Style Advice and Shocking Revelations from Tim Gunn

Project Runway host, author, and educator Tim Gunn returns to advise on accessorizing, explains where colors come from, and reveals one surprising "don't" he almost did.

Fashion scholar, consultant and educator Tim Gunn obviously knows how to host a gathering — in fact he won an Emmy this week for co-hosting “Project Runway.” But we also happen to know he’s a pretty excellent guest: when his book “Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible” hit bookshelves last year, he did yeoman’s work dressing down our listeners’ etiquette questions. Now the “Bible’s” out in paperback, providing the perfect excuse to invite him back for another round.  This time, in addition to dispensing fashion wisdom,  he reveals a serious “don’t” of his dark (leather) past.


Brendan Francis Newnam: Thanks for coming back Tim. You came by when your book, “The Fashion Bible” came out.  It’s just come out in paperback, and I’m wondering: have churches sprung up around your bible?

Tim Gunn: There should be some churches around that bible! I agree. Have you seen how people get dressed for church these days?

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s alarming. People wear just, kind of, jeans and sneakers.

Tim Gunn: Or worse! In New York they just come in from Central Park jogging! I mean I’m horrified by it, really?

Rico Gagliano: Well, listen, you are obviously known for your opinions on clothes, but you are also starting a home decor line, we understand.

Tim Gunn: I am! Bedding, sheets…

Rico Gagliano: What are your guiding principles there? Are they different than the principles you would apply to picking out an outfit for the day? You’re going to live with this stuff.

Tim Gunn: I mean, to be honest, I think the principles are exactly the same. Given a choice between an apparel line and a home furnishings line, I will take the home any day.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Really? Why is that?

Tim Gunn: Well, in a manner of speaking, it’s so much easier. You don’t have to worry about sizing, how it’s all going to be displayed and merchandised…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, home decor is just squares of different sizes, right? There’s a napkin, there’s a tablecloth, there’s a bedspread… it’s not that complicated.

Tim Gunn: Precisely!

Rico Gagliano: There are some people who look like they’ve just wrapped a bedspread around themselves – maybe they’ll just do that with your chic home decor.

Tim Gunn: Roman style. Exactly.

Also, you know, in apparel, there’s that deceptive vanity sizing. When you have a size eight, is it really a size eight? And with home, a queen sheet is a queen sheet.

Brendan Francis Newnam: If that were the case, I would be sleeping in a ‘twin’ right now, even though my bed has grown larger.

So, you’re in the twelfth season of “Project Runway,” and this year they introduced something new called ‘The Tim Gunn Save,’ where once a season you are allowed to swoop in to save a contestant who you feel is getting booted prematurely. We were thinking about this. What’s a fashion item or trend that is now out of fashion that you wish you could have saved?

Tim Gunn: One that’s out of fashion?

Brendan Francis Newnam: High concept question here.

Rico Gagliano: Maybe something from the past that just isn’t done any more that you wish you could bring back?

Tim Gunn: You know, I really believe in ‘fashion Darwinism.’ I’ve never used that term until now. Behind the whole “Fashion Bible” that I wrote is a history of fashion according to what’s in your closet — I take individual items and trace their lineage — and things evolve for a reason.  And we don’t go back for a reason.

Rico Gagliano: Is that true? It seems like we go back all the time, you know? Suddenly the eighties are ‘in’ or…

Tim Gunn: Well, we might go back to the 1980s – but we’re not going back to the 1880s. There was a time in fashion where there were such pronounced class distinctions that, for men and for women, how you dressed was a class signifier. The clothes were so complicated that you needed an attendant to help you get into them.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, I still need that.Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Tim Gunn: Actually, some men still do, when it comes to ties!

Unless I’m in a full state of paralysis, I don’t want anyone doing that for me.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, it feels a little weird.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You talked about ‘fashion Darwinsim,’ Tim, but the last time you were here you talked about how capri pants are a blight on our fashion nation.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, and they’re still everywhere.

