When Tim Gunn, chair of the fashion department at New York’s Parsons School of Design, was approached about appearing in Bravo’s reality show Project Runway, he wasn’t sure the producers could, in his words, make it work. But work it did. So well that the sophomore show, in which budding fashion designers compete and are judged by fashion stars like Michael Kors and Heidi Klum, was nominated for an Emmy and has garnered record ratings.
While shooting the first season, Gunn wasn’t sure if he’d even end up on screen. With his clean-cut suits and razor-sharp critiques, Gunn servesas the voice of reason to the show’s fledgling designers. Neither a judge nor the show’s host, the suave DC native has emerged as an audience favorite.
A fifth-generation Washingtonian, Gunn was born to a life of creation and design. His great-grandfather’s stone quarry helped build the British Embassy, Union Station, and many federal-government buildings. After graduating from the Corcoran School of Art & Design with a degree in sculpture, Gunn built models for Washington architectural firms before coming back to work as the Corcoran’s assistant director of admissions.
Gunn also taught 3-D design; one of his memorable projects was the White House Christmas tree.
“My class and I handmade 1,200 ornaments, and they barely made a dent in this massive tree in the Blue Room,” remembers Gunn. “It took two weeks, and we ate in the White House canteen each day, a real treat.”
On his 30th birthday, Gunn was offered a job at Parsons. He became associate dean of the school before taking control of the oldest, most prestigious fashion-design department in the nation.
“The show is very similar to what we do here at Parsons, just on a much quicker timeline,” says Gunn. “So now whenever students complain about deadlines, I say ‘It could be Project Runway; be grateful.’ ”
What are Gunn’s thoughts on DC’s style?
“There are all those conforming social stigmas that everyone subscribes to, and no one wants to stand out any more than the next person,” he says. “It was a much different Washington when the Kennedys were in the White House.”