If you’re like most Americans, you probably know Tim Gunn as the kindhearted, professorial mentor of Bravo’s hit show, “Project Runway.” If you’re a designer or fashion industry insider in New York City, maybe you know him as the former chair of the fashion design department at Parsons, or as the current Chief Creative Officer of Liz Claiborne, Inc. (During his tenure at Parsons, Gunn played education mentor to a Who’s Who of American designers, including Patrick Robinson, Derek Lam, Behnaz Sarafpour, Peter Som, Doo.Ri Chung, Thakoon Panichgul, Zac Posen, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler, Bliss Lau, Holly Dunlap of Hollywould, Lisa Mayock and Sophie Buhai of Vena Cava, and countless others.)
These days, the courtly Washington, D.C. native (who studied English literature and sculpture at Yale and the Corcoran School of Art + Design) is best known as the personable host of Bravo’s new reality series, “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style,” in which he partners with “fashion accomplice” Veronica Webb to help style-challenged women in the tri-state area achieve their sartorial best with pointers and advice culled from his recently-released book, “Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style” (Abrams). Yes, there are the requisite reality TV soul searching and epiphanies along the way, but it’s actually quite touching to see these women’s self-esteem go from 0 to 60 in the few days they spend getting made over by Tim’s Team.
But despite these many lofty accomplishments, to us, Gunn will always be one “hot bitch” (to quote PR season one contestant, Mario) and a kick-ass drinking buddy.
The Fashion Informer managed to pin down the illustrious – and uber-busy - silver fox as he readied for the upcoming season of "Project Runway," and were surprised to discover that Gunn is a record-holding swimmer whose favorite work of art is Picasso’s “Portrait of Gertrude Stein." And, well, not so surprised to learn that his family nickname is “Uncle Nag Bag” (UNB for short) and that his favorite thing in life is helping someone realize their full potential.
And as for season four of “Project Runway,” the man who coined the phrases “Carry on!” and “Make it work!” confides that “it is the strongest group of individual designers by far. Any one of them could have won the entire season, which is why it sickened me to lose any of them (but for a few big pains...). The consequence of the high level of design and execution is that I don't think anyone watching will know who's won and who's going home until the runway judging. I didn't!”
Oooh, now that sounds seriously intriguing. But enough about the “Project Runway” designers. It’s really the gentleman scholar we’re interested in here at “Random Questions For…”
What is your favorite book of all time?
Oh, this is so extremely difficult, because I have so many, many favorites. Let me share the books that I re-read and re-read: Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain," "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" by Carson McCullers, "You Can't Go Home Again" by Thomas Wolfe, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" by James Agee, "The Wasteland" by T.S. Eliot (a poem, I know, but an epic poem), "Running in the Family" by Michael Ondaatje, and Lewis Carroll's “Alice in Wonderland.” I love the written word.
What is your dream occupation (other than what you're currently doing)?
But could my occupation be any dreamier? Really!
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
A banana and a Centrum Silver vitamin pill.
Do you have any hidden or unusual talents?
Unusual talents? None that I can think of. Hidden? I play the piano. Not well, but I play the piano. And when in school, I was a record holding swimmer: backstroke and breaststroke.
What is your all-time favorite work of art?
I promise that I won't answer this the way that I answer the "favorite book" question, but I could! If I could remove a work of art from a museum and place it in my apartment, it would be Picasso's "Portrait of Gertrude Stein" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I'm obsessed with it. I'm not a huge Picasso fan by any means (have you seen the work in the Picasso Museum in Paris? Omigod!), but his work from this period (1906) is my favorite. But it's my fascination with Gertrude Stein that's at the core of my lust for this work of art. She was a seminal force in creative writing, she was a kingmaker for artists of the day, and her Paris salon was an incubator for the creative underpinnings of the 20th century. If you haven't read "Gertrude Stein on Picasso" or "If I Told Him," her soliloquy to Picasso, please do. And if you go to the link, below, you can hear Stein reading the latter:
If you found $15,000 cash in a brown paper bag, how would you spend it?
First, I'd turn it in to the police department within the vicinity of where I found it. If I were later contacted and told that no one laid claim to the money and that the serial numbers were clean, so the money was mine, I'd give it to a charity. I didn't earn it and it wasn't given to me; I found it.
What was the biggest challenge for you when writing your book?
The biggest challenge by far was finding the discipline to make the time to write it. I love writing and write a lot, but I had never tackled anything this large and formidable. I was late, late, late with the manuscript and my editors were getting mighty impatient. I was in avoidance-mode (not denial, but avoidance) until my editors conducted an intervention and locked me in their offices until the book was finished. I'm so embarrassed to share that!
What freaks you out?
What freaks me out? Amphibians, reptiles, rodents and most bugs. I'm a screamer.
What, to your way of thinking, is the most egregious fashion faux pas?
Simple: a bare midriff. On anyone. Save for at the beach or a pool, it triggers my gag reflex.
What is your beverage of choice?
A Diet Coke or an iced tea. But if it's the cocktail hour, then a gin and tonic or a Manhattan.
What was your childhood nickname and what is your current nickname?
I was "Timmy" as a kid, and my mother and sister still call me that. But my niece and nephew dubbed me "Uncle Nag Bag" about 14 years ago (or "UNB" for short), but it has been abbreviated to "Uncle Nag." Yes, that's what they call me, as does my sister on occasion.
Tell me about your best friend.
My best friends are Bea and Jerry Banu, whom I've known since I moved to New York 24 years ago. We share so many of the same interests: architecture, decorative arts, fashion (Bea, not Jerry), books, movies, and taking long walks in the city. When I'm not crazed, we get together for dinner about twice a month. They were next-door neighbors for the 16 years that I lived on Perry Street in the West Village, and I had that great apartment because of them. We've vacationed together, too, such as when I took my niece to Paris in 2001. Furthermore, Bea and Jerry are great therapists!
When are you happiest?
I'm happiest when I can help someone or something be better. That can be a fashion transformation or merely painting a wall.
Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style can be seen on Bravo Thursdays at 10 p.m. EST.