Tim Gunn: Well, that’s where I was going next. That if ‘fashion Darwinism’ rings true, capri pants are gonna go bye-bye. They really are.

There is a corresponding, collaborating in a way, force: this whole ‘comfort’ trap, especially in this nation.

Rico Gagliano: Which is what?

Tim Gunn: People buy clothes that are too big.  They don’t want to feel in any way ‘constrained,’ and they look sloppy. I’m always saying to women — and to men — but especially to women: “The more volume your clothes have, the more volume you appear to have!”  This is not flattering, not at all.

Rico Gagliano: So you are not going to go out on the line and save anything – but there’s plenty of things it sounds like you would jettison.

Tim Gunn: Oh, there are plenty of things I would jettison, yes, absolutely.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You would accelerate fashion Darwinism.

Tim Gunn: well, I just want people to look their best. I really do.

And I know from experience that I can have a very combative fashion relationship with an individual, but in the end, she or he gets it. And they acknowledge, “Oh, I really do look better.” People frequently ask me if I want to have a follow up with these people and find out how they are dressing today. My answer disarms them because I say “No!” They know what to do, so it becomes their choice.  And I have the greatest respect for the decisions that individuals make. If you want to look like a big unkempt slob, go ahead!


Acceptable hole diameters, soul-stirrers, and sentimental rags

Rico Gagliano: This plays into our first question – which I think I know the answer to but it’s fun to ask it anyway. This is from Elizabeth in Philadelphia, PA. She writes: “At what diameter does a hole in one’s pants become unacceptable?”

Tim Gunn: At what diameter does a hole in one’s pants become unacceptable?! I will say when it’s bigger than the diameter of a moth’s mouth!

But you know, if this item that has a hole in it is a soul-stirrer, it can and should be repaired in some way. Otherwise, turn it into a dust rag or throw it away.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I was going to say the answer to this question could be location, location, location. Sometimes a strategic hole, like in the knee – not that you put it there, but you wear in your jeans – is kinda cool.  It shows you love your clothes…

Tim Gunn: Frankly, I’ll agree, when it comes to denim. There is that school of thought that thinks that distressed denim is fashionable.

Rico Gagliano: People pay top dollar for holes in those pants.

Tim Gunn: Yeah, they do. But any other item, I would just say that hole is begging to be made bigger.

Rico Gagliano: I have a follow-up to this. I have a tee shirt that is beloved. It’s a polo. It got a tiny, slightly larger than moth-sized hole in it —

Brendan Francis Newnam: Nope.

Rico Gagliano: — But here’s the thing: The hole was repaired by a friend of mine with a bit of similarly colored thread – but it’s still pretty obviously a repair. It’s not a hole any more, but…

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s a tough one. I think that’s a Saturday afternoon chore shirt.

Tim Gunn: I would agree with that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It makes you feel good and that’s nice, but I don’t want to see it.

Tim Gunn: Yeah, don’t wear it out.

Rico Gagliano: All right, I won’t profane Brendan’s eyes by wearing it any more.


Achieving balance between monks and human Christmas trees

Brendan Francis Newnam: I think you have your answer there, Elizabeth.

Now we have a question from PJ in Santa Monica, CA. PJ writes:

“I just found some great dresses on sale, but I have no idea what accessories to pair them with. To be honest, this problem confronts me every morning. Dangles or studs, clutch or purse, scarf or necklace? Getting dressed is a crap shoot. Do you have a general rule of thumb for the dreaded A-word: accessorizing?”

Tim Gunn: Well, depending on one’s taste and lifestyle you can go from being a human Christmas tree to being monastic when it comes to accessories.

I mean, there are not any rules, other than if you’ve got a lot of ruffles and flourishes in the apparel, you certainly want to downplay the accessories. If you have a big open neckline, it’s a great frame for a wonderful necklace.

The whole thing about earrings, of course, is you also have to look at the corresponding hairstyle. If you have shorter hair, you can do more dangly earrings. Or studs — I mean, again, it’s a matter of taste.

