Tim Gunn Talks to Movieline About Project Runway, Confronting Gretchen, and Crossdressing J. Edgar Hoover

timgretchen500.jpgProject Runway's addictive drama hinges on the appearance of Tim Gunn, the competing designers' mentor who adds doses of advice, wit, and professorial integrity to the workroom. Movieline caught up with Gunn to discuss his new book Gunn's Golden Rules (and that chapter about J. Edgar Hoover's Vivian Vance drag), "crackpipe"-smoking judges, and even his favorite film scene of all time.

In your book, you talk about the entitlement and ridiculousness of people like Anna Wintour, Andre Leon Talley, and Isaac Mizrahi. After all these years working in fashion, are you still disappointed with the types who represent the industry?

I am. I am fed up with it. I work with -- I'll call them "everyday people" with the greatest amount of respect and adulation. Fashion is really intimidating to people. That haughtiness and that holier-than-thou attitude underscores that. It makes fashion seem less accessible. Clothing is accessible to people, but fashion for the most part people believe is not. I'd like to demystify all that. It's why I love the H&M brands and Zara and -- J. Crew isn't that inexpensive -- but brands that bring fashion to people at an affordable, accessible price. It's the democratization of design, and I love it. There a lot of people who don't, or they think people with a rarefied view should have access to any of this. That is still true for the $26,000 handbag, which I think is preposterous and people should be embarrassed to carry.

Do you know of people who dislike that Project Runway -- for all it has done to endear people to the industry -- has "demystified" the world of runways, as you put it?

Oh yes. There are still people who bear a grudge. Season one was particularly volatile because it was a very polarizing season. People didn't know what it was. They didn't know what to expect and once they tuned in, "Oh my God, people aren't supposed to know about this." In my experience, fashion designers loved the show from the beginning because it does reveal the process of what one goes through to create a single look, let alone a collection. It was really the editors, the editorial community that thought, "Oh my God, we don't want people to think of this industry in any way other than something that's beautiful and glamorous and has a big pile of whipped cream and a cherry on top." The fashion industry was really enshrouded in this veil of mystery, and Project Runway ripped the veil off and said, "You want to see it? Here it is."

According to your book, your father, who served as a friend and ghostwriter to J. Edgar Hoover, once introduced you to "Vivian Vance" in Hoover's office. Now you think that Hoover was crossdressing as Vance, but you only offer certain evidence to support that statement. Sounds a little like you're not letting onto something -- are you actually positive it was Hoover?

Well, I will say this: We did an exhaustive research. We checked our facts on everything. The FBI guest logs have no record of Vivian Vance ever being there. And we contacted her two biographers, neither of whom knew anything of a visit to see Mr. Hoover. It wasn't until the crossdressing stuff came up in the -- what was it, late '80s, early '90s? -- and I can remember it vividly that I had this epiphany at our Thanksgiving dinner table. I asked my sister, "Do you remember the visit to dad's office where we met Vivian Vance?" And she said, "Vaguely." She was probably three at the time. I said, "You think that was J. Edgar Hoover?" We were taking photographs of Vivian Vance and thinking about J. Edgar Hoover in a Kansas house dress looking big and buxom-y, and having a little wig on, and we thought, "Oh my God. He really could be Vivian Vance."

Also, were you disappointed that you maybe didn't meet Vivian Vance? I'd be!

Yes! I'd met Mr. Hoover before. [Laughs.] I was the one who was excited about meeting Vivian Vance, so upon reflection I feel a little angry and betrayed.

Top Chef won the Emmy for Best Reality Competition Series this week. In your book, you talk about how Padma Lakshmi once didn't return an e-mail of yours after you graciously set her up with a jeweler, which she requested of you. Did her aloofness make you upset with Top Chef's win?

Well, let me put it this way: Things happen for a reason. I really believe that. Top Chef broke the spell that The Amazing Race had on this category at the Emmys. They won for the last seven or eight seasons, which is ridiculous. I figure they've broken the spell, they've opened the door now for other shows to win. So I'm happy for them. But I have to tell you about this piece about [Padma Lakshmi] in the book. It was excerpted in Marie Claire magazine. Someone either told her about it or she read it. I received the most gracious, lovely, handwritten letter from Padma apologizing. It's caused me to well up in tears. Just lovely. Very touching.

You're so articulate -- I put you in the same category as the old What's My Line host John Charles Daly, whose elocution was astonishing. But that show was 50 years ago. Do you feel you belong to a bygone era in this way?

Do you think it's a bygone era? Because if you do, you're underscoring how I feel, Louis. It really concerns me. It really concerns me! There's a terrible erosion of, first of all, practical knowledge or general knowledge, I should say, of -- forget about other languages because people don't speak or write any -- the English language! I'm very unnerved by it. And thank you for the comparison to John Daly, it's a great compliment. My first experience with email was when I was at Parsons, part of the New School, and it was an email from the provost of the University. The provost is the chief academic officer. This email contained no capitalization and no punctuation. I. Was. Horrified.

I asked her about it, and she said basically, "You've got to get with it, man!" Get with it? I had a similar experience with someone who I won't name. I'd been part of a very lengthy cover story about her, and the interview took three days and probably collectively 10 hours. It was a lot. But when the article came out, it was wonderful, and I wrote her a long e-mail about how great the article was and congratulations and I was honored to be a part of it. Two days later -- the time doesn't matter, but I'm setting the stage -- but two days later I get an email back: "T-H-N-X." I didn't even warrant a vowel! T-H-N-X! Horrified!

And you wrote this effusive letter to her? Maybe more than one word back would've been nice?

I mean, "T-H-A-N-K-S" would've been fine. T-H-N-X? This is why I'm like an old fuddy-duddy and a Luddite and an old fart. I may be all of those. Well, I don't think I'm a Luddite, but at least a fuddy-duddy and old fart.

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