Books: Tim Gunn's Guide to Style

Tim Gunn has one thing to say to all of you fashion whores: purge that closet. Divide your clothes into four piles—throw out, giveaway, repair and soul-stirring. Take some time to get over your personal attachments. And get determined to make that closet a better place. "The goal is to maximize the correspondence between what you feel conveys the proper image and the items you actually own," Gunn writes in his new book, "A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style" (Abrams). "This task can only be accomplished when your closet is rid of those items that do not truly make you feel happy."

Feeling truly happy in a pair of skin-tight jeans and stilettos is easier said than done, but style guru Gunn, best known for his role on Bravo's reality hit "Project Runway," is hoping to make a lot of people feel better about themselves. His new book is a how-to in wardrobe and apparel, a self-help guide for creating an individual style, and how exactly to make that style work. He's got a new television show out ("Tim Gunn's Guide to Style," also on Bravo) based on that premise—a makeover series that will school the clueless on the art of dress, groom and poise. Not to mention the self-proclaimed fashion therapist recently took a job at Liz Claiborne and has just begun filming the fourth season of "Project Runway." In spite of all that, Gunn found time to chat with NEWSWEEK's Jessica Bennett about his hopes for the designers on this season's "Runway," his take on celebrity style, and why he thinks "fit" is America's biggest fashion fiasco. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: I hear your publishers had to actually lock you in their offices to finish this book.
Tim Gunn:
I have to tell you, I love writing. But I have never, ever, ever been faced with such a formidable task that was so disabling—ever. I foolishly thought that I could work out of my office at Parsons [School of Design], but that was crazy because there were too many interruptions. Then I thought I could sequester myself at home, but at home, everything's a distraction. So then I went off to the New York Public Library with my laptop, but that was distracting, too. So by Thanksgiving—they'd wanted the manuscript by Labor Day—when I'd stopped returning [my publisher's] calls and e-mails, they actually came to my office and said, "This is it, we're taking you away, we're locking you up." And they did—for a week!

But you pumped it out.
I did—and it was a huge relief.

What do you hope people will get out of it?
The notion that we're all different, and that there isn't a prescription for how to dress. All things are not for all people, and one size does not fit all.

Explain the rationale behind your trademark phrase from "Project Runway": "Make it work!"
In teaching, I've found that students are often more inclined to start over when they encounter a problem than to work through the problem, to diagnose it, and offer up a prescription for how to fix it. And I find that that's a very bad learning strategy. So to take something that has a problem and to work through the problem and have the project succeed, that's what's behind "make it work."

Tell me about casting for this season of "Runway."
It was phenomenal. With each successive season we have stronger and stronger designers show up—and it's the greatest compliment the show can have. I'm hoping we're going to see the highest level of design and execution ever. The thing that makes me really ill about the whole process, though, is that someone is going home with the first challenge, and it's going to be someone really talented and really capable.

Who do you think has done the most with their "Runway" experience?
Frankly, I think Emmett McCarthy [from Season Two] has. He came onto the show strategically to make a change in his fashion career—and he did it. He's founded a retail boutique [in SoHo, New York City] where he not only has his work, but he has fellow designers [like Chloe Dao and Kara Janx, also from Season Two] as well.

Some "Runway" designers have outfitted various celebrities. Who would you say is the best-dressed celeb out there right now?
I really think Angelina Jolie is fantastic. They're real clothes, they're believable, she's always event-appropriate and she's age-appropriate.

And the worst?
Boy, there's so many choices. I mean there are the obvious ones like Britney Spears, who should just be put into a witness-protection program. I mean, she's just a hot mess. But here's another one: Meryl Streep. And I adore her. She's someone who is extremely intelligent, extremely talented and a creative genius. But she's making a conscious decision to wear bad clothes. I'm making an assumption that her message is, "I'm above all this fashion frivolity," when, in fact, I really believe she's someone who could make America realize how much better they could look. She's a stunning woman, but the clothes could be her friend instead of her folly.

You grew up in Washington. Is there a presidential candidate you think is leading the polls, style-wise?
I'm disappointed—we haven't really had style in the White House since the Kennedys, and that doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon.

Do you ever have fashion fiascos like the rest of us?
Oh, yes. My fiascos generally happen when I've been late going to the dry cleaner, so the shirt I need for a particular suit is not with me. But frequent fiascos also happen when I take a risk that I really know I shouldn't, and I usually end up changing before I leave the house.

I imagine you're not a bargain shopper. But what do you think about the rise of cheap trend stores like H&M and Forever 21?
I think it's great. It makes fashion, rather than mere clothes, much more accessible. It really democratizes fashion. Everyone just needs to be aware that these things are going to be one season only.

What would you say is the biggest fashion problem out there today?
I really do think that it's fit more than anything else. It's not that people are buying the wrong style or the wrong color or the wrong item, necessarily. It's that they're buying clothes that are either too big or too small.

Is there a particular style you think we'll be seeing this fall?
The dress is certainly back. And you know, there is one dress that's simply foolproof—and that, thanks to Diane von Furstenberg—is the wrap dress. It's great on so many different body types.

What do you think about your television persona? Is it an accurate reflection of who you really are?
Oh, it's really me. Whenever I get frustrated or unhappy with how things are going, I just keep thinking, "Just be you!" because I can always rely on that person.

What about your bobblehead? Is that accurate?
I had nothing to do with that—and frankly, it looks more like Ben Stein than it looks like me.

Will you ever get tired of being on "Runway"?
No! I'm more excited about this season than any of the others, and I felt that way about Season Three and Season Two. We've got such a talented group that if it's not great this season there's really no excuse.

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