By Alexandra Whittaker
Updated Dec 10, 2018 @ 2:25 pm
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Ilya S. Savenok

Growing up in a Midwestern suburb, I considered Project Runway the end-all, be-all holy grail of fashion. Each week, like clockwork, I'd plant myself in front of the TV to watch alongside my mom, hoping some of the glitz would come through the television and rub off on me. But, that said, the best part of it all was when Tim Gunn was on screen. He'd translate how we felt about clothes into words, while managing to soothe even the most frenzied designers.

"He's the epitome of manners," my mom would say, "because good manners are about how comfortable you make other people feel."

Meeting him in person for the first time proved this to be correct. When he came to InStyle's offices in an immaculate suit — and a box of treats to share — I was struck by how unflinchingly polite he was.

It's been a year of change for the fashion guru, with his exit from Project Runway alongside Heidi Klum, and he was more than willing to discuss it. I sat down with Gunn to talk about his future TV project on Amazon Prime, every holiday question on your mind, his partnership with Command Brand, Project Runway (of course), and why he says you should never gift anyone apparel (!). Read on for the highlights.

You've been decorating up a storm with Command Brand lately, what are some ways to get your home holiday-ready without breaking the bank?

I’ll speak personally, because I have to operate on a budget and I think we’re much more thoughtful with purchases when we have to operate on a budget. When it comes to holiday, I like making a one-time purchase and keeping the items forever, including greenery. I don’t buy a real tree or a real wreath, it’s all artificial, and I just roll them up tightly and unfurl them a year later. And it may be a little pricey at the beginning, but when you amortize it over a decade, it’s really very affordable. When people are first starting out with a home or an apartment, there is that initial investment. But then if you keep things, if you don't throw them away, there are huge advantages to that.

For instance, if you're thinking about holiday 2019, buy things after 2018 when everything's on sale, and everything's much more affordable. And look for bargains. I mean, look for things that you really can afford. There may be these aspirational items, [but] later you can get them, or perhaps your whim and fancy for them will evaporate. I feel that way about the most big purchases. Sit on it.

That feels like a more eco-friendly approach. It’s easier and faster to fill an apartment with less expensive items, but they don’t necessarily have that longevity.

It’s like fast fashion. You can fill the closet, but how many of these items will you actually keep?

I would think about staging it, and with each successive year you'll have more. And you'll also have — again speaking again from experience, I'm not projecting this — but from my experience, the more experience I've had in the world, the more it would forms how I actually decorate. 

What do you mean by that? What's an example of it?

True confessions, there was a time when I really thought I would start collecting snow globes and put them all out for the holiday, and I just grew out of that. I ended up giving all but one of them away. And I thought, ‘I don't need to collect these things.’ You know, there are times when you think, ‘Hey, I have a real passion for this. Let's start.' And then you can grow out of it. And you can also grow into things.

Just personally, rather than having myriad ornaments of different sizes, shapes and color, everything's red. I like it that way. They stand out more and it's easier to wrap your brain around. That is a good way to get started. It helps to have some parameters.

What kind of trends are you seeing in holiday decor in general?

Well, speaking from the Command [Brand] point of view, we're talking about trends that go from, we're calling it runway to hallway, for good reason. Lots of metallics. Gold, silver, stainless steel, copper. Lots of tartan, and lots of animal print.

And those are categories that will always be classic. The fact that they're also on trend just helps bring them to the top of the heap, so to speak. Though I'm perfectly blunt about this, I am not a trend — what's the word? I don't want to say follower. But I'm not someone who chases trends. If it fits into your lifestyle, and if it's something that appeals to you, great. Otherwise just stick to the things you're comfortable with.

I say the same thing about clothes and how we dress. Know who you are and dress for that person, and don't feel that you have to go out and get the latest item, unless it's something that really pulls at your heartstrings and you want to have. I also say about home. What I love about InStyle is you cover all of lifestyle, really, and you understand how fashion and home are really inextricable. It’s all fashion, in a manner of speaking. And I always talk about the semiotics of clothes. The clothes we wear sent a message about how the world perceives us, and the same is true about how we live.

It doesn't mean we have to feel victimized by it or feel a fear about, it just means we have to accept responsibility for the fact that that's the case. When someone comes into your apartment, they're going to have a whole other dimension of visuals or maybe even audibles or nasals to judge you by, and they will.

How can you take steps to kind of have your living space reflect more about you personally?

When it comes to clothes, I always say we each need a style icon. We need someone who we look up to and whose style we aspire to or perhaps be able to emulate. I mean for me, I seldom use this name anymore because people ask, ‘Who is he?’ but I say Cary Grant.

People really say, ‘Who is he?’

Believe me they do. For those who don’t, who should I say? Oh, George Clooney!

I say the same thing about decor, we should have an interior style icon, someone whose style we respect and love would like to emulate. For me, that's always been Billy Baldwin.

What do you like about Billy Baldwin’s style?

Well, there’s a classicism that his style embraces. He's a classicist yet he's of the moment so there's a contemporary feeling to it. It doesn't feel dusty and stuffy. If you Google Brooke Astor Library, you'll see exactly what I'm talking about.

On the topic of trends, are you seeing anything going into this holiday season fashion-wise that is unusual or strikes you is different from normal? Or not so much? 

I don't want to portray it as ‘the same old same old.’ But I haven't seen anything that's been jarring. And from my point of view, that's a good thing.

I really believe that whether it comes to apparel or home, if we try too hard, it shows, and it's not a good look.

How do you hit that sweet spot, when you're trying something new, let's say a trend in home or in fashion, when you want to see if it works for you. How do you know if it does or not?

