Project Runway: A Roundtable With the Judges

We always try to look our best during our NEWSWEEK roundtables—we've done the Oscars, the Emmys, and more—but sometimes you can't help a fashion emergency. Just minutes before our Project Runway roundtable was set to begin, one of us stained a shirt collar with a big, ugly blob of makeup. Oy. How would we make it work?! Like a mother hen, Tim Gunn swooped to the rescue, wielding a fierce weapon: the tide stick he carries around in his bag. As he dabbed and blotted, he not only saved the day but also gave pointers about how to save the shirt. 

Project Runway is looking for a clean start of its own. Like two girls fighting over a cashmere sweater, Bravo and Lifetime had been locked in court for 12 months over broadcasting rights to the hit reality show. Lifetime eventually won, and this week Runway returns to, well, the runway. In person, Heidi Klum, Michael Kors, Nina Garcia, and Gunn are like a group of old fashion-school friends. What follows is a candid discussion about the reality show and all things fashion. It was so candid, in fact, that after Tim's big rescue, Heidi still marched right up to us and said, "Did you know you have a big makeup stain on your collar?" Ouch. Or is it "auf"?

NEWSWEEK: OK, we're going to start with an easy question. If you had to name one person who forever influenced the way you look at fashion, who would it be?
Michael Kors:
For me it would be Halston. He was American and proud of it, and I think that women really felt sexy in his clothes, but at the same time were comfortable.

Nina Garcia: I would have to say Coco Chanel. She set up such iconic classics: the tweed jacket, the little black dress, the chain bag. All those things still live today and have continued to keep that house so relevant.

Heidi Klum: For me it was probably Karl Lagerfeld, because he was German, and when I was in Germany I didn't really know that fashion or modeling was, like, a serious job.

Heidi, aren't you having a feud with Lagerfeld now? He's been attacking you in the press.
Klum: I personally don't have a problem with him, but I read things and I hear things.

Does he know that you admire him?
Klum: Well, that wasn't the question. He was definitely a designer in Germany who was known. I think the country was very proud of him, and [his clothes] looked different.

What's the most prized possession in each of your closets?
It has to be a fashion item, right?

Kors: What else is it going to be?

Garcia: It cannot be [Klum's husband] Seal. It's a one-track mind with her.

Klum: Hmm. That's hard for me, to choose one piece.

Garcia: I could pick for you: jewelry.

Klum: But that's not clothes!

Kors: Honey. It's fashion.

Klum: Well, then, it's my wedding band.

Kors: I have actually tried her wedding band on. It fits on the tip of my pinkie like a thimble. It's divine, it's like a sewing thimble.

What about you, Tim?
My basic classic black suit.

Garcia: I'm 5 foot 4, so I love the heels.

Kors: For me, people ask all the time, like, "Oh, my God, he wears the same thing every day."

But you don't really wear the same thing every day.
No! There's fat black jackets, medium black jackets, skinny black jackets. Black T shirts that are brand new that look really black, black T shirts that you sleep in that are kind of gray, and midtone black T shirts.

Thanks for clearing that up. Do you guys think fashion is something you have to be born with, or can it be learned? Were you fashionable as children?
Definitely not! And Michael still looks at me funny now and then when I walk into the room.

Kors: I grew up in a family where everyone was fashion-obsessed—our dinner-table conversation was kind of like, "Don't you think wrap skirts are great?" So it was kind of part of my childhood. But I think you have to have the interest in the first place, and then you hone that interest.

Garcia: Like Michael, I knew very early on that's what I wanted to do; that was my obsession. I had a mother who was very fashionable, and I had an older sister who was also into fashion, so, you know, that was what I loved.

Gunn: I grew up in Washington, D.C., which is about as far from fashionable as one can get. It wasn't until I moved to New York when I was 30 that I came to terms with the fact that I don't have to be wearing a uniform.

What do you think was happening culturally that helped make Runway such a hit when it debuted?
Project Runway came at a time when fashion was really in fashion. You know, it was H&M and Karl Lagerfeld, and all these collaborations—Target and Zara—and fashion was really available, or is available, at every price.

