As if he wasn't busy enough writing style guides (Tim Gunn's Guide to Style), staring in style shows (Ummmm also Tim Gunn's Guide to Style, plus the ever entertaining Project Runway), and working tirelessly as a tastemaker (he's recently become the Chief Creative Officer of Liz Claiborne), Fashion Guru and Heidi Klum favorite Mr. Tim Gunn has once again hosted Fashion Forward for its second stupendous year. Fashion Forward, as you may recall, is the over the top fundraiser/fashion show/free-for-all which both benefits Gay Men's Health Crisis and honors the fashion community's commitment to battling HIV and AIDS, natch! I had the terrific joy of chatting with the host, right before last night's big event, about good causes, bad boyfriends and making it all work. Here's an excerpt from our interview:
Thank you so much for taking time to speak with me and share the good word of GMHC and Fashion Forward.
Well thank you for wanting to talk about it. I'm very grateful. I hosted last year and it was a wonderful, wonderful event, I didn't know quite what to expect -- I knew something of what to expect -- it's a fashion show, but it's really high-spirited and a lot of fun and in its own way informal in its formality. If that makes any sense.
I think that does make a lot of sense. All fashion shows ought to have a little kick to them. That's what draws a lot of people in.
It was one of the most high spirited events I've ever attended. I really loved it.
Let's talk a bit about Fashion Forward and Gay Men's Health Crisis. I know that they [GMHC] have been around since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the outbreak of which affected the fashion community so gravely.
I think people have forgotten what it did to this community in the 80's, I mean we haven't all forgotten, I remember intensely what it did but it was absolutely devastating and every week you'd read obituaries of people with phenomenal careers gone. Completely gone. I think about Willie Smith, I think about Bill Robinson. In fact I mentioned Willie's name to someone recently, and they are in the industry, and they asked "who?" So it's a shame that its been long enough ago that people have forgotten. And I have to say too, for this new generation, and I don't know how old you are so I don't want to offend you, but people are just not taking the precautions that they should be taking, because AIDS is still with us.
I'm glad you brought that up. I mean AIDS has been around for over 25 years, it's still an issue in America, it's still an issue in New York, but its gone from being taboo to falling to the wayside as a tangible threat. What are your thoughts on that? And what is GMHC doing to help?
Well thankfully the medical industry has taken this on, there are now treatments that are successful, I mean people don't have to die of AIDS anymore, but once you have HIV you have it for life and it affects your immune system and means you are susceptible to all sorts of other things, and people don't think, people don't realize -- they think "oh if I get AIDS there are treatments for it, I'll take some pills and it'll go away." No! It's, it's embedded in you and it means that the way you navigate the world has to be with great care and caution. But frankly, we need to navigate the world with great care and caution whether we have the disease or we don't and that's my whole point about taking precautions. I mean having safe sex, that alone will help everyone.
And its just shocking to me when I hear about young people poo-pooing the whole idea of safe sex it's like you know something? You're putting your life at risk.
Absolutely, and if you care about yourself and the people who love you, you should take better care of yourself than to just throw caution to the wind. I feel almost as if the prospect of treatments make people aloof. We're not afraid anymore of being sick, you have to be afraid of dying in order to take care of yourself.
Exactly. I think you've just nailed it. This is about being afraid of dying and people don't associate AIDS with death any longer. But they're wrong, simply wrong.
What have you seen change in the fashion community since HIV appeared on the scene in the 80's?
There are enough of us that have been around for a long time to still treat this topic with great seriousness. We will not forget all those who passed and the devastation that this had especially in the 80's and frankly I'm one of those people who's simply glad I'm still here.
We are too.
Thank you. I have to say I'm always reminding young associates at Liz Claiborne about this issue and I will say this matter-of-factly, men in the fashion industry, in general, and I hope this doesn't offend you, I make the assumption that they're gay until I know otherwise. And I speak to them about the importance of having safe sex and of being responsible in our actions you know not letting that third cocktail impair your judgment.
