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Project Runway: Junior: Tim Gunn says teens are more fun than grown-ups: Interview

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Barbara Nitke/Lifetime

Tim Gunn may have needed a vacation after season 14 of Project Runway, but instead dove head first into Project Runway: Junior — which ended up being a better mental reset than beach time (or whatever it is someone as fab as Tim Gunn does on vacation). We talked to the famed mentor about the upcoming season, mean girls, and things you find in a car wash.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What were your initial thoughts when you first heard about Junior?

TIM GUNN: I haven’t really said this to anyone but I’ll say it to you: I was very ambivalent about doing this show. One, because we were just coming out of season 14 of Runway, which was completely and totally draining and exhausting. And two, other than a little work with the Cooper Hewitt team design program, I’ve never really worked with this age group — I work with college students. I’m telling you — I haven’t said this very much — I hated season 14. I hated it. I felt that other than a couple of designers that the contestants weren’t working up to their potential. The whole thing was lackluster.

But clearly you got roped in. What was the audition process like with teens?

Well, I was a secret. So I wasn’t involved in auditions. They didn’t want the designers to know I was a mentor, so I came out as a surprise in episode 1.

They must have lost their minds.

You know, I’m thrilled to say they did, but they lost their minds over everything! First trip to Mood? They lose their minds!

Frankly, if I ever went to Mood with you, I would also freak out. I’m not sure that has anything to do with being a teen, for what it’s worth.

Well Jack Sauma, who owns Mood, came in while we were doing the intro, and I said, “Oh, I’ve gotta stop and interrupt this, you all have to meet Mr. Sauma who’s the owner of Mood.” And they looked at him and said, “It’s Mr. MOOOOD!” They were just like this about everything! [Laughs] They’re old souls — these kids cannot be fresh on this planet. They must have been around before because they have incredible maturity, a tenacity about executing their work, they have such wonderful qualities of character, and they’re just fearless and resilient. When we had eliminations — and of course with every challenge we do — the designers were statesmanlike. Meanwhile, the judges and me, we’re all sobbing! “Let’s bring them back, let’s do it now!” We really did get serious about how we weren’t gonna send anyone home, but our showrunner, Sarah Rea, stepped in and said “Look, this is a competition. I know how much you love the kids, but we can’t have a finale with 12 finalists.” [Laughs] It wouldn’t be meaningful.

It’s nice to hear you say that, because this generation tends to get a bad rap when it comes to work ethic and maturity.

The future has never looked brighter to me. Never. And they were fantastic with critiques. They’re so mature about the critiques, and the also assimilate everything. It’s phenomenal.

Part of the reason people love this show, and particularly your role in it, is because you’re a very kind mentor, but you’re blunt in your delivery. Did you have to change that for these kids?

Not at all. Well, let me put it this way: I learned that I didn’t have to. The first round of critiques, going into it, I was very aware of the fact that these are young, impressionable minds. Sensitive kids, theoretically. But I learned quickly that they wanted it, and if you didn’t give it to them, they felt you were pandering to them.

Are most of them from small towns?

For many, it was their first time in New York. We’re touching upon the designers from Tennessee and Kansas where the nearest fabric store is 200 miles away and it’s a Jo-Ann Fabric. And I’m not denigrating Jo-Ann — God bless you, Jo-Ann! — but their resources are not immediately available. Yet they all just ascended to the most phenomenal levels and did really great work. Kelly Osborne’s one of the standing judges, and she was a guest judge on season 14 of Runway, and at one point I turned to her, because she was reflecting upon the challenge she judged for 14, and I said, “You know what we’re sending home here is better than what won that challenge when you were with us.” And she said, “I know!”

As the access to fashion, or the ability to at least follow the industry, has exploded, I imagine these kids are pretty self-educated.

Many were very self-educated. I’d ask, “How did you learn how to do this?” And they’d look at me like I have three heads and say, “YoutTube!” I didn’t even know this content was there!

Did they get along, for the most part?

They got along famously! I couldn’t believe it?

So are you telling me this going to be a drama-free Project Runway?

Yeah, I think it probably will, be but it’s going to be so full of adorableness you won’t mind.

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Well, I’ll take that.

