The voice of reason on ''Project Runway'' -- We talk to Tim Gunn about the show, revamping Parsons Fashion program, and his future

By Margeaux Watson
Updated July 21, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

When the producers of Bravo’s Project Runway recruited Tim Gunn to play father hen to a rowdy bunch of aspiring designers, they were counting on the dapper, well-mannered chair of the fashion-design department at New York’s Parsons The New School for Design to offer his sartorial expertise. And to hear Gunn tell it, it’s a good thing they didn’t think to ask his mother for a letter of reference. Ma Gunn’s response when her son told her that he’d been asked to appear on the series? Recalls Gunn with a smile, ”She said, ‘But you’re so oooold!”’

Well, she did have a point. At 52, the droll Washington, D.C., native could hardly have expected a lucrative second career as the most important new queer eye in Bravo’s summer lineup. And whether or not Mrs. Gunn wants to admit it, her son has so charmed Runway‘s viewers — effectively stealing the show away from both the contestants and supermodel host Heidi Klum — that it’s hard to imagine an entire season of sewing-room hissy fits and catwalk catfights without him. ”In many ways, I’m the voice for a lot of people at home,” says Gunn, lunching at a posh bistro inside New York’s Bloomingdale’s flagship store one day after the wrap party for season 3 (which debuted on July 12 with 2.4 million viewers). ”I’m their corroboration gauge of sorts, like ‘Yeah, I thought there was something funny about that.”’

Without Gunn’s no-nonsense approach, the producers of Runway would have had a much less compelling show on their hands. At first, they asked him to fill that vaguest of job descriptions: behind-the-scenes consultant. But it took only a few meetings to realize that Gunn’s ideas — and his bright demeanor — could take the series beyond its shortsighted original setup: ”They were thinking of having a staff of seamstresses, and the designers would hand off their work to them. I said, ‘If the audience doesn’t see [the designers] sewing, we’re not going to have an audience.”’

He was right. In fact, he always seems to be right, no more so than when he brings his unique counsel to the show’s harried, hurried contestants. Forbidden to give them an unfair advantage by offering straight-up tips like ”Get rid of the lace and replace it with a velvet ribbon,” Gunn instead assaults the designers with amusingly frank questions (”Do you think this is the way this garment should look?”) and killer side glances that nudge them to reevaluate their work. ”We needed someone to get to know the designers on a more personal level,” says Klum. ”He’s a great mentor because he really cares.” Bravo VP/exec producer Shari Levine also took a liking to Gunn’s compassionate — but firm — sensibilities. ”He’s very blunt, but it’s never done in a personal way. People feel that genuineness. They see it as a window into his heart.”

Gunn has long had a knack for constructive criticism. In 2000, he was tapped to rehabilitate Parsons’ fashion-design major, which, despite boasting iconic alums like Donna Karan and Tom Ford, was faltering. ”The curriculum had remained unchanged for 50 years,” he marvels. ”It was a sewing school for 1950s dresses!… I said to the dean, ‘This place is hemorrhaging, and we can’t just fold in some curricular revisions. We have to throw out the entire program and build from scratch.”’ So he introduced a senior thesis collection in the fall of 2001; by the following spring, his instincts paid off when Barneys New York bought an inaugural collection by two of his students, Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough, who collaborated under the name Proenza Schouler.