RS Asks: Tim Gunn on the Holidays, Real Simple, and His New Book

Tim Gunn has served as a gentlemanly beacon of sanity to the young, super-stressed designers on the Emmy-winning Project Runway since the show debuted in 2004. The former chair of the fashion design department at Parsons The New School for Design, now chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne, Gunn published his second book, Gunn’s Golden Rules ($24, amazon.com), in September. In it he roams widely through both his professional and personal lives, discussing everything from manners (or the lack thereof) to misbehaving bold-face names to—in a frank admission—a suicide attempt he made as a teen. Gunn will be appearing at the Real Simple Pop-Up Shop in New York City’s Rockefeller Center from 1 to 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 4, to sign his book. But for all those who can’t join us, he answered a few questions beforehand.

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You’ve had a big year, between Project Runway, appearing in that amazing Emmys opener, and a new book. Do you have a personal highlight?

I do and it’s not on your list, because you wouldn’t know about it. It was being part of filming the new Smurfs movie, which comes out next August. That was the most fabulous, wonderful, joyous nine days of filming I could ever imagine. It was glorious. Oh, but what am I. . .being on the New York Times best-seller list! I’m hugely proud of the book and I’m always saying if I were ever to get a tattoo it would be my Library of Congress catalogue number. Well, now I can say numbers! I could have one on each arm!

Speaking of which. . .Barack Obama, George W. Bush, the Pope, Tim Gunn. All had books come out in 2010. How does it feel to be in that company?

[Laughs.] Oh, I’m not in that company at all. You greatly flatter me. You’re very generous, but I’m not in that company at all.

You have a lot of thoughts in your book about common courtesies that seem to have fallen by the wayside, but a lot of its message seems to be: Let’s just be nicer to one another.

And acknowledge one another! Have respect for one another. I find it absolutely mind-boggling that one can stand and hold a door for someone, have them not acknowledge it at all, and then the next thing you know there are three people behind them coming through. It’s shocking to me how inconsiderate people are, and the many forms that it takes, including simply seeming to be unaware of fellow human beings. I don’t get it.

You revealed a lot in this book, both about your personal life and your professional life. Was there anything that, once it was in print, you thought, yikes!

There were things that I really debated about, especially things having to do with me and most particularly the suicide attempt. Little did I know that we would come up against these suicides this fall in the aftermath of all this bullying. But I feel it’s important to come clean and be transparent with everyone and say, I didn’t have the happiest childhood and I really suffered in that. And I got through it.

What I really want people to pick up from that is that life is a big collaboration. You cannot navigate it alone. And you should never think that you can, because my coming out of that dark period was the result of an intervention. And the suicide attempt was the catalyst for that. That was when everyone stopped and said, He needs serious help now. And of course I resisted initially but it saved me and helped put me on a new path. And then once on the path it became my decision-making about how I was going to navigate that new path. But I wrote that very specifically for younger people to say: Look, life’s tough and you can get through this.

Let’s talk about Tim Gunn as an arbiter of taste. Something else that comes up in the book: You write that people constantly worry that you’re judging their clothes. So, do you have an outfit from the past that makes you cringe when you think about it?

Oh, I have to tell you, almost anything from the 1970s. I mean, that entire decade. The ’70s and the ’80s, talk about fashion disasters. It was the advent of polyester and bell-bottoms, and it was pretty hideous.

Any egregious holiday-wear, like a reindeer sweater or a light-up Christmas tree tie?

[Laughs.] No, and I don’t as an antidote to all the things that my family members favor: There’s plenty of light-up ties and Christmas sweaters and tartan plaid pants to go around for everyone. But I don’t participate.

Does the Gunn family have any special holiday traditions?

Well, we have a routine. My sister and brother-in-law have a beach house near where my mother is on the Delaware shore. We always gather at their house. I certainly enjoy it and I love my family, but it’s…nothing to put in a book. [Laughs.] Just very routine.

Let’s take a step into Real Simple territory.

You know, I’m a huge Real Simple fan. I read it every month.

So, then, do you have any new uses for old things?

You know, I rarely reassign things other functions. I am very respectful of what they are and what they do. Which is not to say that Real Simple isn’t. But for me, a lamp shade is a lamp shade is a lamp shade, and a vase is a vase is a vase. I read that section all the time and I am fascinated by it, but I actually can’t say that I practice it.

You seem like a very organized person: Do you have any organizing tips?

Yes: Go through every closet and drawer at least once every six months, just to do an inventory. I was home over Thanksgiving, so I just did it, and it was not only cathartic, I felt physically lighter. And I felt I had taken stock in what I own. I went through my junk drawer, which I assume everybody has, and asked, Do you really need all these little things? I mean, I light candles about twice a year, do I need all these matches? So it was a good thing to do. I encourage everyone to do their closet and drawer inventory once every six months. I mean, once a year is probably good, too, but if they can, every six months.

Would you answer our top five, most-answered Real Simple Asks questions?

I’d love to know what they are!

Okay, then: Are you a morning person or a night owl?

Oh, morning.

Are you more sweet or salty, food-wise?

Salty.

Are you more inclined to make snap decisions or do you sleep on them?

Boy, that’s a very good one. I mean, I’m really a hybrid. Depending upon what the circumstances are and what the context is, I’m capable of either. So in a way, both. I do make snap decisions, but there also times when I think, That’s not a snap decision situation. It needs some pondering.

How long does it take you to get ready in the morning?

From the time I get out of bed until the time I leave the apartment? An hour. My hour includes a little bit of puttering, but not as much puttering as I would like to do. If I need to, I can get up, shave, shower, dressed, out in 30 to 35 minutes, if I’m in a rush. But an hour is what it really takes me.

How many hours of sleep do you get every night?

I try to get around six, but I’m usually a little shy of that.

Finally, any 2011 resolutions?

[Laughs.] Well, to get through 2011 and into 2012. And I have to say, since I’ll turn 58 next year, to really take care of my health. The older we get the more important it is to really see the doctors we need to see regularly and eat better and exercise. And I’m not a gym person, I’ve never belonged to a gym, but I do walk a lot. New York is a great city to do that.

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