Kors: I think the show has really shown people that what you wear is a conscious decision, and there is work that goes into what you wear. It made people realize fashion wasn't just something for people in New York or Paris, or only for editors or designers, or for Heidi Klum. It's allowed people who aren't fashionistas to feel kind of invested in the whole process.

Gunn: From where I sit, Project Runway took the veil of mystery that sat over the fashion industry and ripped it off, and bared it for what it is. It's difficult, it's daunting, it's gritty. It doesn't look particularly glamorous.

Klum: I just remember going out in New York City trying to sell the show and trying to explain what it is that's interesting about a bunch of people sewing clothes together. And it was very hard, because people did not understand what this concept was all about.

The winners of American Idol are all instant successes. But that doesn't seem to be the case with the winners of Project Runway . Why?
We get asked that question all the time. "What happens to the winners of Project Runway?"

Garcia: It takes years for a designer to get established.

Kors: And to figure out how to make it last. I think at the end of the day, the great thing about the show is that it gives you the platform. It gives you the spotlight, and then, quite frankly, it's up to them to navigate these torturous waters.

Gunn: You have to have a tenacity to see through the bad reviews and persist. And with our Project Runway "alumni," I'll call them, it depends on how ambitious they are, and also how willing they are to relinquish making something to a production team.

Of all the contestants who have been on the show, who do you think has the best vision?
For me it would be Christian Siriano, because I still see him around. I wore one of his beautiful gowns to the Emmys and many people were like, "Who is this gown?"

Kors: I think to succeed in fashion, like in Hollywood, you need to have all of it. And Christian has it. He has the talent, he's driven, and this is his life—he breathes it, he eats it—and on top of it all, he's got a personality!

Michael, do you think you could design a dress in under an hour like your contestants?
Let me tell you something—and I am always really frank about it—I am definitely not a fast sewer. So when we sit there, and we're like, "Oh, look at the hem! Look at this! Look at that!" I have to tell you, that these guys pull this off in this time frame is so remarkable. I can look at something, tell you what to do with it, how to fix it, but hey, I'm a school dropout. I mean, I started my business at 21.

You never went to fashion school?
I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology for a semester and a half, and I just started working.

Gunn: Got what you needed and got out!

Let's talk about the anxieties of season six. You filmed almost a year ago. Then the Weinstein Co. tried to sell Runway to Lifetime, and Bravo sued. Were you ever concerned that you'd never see this season?

Gunn: I was. Heidi was always optimistic, but I became terribly woeful. I thought, "We will never see the light of day, we'll be locked in court forever, and the show will go away." That's where my head was.

Klum: Well, fashion does move fast. So it definitely would not be good if it got held for too many years, because then it would be really out of fashion. And we would look terrible!

Kors: Or we'd be geniuses!

Garcia: Ageless!

Klum: I was already thinking that—"What was I wearing then? By the time this airs, this will already be terribly out of fashion!"

Gunn: Well, you know, there is one of those episodes coming up. I won't believe the outcome until I really see the show. And Nina, you're at the core of the entire thing.

Garcia: Wait, really? What did I do?

Gunn: You filibustered as a judge.

Klum: You filibustered. What is "filibustered"?

Have you guys ever disagreed about who should win?
Oh, God, yeah! But I have to say, we've never had full fisticuffs. The funny thing is, we sit there, we're watching them come out, and we're really just going for this visceral reaction: like, what do you really think?

How is Runway going to be different on Lifetime?
I think so many people are afraid of us moving to L.A. But honestly, I've always said that we can shoot Project Runway on the moon, because we're sort of in our own Project Runway world. But Tim, you were worried about the earthquakes.

Gunn: Well, that I was. I still am. But we were only there for a couple of days and I was reminded that before World War II, Hollywood was really the center of American fashion.

