When I look at Tim Gunn, I fantasise about the future, in which I am finally like him. In my early fifties, perhaps, when I am wise, and I too wear only my signature look every single day (a sack dress in a neutral tone with a futuristic, transparent sports jacket with white ribbing at the cuffs, and different pairs of neon coloured eyewear) and I always have a kind but true word for everyone, and I’m fair and I know my own mind. Because where there is uncertainty, Tim Gunn is sure. Where there is vulgarity, he has taste. Where people are oblivious, he is enlightened. He is Gandalf the White. And all the stressed-out hobbits competing on the hit design reality competition Project Runway should follow his advice if they want to get anywhere. Mentor and co-host of the past fifteen seasons of the show, he floats above the flurry of pinning and draping saying things like, “I want to see more you in this!” and “I’m confident you can turn this around.” His catch phrase “Make it work!” is surely a mantra for us all.
Lifetime’s Project Runway is a reality tv behemoth (six spinoff shows not counting international versions!) revolving around a group of designers who undergo intense rounds of fashion design challenges as they compete for a chance to show a collection at New York Fashion Week. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll rethink your cropped pants.
You would never watch something like this usually, of course. A former Victoria’s Secret supermodel hosts it, after all. But it’s worth reading this unruly review for a time when, you know, you might need two or three seasons of PR in your life. Hey, I understand – special circumstances, right? We’ve all been there. You had to put your dog down. You found out you need root canal but at the moment you’re buying Coles brand olive oil. Your house isn’t selling and it’s a buyers market. After praying your guts out, all you can do now is eat Greek yogurt out of the tub and watch the spectacular distraction that is Project Runway.
The first piece of writing I ever read by my now husband was a piece from a neglected blog about how fashion is always self-referential. After being married to him for five years, only now do I discover that this hint of interest was major foreshadowing of him being an absolutely perfect viewing partner for a reality show about fashion designers. In hindsight I see that there were clues everywhere – we have more than once texted each other photos of Michelle Obama in a new ball gown. At every wedding we attend he has whispered his praise in my ear during the bridal procession (or remained tellingly silent). Sometimes a look is all I need to know his opinion on the bridesmaids. I should have known that he would be a loud and enthusiastic critic as we burn through the available episodes on Netflix.
The chance to be a critic is most of the allure of this show. Pathologically uninterested in sports, my husband and I have found our outlet. We yell at the ref, we barrack for our team, and our opinions are always loudly expressed to no one in particular. “No, you keep doing dropped-crotches, do something else!” and “Ugh, not another draped one-shoulder number,” are some of our most recent complaints. Like our beloved Tim, we do soften as our initial reaction dies down. “At least it was different – it was a new silhouette, you know?” We confer with each other while pushing down the plunger of our french press. A perfect LBD walks out with bedazzled red shoulders – “Now that is brilliant.” We’ll take a sip. “I like his brooch,” he says of designer and judge Zac Posen, and puts his feet up on our coffee table.
My husband is now president of our Tim Gunn Appreciation Society. “I want to be nice like Tim,” he says absent-mindedly and half on his phone. Tim Gunn will tell you, “To be honest, this just looks like a hot mess,” and then finish with something spurring like, “As a designer you need to trust your gut!” and also something like, “You have a lot of work to do: go, go, go!” Apart from being fascinating as a personality (son of an FBI agent! Holds a BFA in sculpture! Teen suicide attempt survivor! Celibate for the past 30 years! Never not wearing a blazer!), the former teacher and chair of fashion design at Parsons School of Design in New York City comes across as a genuinely gentle mentor while maintaining his integrity as a critic.
After all, as Alexander Pope wrote in his oft quoted (sorry) An Essay on Criticism:
LEARN then what MORALS Criticks ought to show,
For 'tis but half a Judge's Task, to Know.
'Tis not enough, Taste, Judgment, Learning, join;
In all you speak, let Truth and Candor shine:
That not alone what to your Sense is due,
All may allow; but seek your Friendship too.
Both Pope in 1711, and the American film critic A.O. Scott in his book, Better Living Through Criticism in 2016 (an enjoyable review of which you can find here), maintain that the work of a critic is to energise art as a discipline, not undermine it. In a way, ‘ripping something to shreds’, a phrase commonly used on Runway, can be an act of respect – it suggests that whatever was ripped was worth considering in the first place. Both writers would agree that criticism gives the work the dignity it deserves by holding it to a standard. It stands to reason then that as we watch and dissect each look from our couches we are participating in the mental exercise of loving design. This isn’t a new idea at all, but it is a happy thing to (again and again and again) remind each other that Christians should be lovers of beauty and quality and excellence and thoughtfulness. These things help us to flourish.
“I’m embarrassed by this,” I say to my (best dressed) friend, gesturing with my hand towards the screen. “What?” she says, incredulous. “Don’t be – it’s bringing something positive into the world.” I’ve come to agree with her. Also, it alleviates guilt that I hardly ever feel inclined to watch something more serious like Ghandi or, much to my mother’s chagrin, Chariots of Fire. Because when your baby won't sleep, or you’re frustrated at work, you might not be up for Schindler’s List. But I'm pretty sure you’d enjoy watching a bunch of eccentrics design a couture gown out of $100s worth of hardware store materials in less than two days.
It’s not Planet Earth, but the experience of watching a number of seasons back to back with my spouse has been “edifying”, as we all like to say, in the extreme. We have had a number of Greek Yogurt Out Of The Tub At 11pm type of years, and nurturing a friendship with this person has been invaluable to the health of our whole deal. However turbulent life may be beyond the steps of our suburban cottage, inside there is a warm camaraderie and semi-bad but mostly amazing television to revive withered spirits. Watching this show together is something to look forward to: it’s light, it’s fun, it’s completely unconnected to our personal problems, and it’s outside ourselves, happening to other people. We are presented with design and asked for our humble evaluation. The question, “Is it beautiful?” invites our creative brains to a party. And for 43 minutes at a time, we are Tim Gunn.