Last night, former Chair of Fashion Design for Parsons, The New School of Design, Tim Gunn, spoke to a crowded Eisenhower Auditorium as part of the Student Programming Association‘s Distinguished Speaker Series. Most commonly known for his role as a mentor for competing designers on the TV show Project Runway, Gunn made it clear from the start that his greatest pride is in his role as an educator.
While Gunn’s fame has developed through his knowledge of fashion and his desire to help spread this knowledge (his latest book, Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible, was released in September), a career in the fashion industry wasn’t always his intention.
“People presume certain things about me, that I’m a fashion designer—I’m not, I never was—that I’ve always been a guy interested in fashion, no. Not even remotely,” said Gunn. “My fashion trajectory has everything to do with my career and life trajectory.”
Gunn’s introduction to the fashion industry began in 1982 when he moved to New York City to teach 3D design at Parsons. In 1989, he was began serving as an associate dean for the school on top of his teaching responsibilities. In this role, Gunn likened himself to a “pooper scooper”—he would examine troubled academic programs and create a plan to, hopefully, fix them. In 2000, the Department of Fashion Design fell onto his agenda.
According to Gunn, the program had been working of a curriculum that had gone unchanged for nearly 50 years. After some consideration, it was determined that a fresh perspective was needed to reinvigorate the dying program, and Gunn was named chair of the program, to the chagrin of many in the fashion industry.
As Chair of Fashion Design at Parsons, Gunn reshaped the program to make it more student-centric. Undergraduate studies in the program had previously led up to a capstone mentorship program alongside designers such as Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs. However, students felt they were being forced to adapt to the aesthetics of these designer critics as opposed to developing their own. In his first year as chair, Gunn abolished this program in exchange for a senior thesis in which students would create their own line embodying their own visions as designers. Initial opposition to these changes led to public calls and petitions for Gunn’s removal and resignation, but Gunn kept faith in his restructuring.
“I thought with a little bit of time, people will get over this, and they did,” he said on facing outrage from students and designers alike. Even former President of Council of Fashion Designers of America Stan Herman called for his resignation.
Hesitation for Gunn’s radical restructuring of the program proved uncalled with the showcase of the senior class’s thesis collections. Gunn said that the next day, reports on the fashion show didn’t center around social happenings as they had in years past, but rather focused on the quality of the collections put out by the students. One student even had their collection scooped up right off the runway by a buyer for Barney’s New York.
“After the show, there was a standing ovation,” Gunn said. “I had been to 18 years of these—there’s never been a standing ovation. It was only about the clothes, it was only about the students.”
Gunn left Parsons in 2007 to join Liz Claiborne as the brand’s chief creative officer, but continues to mentor and teach young designers through Project Runway.
When asked various questions regarding personal style and what to wear (or not wear), Gunn shared some insight with audience members.
“The clothes we wear send a message of how the world perceives us,” Gunn said. “I don’t care what you wear, as long as you accept responsibility for it.”
And how to stay fashionable on a college budget?
“[Budgets] make us smarter shoppers. Stick with items that you know you’re going to wear, and if it’s something that’s really trendy and indulgent, think more than twice about it. Stick with classic items.”
Gunn also spoke briefly of his experiences on Project Runway, including how he’s yet to be invited to a Michael Kors show, even after 11 seasons on the show together.
However, the most important lesson Gunn shared was not on how to properly wear a scarf, or why every man needs to own a suit, but rather on how to approach life and your career, be it in the fashion industry or not.
“You never know where life will take you. Take risks, throw the dice. I’ve learned that so many times, and sometimes you’re wrong, but you can always retreat [and]take another path. Take the high road. No matter how much strife and consternation you’re faced with, no matter how much you want to bitch slap your boss or family member.”