They’re just so wide-eyed. Yeah. I mean, we had one mean girl. There’s always one. And you know what’s so interesting? She was the one designer in the group who was homeschooled. So on one hand I thought she’s filled with insecurities and this is her way of compensating. One day her father [was on set] and while watching the tape, watching this happen, said, “There’s going to be some major behavioral turnaround. I don’t like what I’m seeing.” It was reassuring. But no, for the most part, they get along.

The final runway show, was it at Fashion Week?

We were the tail end of Fashion Week. It wasn’t on the books, we weren’t certain how we were going to do it, but we used a venue that a lot of the designers use. We learned about the venue from Christian Siriano, another standing judge.

Speaking of the judges, Kelly, [Cosmopolitan and Seventeen fashion director] Aya Kanai, and Christian are all great, but those are three very different, outspoken people. How did they relate to the kids?

The kids were in awe. It didn’t quite sink in that they were standing judges, and when they saw them there for the second challenge, and then the third, they got it. We didn’t have any guest judges until the finale. So it was nice to have that consistency in terms of voice. And they were — I mean, I’m using you like a therapist! — I’m just so sick of the season 14 judges, I’m so sick of how they feel competitive with one another and one says it’s black, the other says it’s white, and they don’t really listen and they don’t really look, and it makes me so cross and pissed off, frankly. Our judges, Aya and Christian and Kelly and our host Hannah [Davis] were so racked with attention, you could see it in their faces. Their interactions were about probing, learning more about the context, how the contestants were working. It was just uplifting. It was inspiring, I was so glad to be a fly on the wall.

Did you tailor the challenges for a younger competitor? What’s the wackiest thing we’ll see?

Our second challenge is an unconventional material challenge. I’m gonna really get in trouble for this interview but you know what? The show’s so good I don’t care! Lifetime was beside themselves [about this challenge]. “No no no, we can’t do this challenge. It’s gonna be horrible, it’s gonna be a big old mess.” I got on the call with Sarah Rea to the network to say, “Just stop it. Just stop it. They’re fearless, they’re talented, let them fly.” And the work was phenomenal. I’ll tell you. We took them to a car wash. Yeah.

You took them to a car wash and had them do what, exactly?

Well, we went back to the workroom of course, but all their materials were from the car wash.

That actually is one of the weirder challenges I’ve heard of.

They had a blast! [Laughs] You’re not gonna believe it.

Bella Thorne is the season’s one guest judge, in the finale. How did you guys settle on her?

Can I be honest with you? I haven’t a clue why we chose her. [Laughs] I haven’t a clue! I didn’t get it at all. I thought … why?

Well, how’d she do?

She was very engaged, and totally disarmed by these teens! She had a reaction similar to the reactions our judges had when they saw the work for the first challenge. They looked at me and said, “Wait, wait wait wait wait. Who executed this work?” And I said, “What do you mean who executed this? They did!” “No, they designed it, who made it?” “THEY DID.” And they just said this can’t be. But yeah, it can be! That’s exactly what happened.

Project Runway, more than many other reality competitions, has turned out people who have actually gone on to make a mark in the industry. What do you think we’ll see from these kids?

There’s a huge journey ahead for these teens and as for where they’ll end up? I don’t even think they can imagine, just aesthetically. They’ll encounter so many things that are new. And the fact that they possess such a strong point of view now, it’s remarkable. In the first challenge, for every designer, there’s a different point of view. And I didn’t even have to talk to them about that in the workroom. They’re so palpably who they are. It’s there. It’s very much in your face.

And did that result in a closer competition?

Much much much much much so. Boy, was it a tough race. At the finale it really was anyone’s call. But let me say, you gave me a wakeup call when you asked if it was going to be drama-free, because now I’m thinking that I’m not privy to what happens in the one-on-one interviews. Though I can’t imagine that their whole tone and tenor out of the work room would be that much different, except that it may be that there’s a lot of, “I’m scared to death, I’m not gonna finish,” or things of that sort. But I believe it will all be work related. They’re great kids.

So the adults from Runway caused you more headaches than a bunch of teens?

Oh my God. [Laughs] YES. If anyone said to me, okay, you can’t be a mentor on both shows, choose Runway or Junior, I’d choose Junior in a heartbeat.

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