The apparel and accessories should be in balance. You don’t want them competing with each other.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s like a pizza topping. Pick something you like, but don’t let it overwhelm the integirty of the pizza.

Tim Gunn: Perfect! I love that! I’m going to borrow it.

Rico Gagliano: Sun-dried tomatoes are delicious but, you know, don’t pile them on.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m helping to write the new testament of the fashion bible!


Where hip colors come from – and where Tim Gunn’s fashion mistakes go

Rico Gagliano: Here is something from Joey in Arlington, TX. Joey writes:

“What is the deal with color trends? What makes one color cool at the moment or not? These things change so quickly; it all seems so arbitrary. Has it always been like this? I realize this is not really a matter of etiquette, but I thought that, if anyone, you could make sense of this.”

Tim Gunn: Joey is correct. It is rather arbitrary. It’s the fashion and retail world’s wanting people to buy new things.

I say to people all the time that I’m the anti-trend guy. I have a kind of disdain for trends. They’re a catalyst for people buying things they may not need.

Brendan Francis Newnam: They’re manipulative.

Tim Gunn: It’s very manipulative. And when it comes to color, when you’re considering it, hold it up to your face and let it reflect upon your face. If you look rosy, then the color is probably good for you; if you look sallow, get rid of it.

Rico Gagliano: The most interesting part of this question to me is, where do these things come from? Who is the lord high color-trend person that decides that orange is going to be the new black?

Tim Gunn: Well, it happens about three years in advance of it actually hitting the market, because the textile mills have to make it.

There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to this, buyers going into a showroom saying “I want these color lines.” There are a lot of moving parts.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Despite the fact that you don’t believe in trends, when a color is popular – I remember, I guess it was the early ’90s, like, lime green suit jackets were kind of trendy – the problem is, once things have a big ‘moment’ like that?  If you wear them within the three years after that moment is past, that is really devastating.

Tim Gunn: I agree.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Trends, whether or not you like them, you do have to respond to them on some level.

Tim Gunn: What do you mean by that, exactly?

Brendan Francis Newnam: I think that’s where a fashion victim happens.

Tim Gunn: Ah! Totally agree! I talk about victims all the time.

How do you feel about these colored soles on men’s shoes? I see these shoes all over New York, and I look at people and think, “victim, victim, victim.” Talk about looking dated.

I have to say, I have my own baggage when it comes to this: I don’t want to buy items that I can’t wear two years from now, or next year for that matter. I want things that have staying power.

Rico Gagliano: Let me ask you: is there an item of clothing that you feel was your biggest mistake?

Brendan Francis Newnam: He’s not going to admit it.

Tim Gunn: I will. This is how much I love you guys. I have never told anyone this: I once bought a pair of leather jeans. Black leather jeans.

Rico Gagliano: If you’re not in a band, that is not allowed.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s amazing. Tim Gunn, you could rock that right now. You could do it. Not many people could.

Tim Gunn: Oh, no, no. Grandpa would go into the fashion insane asylum.

Rico Gagliano: What was the impetus for that?

Tim Gunn: I just thought… there’s an inherent sexiness to them? And I thought there aren’t any real age barriers.

I will also confide in you this factor which makes it all the more sad and pathetic —

Brendan Francis Newnam: They were leather capri pants?

Tim Gunn: Yes.  They were leather cargo capri pants. No, I’m kidding.

But I could never wear them out of my apartment. I couldn’t do it!

Brendan Francis Newnam: It just wasn’t you. It wasn’t Tim Gunn.

Tim Gunn: No. And it was only recently I took them to Goodwill.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I picture you waking up one morning, putting them in a bag in the back of your car, driving four hundred miles outside of New York and dropping them off.

Tim Gunn: That is where the Goodwill was. Columbus, Ohio!

I’ve really never told anyone that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, we’re honored, and shaken.

Rico Gagliano: We have to reassess everything about you, but thank you for telling our audience how to behave.

Tim Gunn: Thank you! I’d love to come back.