The dulcet tones and considered compassion tempered with tough love of Tim Gunn has seen him become beloved as an industry figure who isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his impeccably tailored sleeve.
His knowledge of the fashion industry and the intelligent, universal way in which he communicates it has made him a rare thing: a reality TV personality with integrity.
After stepping away from Project Runway, the show that made him and his catchphrase “make it work” famous, Tim reunited with his friend and colleague Heidi Klum last year for Making the Cut - another fashion reality show, but one focused on brand building and the commerce side of the industry, with a limited number of the winning looks available for purchase on Amazon following each episode. Season one had some heavy-hitting guest judges, including Naomi Campbell, Nicole Richie and Carine Roitfeld.
The show recently made a much-anticipated return with season two, with Tim and Heidi joined in LA by judges supermodel Winnie Harlow and Moschino creative director Jeremy Scott. This season sees contestants compete for a million dollars to invest in their business, the opportunity to sell a collection in the Amazon Fashion store, and a mentorship with Amazon Fashion; plus guest appearances from industry insiders including Shiona Turini and Prabal Gurung.
Ahead of the season premiere, Tim Gunn spoke exclusively with Benny Castles, director and designer of iconic local brand World, and someone with his own fashion reality show experience as a judge on New Zealand’s version of Project Runway.
An important note from Benny about their conversation over Zoom: “Mr. Gunn was wearing a wide thick chalk pinstripe navy suit, with a soft blue check shirt and a red and navy regimental striped tie.
"A story of elegance and sophistication - playful and powerful - could've been going to lunch with the girls or buying and selling small countries on the stock market. I gave him a heavy dose of floral cord from a few seasons ago with a sparkly blue knit tie...so he could see my eyes pop!”
Benny Castles: Hello, my name is Benny Castles. I’m not a “real journalist”, but I’m talking today on behalf of Ensemble in New Zealand.
Tim Gunn: How wonderful Benny. What do you mean you're not a “real journalist”?
Benny: Well, I'm not a journalist at all. I’m a fashion designer, and was also one of the judges on New Zealand's version of Project Runway. So I believe that's why Ensemble asked me to talk to you today, which I'm very honoured to do.
Tim: I'm honoured also. And I'm crazy about your jacket.
Benny: Well thank you!
Tim: It's wonderful.
Benny: It's very cold down here. So it's a rather nice thick cord. So I can stay a little warm and a little fabulous at the same time.
Tim: Of course, everything's topsy-turvy! You're having winter, and I'm in New York with a hundred degree temperature.
Benny: Well, I appreciate the layers you've put on for the hundred degrees.
Tim: And I just have to share with you - I am so desperately eager to visit New Zealand. It's one of my dreams.
Benny: Oh please. Once the world returns to some level of normality, we'd love to have you. We're very lucky down here and have been very lucky over the past year or so. So when the time is right, please do Mr. Gunn.
Before we get into the specifics of the show, I’d like to start by talking in terms of a broader concept of fashion design versus the concept of personality - from your background, both working within brands and working within the learnings of fashion designers. How do you think those two things play together in the modern fashion world, both in the show but also in fashion in general? That idea of design versus personality?
Tim: I think that when you're a success those elements are frankly inextricable, they go hand in hand - they have to.
There's so much product, there are so many brands. Serious shoppers want to know who's behind the brand. I believe that kind of identity helps the brands when it's good chemistry - and it should be.
I have to say also, that when we're talking about fashion, fashion design, and emerging fashion designers or mid-level brands that want to elevate, we're talking about a construct that is in some ways relatively new to fashion. It used to be that you could just have a pretty dress and you could sell it to a department store and have a business.
It's not like that any longer. You really need to brand yourself. And Making the Cut is all about that.
Benny: That is a great, interesting lead-in. In Making the Cut, you have wonderful sessions of really discussing openly and frankly, with the designers, both yourself one-on-one, and then with the judging panel later in the episodes.
It's such a fascinating thing for a creative to be able to then explain their creativity, which I think relates to what you're saying - you need to be able to do that in today's fashion industry.
How do you think that works together when you're talking about taking, let's say mid-level or niche brands in their own markets, and then looking to turn them into a global brand? How does that play together? That idea of a niche brand growing to a global one when department store culture has really changed, independent retailing is growing a lot faster - but of course that takes a lot more investment. How do you think these two things tie together or what's the stream?
Tim: Of course at the core of it all is, what does the head of the mid-level or niche brand want to do with the brand? Do they want to grow it? And if so, investors will surely be necessary unless someone's independently wealthy, and that doesn't happen very often.
Benny: Do you see businesses from the business side of fashion? Do you see brands choosing different styles of success? Because I think anyone who got into fashion 20 years ago, as I did, was like, ‘okay my goal is Prada’. But over the course of my career, I've kind of gone ‘well, that is actually not realistic right now’. So you’re looking at different kinds of success.
Do you see brands doing that in the American market specifically or globally?
