The quintessential Tim Gunn moment came this season on a particularly rambunctious episode of Project Runway.
It was a sportswear challenge, and the designers had to race one another around a track. One couldn't take the mental pressure and dropped out of the show, and another couldn't take the physical pressure and dropped flailing to the ground.
Tim Gunn, in tailored blazer, slicked hair and obligatory athletic shoes, raised a curled hand to his chest and slanted his brows.
"They're dropping like flies."
He is a trenchant Greek chorus in a cultural volcano, a stalwart for manners and grace in a world where clubbing sans panties can land you a reality show. He is gentle yet blunt, spouting his trademark "Make it work" and moving along.
"People are probably more tired of hearing me say it than I am hearing me say it," he said on a phone call from New York. "It's a useful phrase to use as a catalyst for getting on with it."
It has served him as chief creative officer for Liz Claiborne Inc. and honorary fashion design chairman of New York's esteemed Parsons school. He's developing a show for ABC to help viewers transform their lives. And he functions as a wise uncle to the contestants on Project Runway, assessing both their fashion choices and mental stability.
"I'm not a judge, and one of the reasons I'm not a judge is I have all this insider information," he said. "My words of caution to the designer could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Church and state, church and state. The designers see me in the auditorium during the process. They see that I don't interact with the judges. I'll say hello to them and that's about it. I frequently don't say goodbye to them because I'm mad."
Gunn lives with the same earthbound candor. He has decried fur in fashion and cut the fearsome figureheads of Vogue down to size, famously dishing that he once saw handlers carry Anna Wintour down a flight of stairs. His bestselling book, Gunn's Golden Rules, calls out everyone from Isaac Mizrahi to Martha Stewart's daughter.
Fashion has a role, he knows. But it also has an image problem.
"That's an issue that won't go away. The clothes we wear do send a message about how the world perceives us, and we do need to take responsibility for that no matter how you want to present yourself. Just accept responsibility for it, because the world will perceive you in a certain way. I have great reverence for fashion, especially American fashion, and at the same time, you can't take any of this too seriously. At the end of the day, it's a pair of pants, it's a shirt."
Gunn's latest mall tour, which begins Saturday at International Plaza and Bay Street in Tampa, brings his measured approach to regular folks who might not know the difference between a pencil skirt and an A-line. He'll show off designs from the Liz Claiborne lines and take questions from fans.
"Our shows are meant to be educational and inspirational. We talk about how you can take an item and transition it different ways to take it from day into night. We're very honest. We'll talk about a print, and say if you're petite, this is going to overwhelm you. Don't wear it. . . . And of course, I'm always talking about accentuating the positive aspects as well."
When people get it right, he said, it's the best feeling in the world. And when they don't? That's all right, too.
"If getting fashion right were easy, everyone would look great. And we know that everyone doesn't."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.