It’s that time again. Casting for the fourth season of Bravo’s Project Runway is underway in four U.S. cities (L.A., New York, Chicago and Miami) over the next week, which means that the lovable, erudite Tim Gunn is back! Though no longer overseeing the Design Department at Parsons, the new Chief Creative Officer of Liz Claiborne is still the man when it comes to everything Runway. We caught up with Gunn at L.A.’s Downtown Standard where, at lunch break, he’d already seen his fill of so-so designers and the line was still wrapped around the block. Would-be contestants, read on for some helpful insights from the design guru himself!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s lunch time now, but there are still several dozen hopefuls waiting outside. How do you mentally prepare for these full days of Runway casting?
TIM GUNN: With three seasons of casting behind us, I remind myself that the days seem excruciatingly long as they’re unfolding, but the entire process is over before you can blink an eye. I also remind myself that we’re going to see a profusion of mind-numbingly dumb and boring clothes.
What’s an example of mind-numbingly dumb clothes?
Student work, literally, or ”stuff” — and that’s the correct word — that looks like student work. By this, I mean the skirt made out of neckties, the backwards shirt, the plastic-bag evening gown, and anything else that screams, ”contrivance!”
What’s surprised you the most about the candidates you’ve seen so far today?
My fellow judges and I were really surprised by how unprepared people were to respond to the question, ”Why do you want to be on Project Runway?” They’re all like, ”My friends told me I should try out,” and I’m like, ”Why do you want it?” Then we saw this one designer who said, almost shyly, ”Well, it’s really a good opportunity for my business.” That’s the right answer!
What are you looking for this year that’s different from previous seasons?
We’re always looking for the same qualities: exceptional design talent and a compelling personality. With each successive season, we’ve seen a higher level of talent turnout. I merely hope that this will continue to hold true and that [this season] we’ll see the highest level of aptitude to date.
What have people been saying about the previous seasons? Any criticisms that you didn’t expect?
It can’t be mere coincidence that the comments people make to me are so consistent. And the designers for whom there are the most frequent comments are the ”final four” [Jeffrey, Laura, Michael, and Uli], plus Vincent, Angela, and Alison. The only time that I balked and almost had to be resuscitated was when someone told me that they loved Vincent’s work. When I recovered, I had to persuade myself that they were confusing his work with that of someone else!
In which audition city do you anticipate finding the most talent?
It’s always neck-and-neck between New York and Los Angeles. They’re each creative hotbeds, but the underpinnings are distinctly different.
How would you describe the repeat customers, those who’ve come back year after year to audition? Have you given them advice along the way? Did any of it have any impact?
Well, season 3 had four repeaters: Angela, Michael, and Kayne had each tried out for season 2, and Malan had tried out every season. In each case, they demonstrated that they had listened to our advice and counsel and, correspondingly, we invited them to move forward to the next level in the casting process. The rest is history!
American Idol has its delusional and clueless off-key tryouts — what’s the worst-of-the-worst Project Runway-wise?
Frankly, we probably don’t see the worst in the casting room, because there is a pre-screening outside. We have to pre-screen or the casting process would take months! Still, we see our share of unusual candidates. I get a kick out of the occasional oddball, but my temper flares when disrespect is hurled at us. How can anyone imagine that there is something good to be gained from being obnoxious? When pushed to my limit, I stand, point to the exit, and declare, ”OUT!”
Out of these castings, how many people will move through to the next level?
One hundred and twenty-five will go on to the next tier. If we see something that interests us, we move them forward, but it’s not like we’re saying, ”Okay, you’re on the show.” And for those we don’t move, we just say, ”Thank you for coming, but we’re passing.”
There were some borderline tears, and some may have exited the judging room and collapsed. It’s a long walk from our judges’ table to the door, so you can tell by their pace how they’re feeling.
How is your new job at Liz Claiborne?
More fabulous than I could adequately describe. I’m a mentor to 350 designers, the CCO over all the 46 Liz Claiborne brands. I’m not designing or editing; I’m not Tom Ford. But I am a sounding board for the designers, a therapist, and hopefully, an inspiration. Everybody else [at Claiborne] is coming from the business, finance, or merchandising world, and I’m coming with a design focus. It’s a huge challenge, but a thrilling one.
And you have a book, A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style, coming out in mid-April?
Yes. The book is in its second printing and has not even reached the bookstores, and they’ve sold out! I almost wept when I saw the finished version. I’ve never worked so hard for so little, but it feels great to be done. What had me beside myself was that I now have a Library of Congress catalog number.
How do you manage your time?
I’m doing it. The fact that I’m flying back-and-forth and I have the book tour coming up is tough. But I do enjoy all this, and I’m running with it. I’m the luckiest guy in the world!