantasy buildings in Legos, playing "Mr. Frog Hops" on the piano, and when I got the build-your-own castle for my birthday, I started designing outfits for the soldiers — you know what I'm saying? He coached all of the neighborhood sports teams, none of which his son played on. My father and I had a difficult relationship, but he was always there for me in a crisis. And believe me, I gave him plenty of crises.
The only athletic activity Gunn did get into, and excel at, was swimming, which he loved since it was "solitary and clean — there is no sweating involved." And yet, Gunn continued to struggle. ("When the teacher announces in front of the class that you had the best English paper, it doesn't help make you more popular with your peers.") In fact, he wasn't forced to conquer his shyness until he took a job teaching a 3-D design course at the Museum School in D.C. — and he got so nervous before his first day that he "got sick in the parking lot, multiple times."


Career: When Gunn arrived in New York City in 1983 "running from a crisis," he was still wearing his "D.C. uniform" of "boxy, ample suits." Once in New York, he had "an outer-body experience and realized that no two people on any given street corner are dressed the same. This is a city that accepts you for however you choose to present yourself." (He insists that he didn't have his "real fashion epiphany" until he became the chair of the fashion department at Parsons: "I was 18-months into my time as chair when I had a meeting with Diane von Furstenberg, I'm sure she doesn't even remember this meeting, but I could tell by her quivering eye [that she thought of me] 'I don't know if this is going to work for you in this industry, this particular look.' And I thought to myself, I can't disappoint Diane! So I got a black leather blazer tailored like a suit jacket. That was my solution.") As for how he became chair, well, Gunn, had a bit of a Dick Cheney moment. Tapped to head up the search committee for the top position, he realized that an outsider wouldn't be able to do the job and promoted himself from associate dean.. "The program at Parsons was suffering from dormancy," he said. "The curriculum had been unchanged for 15 years. This was a department in need of love and care." After taking over, he threw out the department's entire curriculum, including its cornerstone program wherein groups of seniors apprenticed to different New York-based American fashion designers and replaced it with a program in which each senior was responsible for creating a collection that would later be presented in a runway show. He says he was vilified for doing so. "I was told by the designers who had worked with students in this program that I was driving the American fashion industry into the ground," he explains. "'Get rid of this man!'," he says the design community exhorted. "He's a bad man! He's a bad influence on the industry!" But the dean at Parsons stood by Gunn — and the very first senior final runway presentation under Gunn's reign, in the spring of 2002, produced the Proenza Schouler debut collection. Julie Gilhart, women's fashion director at Barneys, bought their entire senior project for the department store.

Project Runway: In 2004, Gunn was approached by producers at Bravo about an idea they had to do a reality show about the fashion industry. "I was horrified when they told me what they wanted to do," he said. "I told them, 'This industry is in enough trouble without this!'" But after many assurances, Gunn signed on. As an off-camera consultant. "My having a role on the show wasn't even in the ether" during these early meetings, he recalled. "They said to me, What if we told you we want them to make a wedding dress in two days? And I said to them, So they make a wedding dress in two days! As I tell my students, it will just have to be a make it work moment! But then I qualified my statement and said to them, 'But you should know — [if they make a wedding dress in two days] it's not going to be a Vera Wang.'" Gunn did put his foot down however, when producers broached the idea of hiring a full crew of pattern-makers and seamstresses who would actually make the clothes the contestants sketched. "But who is Heidi going to off then? The seamstress? Oh no," was his response.

The producers worried that the designers wouldn't talk while in the work room, so they asked Gunn to go in there and critique their work and offer advice.

I thought while taping season 1, 'No one needs me. No one needs to see me, hear my voice.' I thought I would going to be cut during edited, that they would just show the designers reacting to whatever I had said. I was too embarrassed to go to the premiere party because I thought for sure they were going to cut me... I watched the season 1 premiere from home the same way I watched The Wizard of Oz as a child: curled up in my bed with a blanket over my head.
After the show's debut, Gunn says, the fashion industry reacted the same way they had when he took over at Parsons. "I felt the snark from the industry — they thought the show was silly, and were mad that it exposed the grit of the fashion industry. But then I remember the day the Emmys were announced — I remember because it was Bastille Day — and we got nominated and I thought, Takethat fashion industry! We were the only non-network show nominated and we've been nominated every year."

As for the shot of energy Project Runway seems to have given to the fashion industry? He's happy. "I'd much rather have people attracted to the industry because of [Project Runway] than because of Sex and the City, which was also a phenomenon," he said of the fact that enrollment in fashion design programs has spiked since Project Runway's debut. And yet he hopes that people realize it's not an easy industry. "Ulli [Herzner, from season 3] called me to lament" the fact that buyers were calling but she couldn't match the demand because, in Gunn's words, "she still insists in having her hand in every part of production. I told her, 'Ulli — let go!' She needs to let go while her name is still on people's mind." Conversely, of season 2 winner Chloe Dao he says: "I have the utmost respect for Chloe. She expanded her business in Houston and did a diffusion line for QVC. It's success, but in her own way." And yet he realizes the limits of his own success garnered from the show: "I was at the Au Bon Pain by where we were doing casting for season 4 and when I walked in, the woman working there screamed, 'Oh my God! You're on TV! You're that guy from Project Runway!' And I said, 'Yes, yes I am.' And then she screamed, 'Everyone look — it's Michael Kors!"