Tim: I'm going to confess my limitations, and actually my ignorance. I wish Christine Beauchamp of Amazon Fashion was here with us because she could speak very articulately to that. I wish I could. [The president of Amazon Fashion, Christine is very much involved in Making the Cut; season one saw the two finalists pitching business plans to her] It's a very profound question. You're right.
Benny: I'm fascinated that Making the Cut is made by Amazon, and also that you are part of the production as well as on screen talent. How did you look to evolve the concept of the competition? I think it's such a fun but timely thing to say, 'here's something wonderful. It's on television. Now go buy it'. For all the years of, you know, ‘let's have a fashion show and then six months later, if you remember any of it, it's going to be in a shop somewhere’.
Tim: Precisely; if you can even remember it.
I had this vision about Making the Cut for a number of years when we were doing Project Runway, but because of Runway's success no one would allow us to make any changes. And one of our key motivations was that the fashion industry has changed and evolved. Making the Cut more accurately represents that industry or what the industry is today. I completely agree. Thank you.
We had a conversation with Amazon Prime Video and they were very receptive and were eager to give us a lot of creative freedom, which of course we love, but they're also wonderful collaborators and partners.
But I'll tell you, in that first very long conversation in Los Angeles, the topic of shopability, of partnering with Amazon Fashion, never came up. It was in conversation number two, and it was actually initiated by the Prime Video executives. Heidi, I already knew, wanted to do this but she thought, ‘I don't want to somehow jinx this deal by making it all sound too big’. It's just been fantastic to have a partnership with Prime Video and Amazon Fashion, it's a dream.
Benny: Personally I love that there's a commerce side to what you're talking about, because it's a belief of mine that fashion needs to live in people's lives, not just on racks. I'd love to get your understanding - as someone who has tutored, initiated and been part of the fashion industry for so long - about fashion being the great democratiser of the arts, of being art that anyone can have an opinion on or get as involved in as they want.
Tim: You’ve echoed things that I've been saying for many years, especially as a fashion educator. I believe that fashion without commerce, what is it? Is it wearable art? If you're not selling it, who gives a damn! Forgive me, but it's really true.
A dear, wonderful pal of mine was Grace Mirabella, the former editor-in-chief of Vogue. And I would have Grace come in and speak to my students on what I would call her 'Grace thing'. And her 'Grace thing' was the following: 'There are two things you shouldn't do - don't make dumb clothes and don't make jokes'. And my students would look at her as if they were thinking, ‘what's this old lady talking about?’
And she would say, 'dumb clothes. The world doesn't need you to design a T-shirt and jokes'. She would say many of those things that walk the runway during couture week. She said, if you consider what's in-between - it's a huge playing field that people don't design to very well.
How do you create beautiful, innovative, creative clothes that aren't dumb and aren’t to float in a parade [like couture]? It's extremely hard.
Benny: It’s a real envelope that you push. You've got to push people to a place that they didn't know they always wanted to go to.
Benny: That's a great segue into something else I wanted to ask you. What do you think it is that young people looking to get into fashion need to hear?
In New Zealand we have an industry of education around fashion, but there aren't a huge amount of jobs. The technical production side of our industry is dropping as people don't want to sew and pattern make and to learn and develop those technical skills. What do you think it is that people getting into the industry need to hear?
Tim: The same thing is happening to the workforces here in New York. They're dwindling and they're dwindling rather rapidly.
People need to know that life is a big collaboration. You're not going to be doing this as a solo, at least not successfully. And you have to have people around you who are able to execute, who are able to do these things.
And I will tell you, New York is taking a very bold step. It began before the pandemic and I imagine it's been in suspension, but hopefully it will return - an effort to bring in apprentices to these masterful pattern makers, because we need a new generation that can do these things. If they're all done by machines, I think everything's going to be a T-shirt.
Benny: You're right. And I think there's a massive amount of learned education. You can't teach it so much as be involved in it and, going back to the show for a second, it has a lovely way of expressing that - of watching these creatives and the designers in the flow of what they're doing, but also collaborating in a really interesting way.
There's also that shared competitive camaraderie, the drama of the show, that 'what's that person doing next to me?' How do you enjoy seeing that from these established designers, from the niche or mid-level?
Tim: I have to say it's something that I certainly expect. As the pool of designers becomes smaller [in the show], the competition becomes stiffer and they need to know what each other's doing.
At one point it was suggested that each designer have their own little atelier with walls and they wouldn't see what the other designers were doing. But they need to see - it really steps up the competition. We all know that in the real world, designers are always curious, eager, and investigative about what their competition is doing. They have to be.
Benny: Well, I think most designers are shoppers first. I certainly am, I think that plays right through it as well.
I want to thank you very much for your time. I'm really enjoying the show, and we're looking forward to the second season becoming available here in New Zealand.
And when you are able, please do come and visit.
Tim: Thank you very, very much. And thank you for your very thoughtful questions.
• Making The Cut season two screens exclusively on Amazon Prime Video from July 16.