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Spring 2010 - Western Reserve Academy

Spring 2010 - Western Reserve Academy

Making It Work From

Making It Work From academia to Project Runway, Tim Gunn has spent a lifetime helping others Tim Gunn, chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne and co-host of Project Runway, visited campus as this year’s Burton D. Morgan Foundation Lecturer. “I think my best quality is being judgmental, but in a positive way,” he told students. “I don’t believe in talking to people about things they can’t change – I want to help them make it work.” Sitting down for a one-on-one interview with Tim Gunn, on-air mentor and co-host of the popular television show Project Runway, is nerve-racking. As he looks at you over the top of his glasses, one understands how the designers on the show feel as they await his critique of their work. But when he begins to talk, it becomes clear that Gunn’s version of tough love is short on tough and very long on a desire to help someone improve. “I think my best quality is being judgmental, but in a positive way,” Gunn said. “I don’t believe in talking to people about things they can’t change – I want to help them make it work.” Gunn visited the WRA campus in April as this year’s Burton D. Morgan Foundation lecturer. He spent the day speaking with students during a 30-minute Chapel presentation and meeting with members of the Fashion Club during an hour-long, informal session. In addition to his role on Project Runway, Gunn works as chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne where he is responsible for attracting, retaining and developing the creative talent within the Liz Claiborne portfolio of brands and act- 30 Reserve Alumni Record Spring 2010

ing as “kind of a mentor to the designers for the brands; I am an advocate for their needs,” he said. During his Chapel presentation, Gunn talked about growing up in Washington, D.C., as an “unhappy kid who was anti-social but socialized, insular and a loner.” While visiting the Corcoran College of Art and Design’s museum one day as a teenager, he came upon a class in session that was “engaged in passionate conversation and I wanted to know what went on” in there. Gunn took a summer course at the school before eventually enrolling full time, earning a bachelor’s degree in sculpture. “The school was an awakening for me,” he said. “The act of discovery was critical.” burton d. morgan foundation lecturer Deborah Hoover, president of The Burton D. Morgan Foundation, and J.R. Campbell, director of Kent State University’s Fashion School, with Tim Gunn following Gunn’s presentation in the Chapel. Gunn developed his mentoring skills early on when he was offered a teaching assistant’s position at the school. That allowed him to “help young people discover things they didn’t know. I found the act of being in a classroom filled my creative needs.” He also worked for a short time in Corcoran’s admission office before accepting a similar position at New York City’s Parsons The New School for Design, where he served as a member of the administration and faculty for close to 24 years. Gunn joined the staff in 1983 as assistant director of admissions and worked his way up through the school, eventually being appointed associate dean and then chair of the Department of Fashion Design in August 2000. Gunn was charged with retooling and invigorating a curriculum that had not changed for 50 years – a task that was both rewarding and challenging. “It was rebellious in some ways, but there was a very clear need to bring more relevant content to the curriculum. The top 5 percent of the students just needed a place to work, the remaining 95 percent needed to be educated. I was aware people were working hard but they weren’t working smart so we needed a total overhaul, ” Gunn explained. “That meant retooling some of the existing courses and, in some cases, it meant building new courses. When it came to retooling, I found that the faculty was responding too slowly because they only saw mere nuances between what they were teaching and what they needed to teach. So we threw out the entire curriculum, which was the only way to get the faculty to look at this problem freshly.” The changes paid off as, under Gunn’s direction, the department became one of the leading institutions in fashion design education in America. “The graduates of this program since the changes (the first class graduated in 2002) have been successful earlier than the previous classes,” Gunn said. “The big successes are working professionally as duos. Sometimes the way people complement each other can help you produce more than you can working alone.” While Gunn thought he would never leave Parsons, that changed one day when he met with William McComb, the CEO of Liz Claiborne. “He is an incredible visionary and during our meeting I was thinking ‘how lucky are the people who work for him,’ ” Gunn said. “And then he told me he wanted to create a position for me.” While it was hard to leave behind a school that he loved, Gunn has embraced the challenges of the corporate world. “What I love is that the deadlines are real, the stakes are real and not manufactured, it’s putting into practice what was, for me, a theoretical base of action,” he said. “I’m surprised at how little politics are involved compared to the politics in academia. In many ways it was harder to get things done in academia than it is in the private sector.” Reserve Alumni Record Spring 2010 31

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