Tim Gunn speaks about doing Project Runway in LA

TV Personalities Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum attend the Project Runway Finalists Fashion Show Spring 2009 during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at The Promenade, Bryant Park on September 12, 2008 in New York City.
TV Personalities Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum attend the Project Runway Finalists Fashion Show Spring 2009 during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at The Promenade, Bryant Park on September 12, 2008 in New York City.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for IMG

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It’s must-see TV for fashionistas and sewing mavens alike. Project Runway’s current season is set in the heart of the fashion district of downtown L.A. Hungry designers compete in a series of challenges ranging from reinventing surfwear to creating clothing out of L.A. Times newsprint.

The top prize: showing their work during New York’s Fashion Week.

The style guru for these designers is the chief creative officer for Liz Claiborne, Tim Gunn, who’s from the Washington, D.C. area. KPCC’s Washington Correspondent Kitty Felde talked with Gunn about the business of fashion in L.A., and his opinion of Capitol Hill style.

Announcer (at fashion show): May I introduce you to the co-host and mentor of Project Runway... Tim Gunn! Let’s hear it! (applause)

Tim Gunn on the Runway from Off-Ramp on Vimeo.

Kitty Felde: It was just a fashion show at a suburban Virginia mall. But Project Runway fans packed all three levels above the atrium just to see and hear their fashion idol in person.

Tim Gunn endeared himself to the crowd by confessing that he, too, felt uncomfortable wearing certain fashions. A pocket handkerchief makes him feel silly. But he urged the crowd to get out and shop.

Backstage, Gunn worried about the health of the fashion industry in New York and Los Angeles.

Gunn: Both industries are suffering. They’d have to be because we’re all affected by the same things: the consumer and the retailer. And I’m confident that as we pull out of this, both industries will flourish again.

Felde: In the meantime, Project Runway is doing its part to make fashion the subject of water cooler and Twitter debates. The show’s sixth season was filmed in Los Angeles instead of New York. The current crop of designers work out of a sewing room at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising near Staples Center. Gunn says the move west inspired a different kind of style in the designers.

Gunn: I mean I loved the quality of light in Los Angeles. I mention that in terms of how the designers responded to it in what they were actually making. It reminded me of the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn and even David Hockney’s pool paintings.

Felde: L.A. often plays second fiddle to New York when it comes to fashion. Even the three top designers from this season show their collections at New York’s Fashion Week, not here in L.A. Many L.A. designers have moved their shops to New York to get the recognition they crave. But Tim Gunn says it wasn’t always that way.

Gunn: One thing that struck me in particular and that has held me is the role Los Angeles has had and in the whole – and has continued to have – but in particular had in the first half of the 20th century, in American fashion. Before World War II, it was the heart of American innovation and creativity in America because of the Hollywood film industry, and in New York all we were doing was copying Europe.

So there was nothing creative happening. So that’s quite a claim to fame. You may know that Gilbert Adrian who was the head costume designer at MGM Studios had his own ready to wear line because there was such a fervor for his work.

Felde: Gunn says there were other perks to shooting the show in L.A. during the winter months – the weather was “spectacular.”

Gunn: It was never too hot, it was never too cold. And I will say though I missed the East Coast weather. And there was one day when we had cloud cover and a few drops of rain and all over the news they were saying, “Storm! 2008!” I thought they need to have an East Coast storm experience here.

Felde: Gunn’s influence has spread to Capitol Hill where he was invited to testify before Congress about copyright protection for the work of fashion designers. The Capitol was abuzz for days after he was spotted walking through the Rotunda.

Which led to a friendly disagreement about Washington’s sense of style. Or lack thereof. Tim Gunn said he was pleasantly surprised by the fashion choices made by lawmakers like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Felde: I find that people don’t dress particularly well here. There’s kind of an odd style–
Gunn: But I’m comparing it to what I saw two-and-a-half years ago. What a difference!
Felde: In what way? I mean you were praising Nancy Pelosi, but–
Gunn: What about – tell me. Tell me something negative about Nancy. I love her.
Felde: You can always predict what she’s going to wear. It’s going to be red, white, or blue, and it’s going to be a blazer. Do women in power have any other options?
Gunn: Oh! That isn’t true!
Felde: Have you ever seen her in a dress? Have you ever seen her in–
Gunn: Yes, I have actually. Yeah. The Human Rights Campaign National Dinner. I have. Yeah.

Felde: Gunn conceded Washington power brokers do commit one fashion sin: bad fit. He says he often sees lawmakers wearing clothes that are just too big. Of course, Tim Gunn needs to answer for his own fashion faux pas. On a Project Runway field trip to the beach, he wore an impeccably tailored suit... and flip flops.