I think it's very visceral. You have to listen to your own voice and not the voice of others, because so often people don't want to hurt your feelings. They'll say, ‘Oh you look great in that!’ or ‘Yeah get those six extra pillows for the sofa, why not?’ It's very visceral. When you ask yourself, ‘Is this going too far?’ The answer is yes.

That's good advice.

I find it's true, and at the same time I believe in experimenting. I believe in trying new things on and seeing whether they work or not. And I do, I repeat, believe it's very visceral.

I do think people can learn and can benefit from those who have, I’ll say, more acuity. I won't say more knowledge or better taste or anything of that sort. Just more acuity, they're just more tuned into it. And that's why I like icons, whether for fashion or for interiors.

A lot of people are interested in fashion, but don't necessarily know how to take what they're seeing on runways or what they're seeing on celebrities and translate into their daily lives. What’s a good go-to holiday party look for when you’re simply stuck?

I think people should dress up and be exuberant. Just have fun, you know? Even if it's something as simple as taking your basic black cocktail dress — which I hope every woman owns and some men— and go to a fabric store, get a bolt of wide splashy ribbon, and tie it around your waist. Something to pick the whole thing up without making a big investment because if you really have clothes that are just holiday clothes, they're going to be dormant for most of the year, so take things that you already have and just lift them. You can also do it with accessories, with costume jewelry. Be bold, have fun, it's the holidays! Life’s too serious and too short.

I’m reading the Bill Cunningham memoir

Me too!

— and that reminds me of something he said about how he’d go to all these parties and just throw something exuberant on. I think now it’s a bit more pre-planned, that’s not something people do as much anymore, that kind of experimentation.

If we can send a message to the readers, I think it should be the message of listen to your own voice, and have confidence in it, and own it. It is who you are, or who you are at that moment. And if it’s not who you are, find out who you are.

This is the time of year, too, when people wonder what to gift for home space. What do people want, what’s a solid gift?

Alcohol. [laughs] A bottle of champagne is the easiest thing in the world. And the other thing I would say is, if you know the person well enough to buy them a book, do it. And if you don't — my mother hated the whole thought of gift certificates, but I like them. Give them a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble or Amazon. And never give people apparel. It’s tough. It’s a slippery slope.

What's a holiday gift you've been given that you found to be really meaningful and thoughtful?

Do you know this about me? I hate getting gifts.

Really? Why?

I think I need serious psychiatric help. I had a birthday in July. I received two gifts. They are still unopened.

I thanked the givers by saying, ‘Thank you so much for your thoughtfulness, blah, blah blah,’ and I never addressed what the gift was because I don't know.

RELATED: Goodbye Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum on Project Runway

Wow. Any reason why?

I don’t know, it's like a Pandora's box for me. I just don't want to know. I've trained my sister and my niece, no gifts. We're not giving gifts to each other. If you want to give to a charitable organization, great, but let's not do this. It’s just silly.

Do you feel the same way about giving gifts?

No! I love giving gifts.

What do you tend to give?

I tend to give books.

You’ve got a new fashion show coming up after your Project Runway days, how are you feeling going into it?

Thrilled and ecstatic. I'll be perfectly transparent about it, I know very little about it other than it’s Heidi [Klum], it's me, and it will center on fashion. But I have to tell you the Amazon team, led by Jennifer Salke, it's the best team ever. They're just wonderful, wonderful people and they’re all new, so in some ways, we're all in this together. For Jennifer and her team, this will be the first show that they're overseeing, so they're being very paternalistic in only the best ways, and at the same time they're letting Heidi and me have complete creative freedom.

[Heidi and I] really love each other and love the chemistry that we have. And we love what we have done for fashion and what we can continue to do.

Amazon is not putting any pressure on us like ‘You've got to get this going right now.’ I mean, we are talking a couple of times a week, Heidi and I are, with our show runner. And we’re meeting in Los Angeles next week with Amazon, but we’re taking our time to get it right. Because we won't have a second chance.

How is your new show going to be different than Project Runway?

I’m at liberty to say this: It will not even be remotely like Project Runway. Because it can’t be, we’ve already done it. And whenever we think, ‘Oh, we did this on Runway,’ we get rid of it. Let it go.

That makes sense, especially since Runway is continuing into a new season.

Well, Heidi and I figured after 16 seasons and the move [from Bravo to Lifetime and back], the move really presented us with a moment to just take stock of everything. And ask ourselves. ‘What do we want to do?’

Heidi’s talked about it another interviews too. At some point I think she used the word “stale” to describe the show. Do you agree with that?

No. I mean, especially our last season when we had the diverse range of models [for the first time]. It was awesome.

I’m surprised having a variety of models didn’t start earlier.

We tried, but there was so much nervousness about it, and we just finally we beat the powers that be into submission and said experiment. Consider it an experiment. You know, the ratings were up 15 percent. That doesn’t happen in season 16, but it was because of the models. It was wonderful. I loved everything about it.

I hope they do that again. What do you think of the new judges and host, and Christian Siriano stepping into your shoes as the mentor?

It’s very different, which is what it should be. And I'm making the assumption that each of these new people will just be who they are and bring what they have to the role that they have, as opposed to trying to be — I mean Christian can't be me, and he wouldn't want to be. And [new host] Karlie Kloss is her own person. She's not Heidi Klum, nor should she want to be, and I think that's great.

Did Christian ask for advice from you about taking on the mentor role?

No, and I'm happy about it because he should just be who he is. I'm actually happy that we didn't have a conversation. I think it would have been awkward. And I’ve let it go too, I just figure we had our run. It was absolutely fantastic and fabulous and over the top and incredible. It changed my life, and now it's their turn. It’s how I felt when I left my role as chair of the fashion department at Parsons. I thought, [I’m] so proud of what I was able to achieve here, and it's going to change, and that's perfectly fair. It should.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.