I have to tell you that I am met with, generally, rolling eyeballs and sighs like "oh you old fart, what would you know about all this." And I'll personalize this, I'll tell you what happened to me in 1982. I'd been in a relationship for eight years, almost nine, and my significant other abruptly, one night suddenly said, "Its over, I don't have the patience for you any longer and get out." I was staying at his apartment, but thankfully I still had my own. And then he proceeded to tell me that he'd been having sex with most anything that was walking in Washington. So I went from being woefully depressed and self-flagellating about how I'm no good to then my emotions evolved into tremendous anger because I thought, "I'm now a walking time-bomb." And I had myself tested for HIV for 14 years and, knock wood, I was clean, but I thought "he put me at risk, that miserable bastard." And you can't do that, so it's another message I have to these young people, which is you don't know. Someone says to you "you're my first" you don't know that, you simply don't know. You need to take precaution, and I'm sorry, I'm very passionate about this, because it's so stupid not to take precaution.
I'd love to hear a little bit about your experience with Fashion Forward. I know that it was an absolute hit and so much fun last year and that this year you have a really great cast of characters. You have Tim Hamilton, who I'm hugely fond of.
Me too, I love his work.
Ports 1961 which is always magnificent, Betsey Johnson who has been around making merry for so long. Tell me about what you're looking forward to this year.
Well its just a stellar group of designers, and I'll also say that from Michael Bastian and John Varvatos to Betsey Johnson there's something for everyone. It promises to be a fun night just visually with the fashion on the runway. And I'm a huge fan of all of these designers and I couldn't have put together a better line-up myself, so I'm just hugely proud to be part of that. And it also is a demonstration when you see those names of the industry support for the event. And it's wonderful. I am also pleased to see who the runway sponsors and prêt a porter sponsors are, a lot of great people from Michael Kors and Diane Von Furstenberg to Derek Lam. Its great.
They're designers that really entice a broad audience.
Now, I have to ask, where did you come up with "Make it work?"
Oh! When I was teaching. I've been using that phrase for a couple of decades, and I'll tell you where it came from. Teaching design my students make things, needless to say, and in the course of doing that they encounter challenges, obstacles and in many cases their initial reaction is to abandon the project, just get rid of it and start all over, start from scratch, with materials, concepts, everything. And I don't permit that because I don't believe you learn anything from it. It's really important to take a project that has gone slightly awry, wrestle with it, offer up a diagnosis of what's going wrong and then a prescription on how to fix it. And I would call it "make it work."
"No, you're not cutting a new pattern. No, you're not going back to Mood to shop for more fabric. You're going to take the existing situation and make it work." And my students would bristle when they heard me say this, but they would thank me later because they learned so much in the process. And it means they were then equipped with more internal resources to move forward with a new challenge and potentially new obstacles.
That's how you helped so many of them evolve I suspect.
Well I hope so! Thank you for saying that. "Make it work" really grew on Project Runway because they couldn't go out shopping even if they had to. And that's why on the show I don't believe in talking to the designers about things they can't fix because it's not useful. And once we get back from Mood the fabric that they have is the fabric that they have, and that's the color that it is, and it's the weight that it is. So they really have to make it work.
You've spoken in the past quite a lot about teaching. I wonder if you sometimes feel with Project Runway and Tim Gunn's Guide to Style that the world is your classroom?
Well I have to say Kat I think that I've always felt that the world was a classroom. I learn things every day, people ask what inspires me. What doesn't inspire me? A ride on the subway can be inspiration if you want to look at it that way. One of the real enticements for me to move from my position of Chair of Fashion at Parsons over to Liz Claiborne was the fact that it was adding a whole new dimension to my life in terms of learning because I'd spent my life in the academy, and the academy is a kind of metaphorical bubble. Suddenly at Liz Claiborne I'm in the real world, with real deadlines and real budgets and real timelines and real issues and that causes you to look at things very very differently. It's a huge learning curve, even independent of Liz Claiborne I learn new things every day but with Liz, my god, it's a waterfall of stuff and it's been incredible for me.