Kors: And of course the big change in L.A. that no one has mentioned is that we judge each week all wearing swimsuits. [Laughter] We'll all be in swimsuits, which is fantastic! Isn't that fabulous? Nina and I, we're by the pool, we'll be drinking piña coladas, and we're both heavily spray-tanned. But other than that, everything's the same.

We're just impressed that you invited Lindsay Lohan to be a guest judge, and she actually showed up.

Everybody's so quiet now.
Klum: You're such a gossip girl!

Kors: Ohmigod!

Have you guys watched The Fashion Show on Bravo?
Klum: I don't watch TV. I don't even watch Project Runway, to be honest.

Kors: Here she is, like a mega–television star, and she really doesn't watch TV. I have caught an episode, yes, I have.

What did you think?
Kors: I have to say, I've never been one of those designers who freaks out when I see a copy. I think, "Oh, I must be doing something right."

Tim, do you see Isaac Mizrahi around the office at Liz Claiborne?
Gunn: You know, only infrequently. And I haven't seen him since the show began to air.

So you aren't getting into fistfights?
Gunn: No. And, you know, I'm not a fistfighter. I'm a biter and a hair puller!

Kors: The Tim Gunn we all knew.

How do you think the Obamas have influenced the fashion world?
Gunn: Hugely.

Klum: I think it's the first time that people actually look at women in politics wanting to look like them. Most women in politics, they wear a suit and look like a man.

Are you talking about Hillary?

Klum: No. I'm not picking a person.

Kors: I think the other thing that's interesting is that suddenly you have both a president and a first lady who are incredibly accomplished, incredibly bright, well read, obviously juggling 70 balls up in the air, and both very upfront about the idea that, you know what? It's OK to look great doing it. Like, it does not make you suddenly a second-class citizen, or shallow.

Tim, I don't want to put you on the spot. But the last time we talked, you were single. Is there a Mr. Tim Gunn in your life now?
Gunn: I couldn't be more single. I don't have time. Relationships take time, and I'd have to give something up, and there's nothing I would want to give up. I really mean this: I'm the luckiest guy in the world.

Klum: You're missing out on a few things.

Gunn: It's been so long, Heidi, I've forgotten.

Klum: I just have to say, too, this is one of the biggest shames on the planet, because he's such a wonderful man. I call him James Bond, because he is like our James Bond. And Tim is one of the nicest men: charming, handsome, smart. And I'm sure there is, like, fan mail that is coming in every day. Maybe he's just really picky. Are you just really picky?

Gunn: No. I just don't have my radar up.

What's the biggest fashion mistake people make?
Kors: I think most people's clothes don't fit. I'm always bewildered. I'm like, "Do people ever look at themselves in the three-way mirror? Like, did you see what your ass looks like?" Americans get hung up on the actual size tag.

Gunn: They do.

Kors: They're like, "No, I'm a 10!" And I'm like, "Well, just because you're in it, it doesn't mean that you're a 10."

Garcia: I think with men, they all need to at least have one tailor. Absolutely.

Klum: I never look at men.

You mean you only look at one man?
Klum: I only look at my man, and he always looks fabulous.

Tim has spoken to us before about Americans and the "comfort trap." Is that still a major fashion mistake?
Kors: Every once in a while we ask real people instead of models onto the show, and we'll ask them, "Do you like what you're wearing?" And when they say, "It's really comfortable," I'm like, "So are bunny slippers and sweatpants!" I have to say, though, I'm guilty. I wear cargo shorts and Birkenstock sandals.

Klum: And what kind of underwear, Michael?

Kors: Black.

Klum: But they're tight, Speedo style or boxer shorts?

Kors: No, I wear boxer briefs. It gives me a nice line. [Laughter]

Gunn: I wear briefs. I always feel that the boxer brief would ride up.

Klum: I like tight Speedos.

Gunn: For you, Heidi, I'd do anything.

Klum: My sons, when they're on the beach, they always wear cute little Speedos. You can always pick my kids out.

Kors: I think if you have the body to wear a Speedo, hey, great.

Garcia: You're preaching to the choir. I'm Colombian, OK? They barely wear bathing suits.

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