Tim Gunn is not one to hold his tongue. The eloquent, permanently well-dressed designer and educator will freely tell you his true feelings about Kanye West’s fashion line while also admitting that the most recent season of his “Project Runway” was not its strongest.
So it’s in every fashion-loving fan’s best interest to listen when Gunn has nothing but glowing things to say about “Project Runway’s” latest spinoff series, “Project Runway Junior.” Premiering at 9 p.m. Nov. 12 on Lifetime, the series is meant to be a younger-skewing counterpart to the reality TV staple as Lifetime hopes to find similar success with a formula that made “MasterChef Junior” a hit on Fox. Unconventional materials challenges, trips to Mood Fabrics, and, of course, Gunn himself are still parts of the series. Ahead of the show’s premiere, Gunn spoke with Variety about what makes this spinoff series, ahem, work.
How do you feel about this new show?
I loved every second of it. I was not a fan of Season 14. We started filming “Junior” after we wrapped the bulk of the episodes for Season 14. After spending just a half a day with the “Junior” designers, it was like a Season 14 antidote. It was like the sun came out and the clouds parted. I loved every second of this season. I was sick when it ended.
Was it because the contestants were so fresh faced and new or was it because of the designs they were making?
All of the above. I loved the people and I loved their work and I had no idea they’d be so creative and innovative.
Lifetime, I will tell you, was very worried about having any unconventional materials challenge for these teens — let alone having it be Episode 2. Sarah Rea, who’s the showrunner and exec producer, she and I just said they’re fearless and they’re uncompromising. Have no apprehensions about it; they’re fantastic.
Were they afraid it would be too hard for them?
Yes, precisely. And I find that whenever anyone tries to dumb anything down because of concerns that it’ll be too far out of reach, that just doesn’t work. I learned this while teaching. You need people to grasp their capabilities and then they’ll stretch and reach even further.
Both of these challenges are spending an extra amount of time talking about the industry works. Is it intentional to focus on this for the “Junior” show?
It’s dialogue that’s generally peppered around everywhere in “Project Runway” anyway. In terms of the edits — and I’m speculating this — is that the producers thought that there’s an educational element to this. Of the population who will be watching this, I’m hoping we’ll get the die-hard “Runway” fans, but I’m also hoping we’ll get a younger audience who will be inspired by this.
Why did you think it was important to do a show that was geared toward young people?
Well, I didn’t. In fact, I was really apprehensive of being a part of it. I thought I’ve worked 29 years with college students and 14 seasons on “Runway” on adults. I only have a minimal amount of experience with teens and it’s with the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s education program. I thought Generation Z: a bunch of whiney crybabies who aren’t going to want to work hard and this could just be a big hot mess.
I’ll be blunt, I did it out of loyalty to Sarah. I worship her and will do anything she wants. She said please, please, please and I said yes.
I was just totally disarmed by the talent, by the level of execution and the outstanding levels of characters that these young people possess. I came out of it thinking that the future couldn’t look brighter. I was a real cynic about this Generation Z.
Why is that? Were you just expecting them to be on their phones the whole time?
Well there’s that and there’s the perception that they don’t want to work hard; that “if the Internet isn’t doing it? Why should I do it?” Learning how to sew alone, it’s a craft like learning how to play a musical instrument. It requires practice and a large dose of tenacity. People are so ADD these days, I thought that teens will only have dabbled in this, rather than immersed themselves in it.
Were you also mindful of how you critiqued the challenges?
Yes, but as the season goes on, I am much more of a blunt instrument. I needed them to succeed and also, we were all terrified about how the bloodbath would ensue after the eliminations. How would the eliminated designer take it? The first one out was so stoic and professional that after it was over, the judges and I were all sobbing that we don’t want to do this again.
I broke down at one point in the middle of the season when I had to tell the designer who was out that he or she had to go pack up his or her work station. It was bad. I looked at these teens’ faces as I was sputtering and it wasn’t pretty. I thought I’d better control myself.
You’re famous for your suits. But, since this is a younger audience, did you change your wardrobe at all to make the show seem more youthful?
Not even remotely. I didn’t want to disappoint them. What was so endearing and also sobering is that these kids have grown up watching this show. It was just so surreal, in a manner of speaking. Any “Runway” reference … at one point in the season we bring in four former “Runway” designers and the workroom went crazy as if the Beatles had just arrived.
Is there ever a challenge where they get to style you?
(Laughs). That’ll be next season.