Drawing on experiences from a career in the fashion industry and a more recent foray into television, Tim Gunn captivated the crowd Thursday night at the University of Missouri’s Jessie Auditorium.
Gunn, the Emmy-winning co-host and mentor for Lifetime’s Project Runway, was invited by the Delta Gamma Foundation to speak about values and ethics. He did so with stories ranging from early career challenges to a high-profile professional feud to details on the latest season of Project Runway.
Standing on stage like he did at MU, before an estimated crowd of 1,800, was something Gunn once could not have imagined doing. Gunn said he suffered from a fear of public speaking from an early age, and he struggled t0 speak in front of people until he started speech therapy when he was 19.
Gunn recalled his first teaching experience at the Parsons School of Design. After parking his car on the first day, he vomited. He then stumbled to his class and realized he could not stand up straight because his knees were shaking so badly.
“If anyone had told me that I would end up as a career educator and spend 29 years in a classroom, I would have said that is an impossibility,” Gunn said.
But he made it work — which has become his motto.
Gunn has gained notoriety for his role on Project Runway, a reality TV show that focuses on fashion design. The audience broke into applause when the subject of the show’s latest season came up. But Gunn expressed frustration with the current season and the low level of work that the designers were producing.
Gunn discussed how he has responded to threats to his credibility. Years ago, he came under fire for his account of an episode involving Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue magazine. Wintour’s handlers pressured Gunn to retract the story, but he refused.
He also shared a story of how he taught students the importance of making informed decisions. An outspoken opponent of the use of fur in the fashion industry, Gunn used to invite PETA to come talk Parsons and talk to students, so they could fully understand the issue.
“In life, we always are making decisions,” Gunn said. “And we need to have as much information as possible in order to make informed, responsible decisions.”
Lauren L. Giwa-Amu, one of the event’s organizers, said Gunn’s speech had the desired effect and the audience learned about Gunn’s career beyond Project Runway.
“With the fashion industry being known as such a cutthroat environment, I think it was great to see that a successful career doesn’t have to involve participating in that behavior,” Giwa-Amu said. “As someone that saw more of him than just what he presented on stage, he truly does live by his word. He gave me great advice in both my career and personal life.”