Tim Gunn has been teaching Project Runway contestants to “make it work” for more than a decade. He’s beloved for his gentle guidance, thoughtful critiques, and contagious laugh. But despite his extensive experience mentoring aspiring designers, even Gunn was daunted by his most recent challenge: guiding 12 teenagers through grueling challenges as co-host on the inaugural season of Project Runway Junior. The latest spinoff of Lifetime’s popular TV franchise, which premieres Thursday, Nov. 12, features a dozen aspiring designers, ages 13 to 17. They’ll be vying to make it to New York Fashion Week and ultimately be named the competition’s victor, which will earn the winner $25,000, a scholarship to California’s Fashion Institute of Design and Marketing, and a feature in Seventeen magazine. Gunn talked to Yahoo Parenting about his fear of mean girls, the best advice for parents of would-be designers, and why he’s feeling optimistic about Generation Z.
What was it like working with teenagers? Had you had much experience with that age group?
I really hadn’t. I spent 29 years teaching at the college level, and on Project Runway everyone is 21 or older. I had a little experience mentoring high school students through the Cooper Hewitt Design Center’s education department, but I’ll be blunt: I was really apprehensive. I agreed to do this show out of loyalty to our Project Runway showrunner, Sara Rea, who I’ve been working with since Season 6. It was her concept, and she asked if I would come on board. We started taping right after the wrap of Season 14, and I was so disappointed in that season. I just thought it was lackluster. But I will tell you, Junior was the pick-me-up. It was so fun! It was so joyous! I love the kids so much — and I use kids as a term of endearment. They are the sweetest, to which I attribute good parenting. They didn’t get that way on their own. And their deftness of skill … it’s just a joyous, upbeat show. I had such a sour taste from Season 14, so I really didn’t know what to expect. Would they be pint-size divas? Would they be mean girls and boys? But they were sweethearts! They helped each other and cared about each other. My biggest fear going into it was how difficult it would be to pick up the pieces after the eliminations, because it is a competition. But they were so stoic and professional, and when they got eliminated, they thanked the judges for the opportunity. We were all in tears.
That’s so lovely. It seems like you always hear people talking about that generation being entitled, bullying — but it sounds as if you didn’t experience that.
I am one of those people! I used to say, “Generation Z is for the birds.” I thought they were brats, they were spoiled, but my tune has changed. As far as I’m concerned, the future couldn’t look brighter.
The cast of Project Runway Junior on Lifetime. (Photo: Lifetime)
What was the biggest difference about working with teenagers rather than your usual crop of designers?
In Episode 1, you can tell that I am walking on eggshells. I was probably a little overly generous with praise and soft-pedaling the negatives, but after that experience of the first challenge — seeing how they responded to my guidance and the judges’ critiques — it bolstered me to learn I could be the same Tim Gunn that I always am and just be my regular self in the workroom with these designers.
Did anything particularly surprise you?
Given that they are as young as 13 and as old as 17 — developmentally, that is a huge difference — I thought there would be a big variation in skill level. I have to tell you, when it came to presentation and quality of execution of the work, you could tell no difference. And our 13-year-old, Maya, she learned to sew by watching YouTube! It was amazing, because these kids grew up watching Project Runway. In Season 1, Maya was 2 years old. When I took them to Mood [the fabric store where contestants shop] for the first time, they were speechless. Everything excited them — it was surreal.
You mentioned you went a little lighter on the contestants at first, because they were young. Did the new judges — Kelly Osbourne, designer and previous Runway winner Christian Siriano, and Seventeen and Cosmopolitan fashion director Aya Kanai — do the same? Did they have to take a different approach? I’d think you’d have to be more sensitive working with a 13-year-old rather than a 33-year-old.
It was refreshing to have a sparkling new fresh panel. I didn’t know how they would respond to the challenges, but they are the best panel of judges ever. They were so in the moment with each designer, getting in their heads and channeling what they were trying to achieve. They were like I was, initially, trepidatious in their critiques. But then they learned, quickly, to bring it on. These young people would know if you were pandering or soft-pedaling, and the most wonderful thing is, they took the critiques positively and recalibrated the work of the next challenge accordingly. They are like little sponges. One thing I knew through the Cooper Hewitt Education Program, or expected to be the case, was that they would be fearless and eager to soar, and they were. Nothing daunted them. There was nothing to which they said, “I can’t do this!” After the first challenge, when the judges saw the work on the runway, they said, “We know the teens designed it, but who made it?” I said, “What do you mean who made it? They did!” Then they were asking, “Well, did they have help? Did they have extra time?” But, no, they had 10 hours, on their own.
Tim Gunn with his Project Runway Junior co-host, supermodel Hannah Davis. (Photo: Lifetime)
You mentioned you wondered if they’d be mean girls, and we know teenage drama can be vicious. Did you find any of that? Did you have to play referee more than usual?
No, I didn’t. We had one — how do I phrase it? — quasi-bitch. But what was interesting is that the parents were all on the set; they have to be, according to child labor laws. They were on a different floor with monitors and earpieces, and this young woman’s parent was rather outraged when she witnessed it and quickly corrected the girl’s behavior.
What is your advice for young aspiring designers?
They have to follow the approach of these 12 remarkable young people. Have 150 to 200 percent commitment. Look at the sewing machine as one would a musical instrument. You have to practice, practice, practice in order to control and command. Read fashion history books, know the historical context of clothing. These kids knew more than many of the adults with whom I’ve worked on Project Runway. Be a Weeble — if anyone even knows that reference anymore! Which is to say, if you are knocked over, bounce back up. These kids have a real tenacity, nothing stops them.
What about advice for parents whose kids want to be designers or who notice a creative spark in their kids?
I say be grateful for it, when you are a parent. You can imagine how some parents react to a son or daughter wanting to be a fashion designer: “That sounds insecure and half-baked, and you’ve been watching too much Project Runway.” The fact that these parents have so beautifully nurtured that desire in their children, my heart opened up to them. They are such good people.
I get emotional just talking about this, but these boys, you know, they have been picked on and bullied. Teens boys who want to be fashion designers? And a number are from teeny, tiny places. At one point Hannah [Davis, the host of Project Runway Junior] said to me, about our contestant Jaxon, “He’s not from nowhere — he’s from Minneapolis.” I said, “He’s from Minneapolis, Kansas! Population 1,200!” What was so touching though was that, for a lot of these kids, they usually don’t see anyone around like them. But here they look around and everyone is like they are. It was this gathering of like minds and spirits that was so touching and moving. They found peers. And that was the toughness of the elimination. They felt the pain of the other designers.
For some of these kids, school life was so difficult that they ended up being homeschooled. I said to them at one point, “When you return home and there is a resurgence of that ‘who do you think you are?’ business, or comments like ‘you should be on the football field not at the sewing machine,’ you tell them to watch you every Thursday night at 9 on Lifetime.”
Top photo: Washington Post/Getty Images