Lifetime's 'Under the Gunn': Tim Gunn Previews His 'Project Runway' Spinoff

Maggie Furlong
Yahoo TV

Tim Gunn has been making it work as the mentor of "Project Runway" for 12 seasons now, and he's finally (three-piece) suiting up for the spinoff he so richly deserves.

"Under the Gunn" (premieres Thursday, Jan. 16 at 9 p.m. on Lifetime) elevates the wisdom-spouting fashion expert to Super Mentor level, now guiding three fan-favorite "Project Runway" alums to become mentors themselves to a crop of new designers.

Gunn helps Mondo Guerra, Anya Ayoung-Chee, and Nick Verreos coach and manage five aspiring designers apiece. After his initial critiques — which always provide invaluable insight on "Runway" and often make or break a design — Gunn then leaves the designers to finish their garments, with the help of his mentors-in-training. But that's not always a positive.

Keep reading to find out how mentoring mentors is more challenging than he thought and why he's a bit envious of them. Also hear his (somewhat) unfiltered thoughts on those "Project Runway All Stars" seasons, Alyssa Milano as host, and why he's never seen an episode.

First the Tim Gunn Save on "Runway," and now your own show. The two are 100 percent connected, I think.

I have to give credit to Sara Rea, our showrunner — the Tim Gunn Save was her idea! It came out of Season 11 where I basically saved Michelle, who won the season, but it all happened off-camera. I was outraged. I thought, "This can't happen, she can't go home, she is the youngest of these finalists, she has a point of view that's so powerfully important, she can't go, this is a huge, horrible mistake." So I got my save, and then Sara said, "Well, for Season 12, let's formalize it — you know you're going to do it again!"

Well yeah, now that you had the power you weren't about to give it up! But that hasn't been the only interesting change — now the judges are seeing everything so up close and personal on "Runway."

[Laughs.] Yes the part in "Runway" 12 where I bring the models out and show the designers the work … that came about because Season 11 was Zac Posen's first season with us as a judge, and when the models would leave backstage, he'd get up and grab them and start examining the clothes. I went nuts because it wasn't happening on camera. And I always say to the designers, "The judges never see your work any closer than 20 feet," and then suddenly … so I was incensed. So when Sara said we'd incorporate that officially in Season 12, I can't tell you what resistance I had, but then I loved it. I really loved it. Sara was right!

[Related: "Project Runway's" Tim Gunn Defends Show's Record For Success]

I'm glad to hear that because it's one of my favorite new elements, and I'd think you'd be all for it because it brings a bit more realness back to reality TV.

Oh absolutely — in that first challenge, as far as I was concerned, we had a great big cheater, and as I said to the judges, "If she were my student, I'd give her an F," and they were ready to give her the win. It's like, "But she didn't use the parachute!" I mean! So it's a good thing.

But it's insight like that that you have, and the judges are never privy to … that's why you're the mentor. But you didn't just become a mentor overnight, so I'm wondering how you taught these "Runway" alums how to be the mentors now on "Under the Gunn"?

Well it was a challenge, I have to say.

But Mondo, Nick and Anya … they felt handpicked. Like you weren't going to have Gretchen on the show.

[Rolls eyes.] Thank you. Thank you, no. Do you think she'd be a good mentor? I don't! I mean, we went through scores of names because there's so many alumni, but … no.

[Laughs.] No, these three were great picks. What was your No. 1 goal in doing this?

Just to give them some benchmarks for what I believe a good mentor is. And of course that speaks to me, egomaniacal person that I am. But the benchmarks were more about chapter titles, not about execution. Needless to say, they each have very different personalities, very different styles as designers, and I have to say that aspect was somewhat irrelevant because you're not working with mini-mes.

Yeah, they're not tasked with forcing their style onto these designers.

Or you shouldn't be. Just wait. But the major difference between my relationship with the designers on "Runway" and my relationship with the mentors here is with the designers on "Runway," I should not and don't tell them what to do. I probe, I query, I pummel them with questions to find out where they are, and basically to get them to change course if needed. But with the mentors, I can be very dictatorial — I can say, "You may not do this. You will not do that. I don't want to have rules for you, but if we need them … " And in fact I do implement a rule at one point.

I mean, I'm so envious of their role on the show because I would love, in a way, to have the same role on "Runway," but there are too many designers, I can't. I don't have four people I'm in charge of — I begin with 16! So I'm not there for the fittings or after the major critique or the morning of the judging. But they became these hovering nags! Hovering. Nags. The great thing about FIDM is the workroom has this huge glass wall, so I can just keep walking by … but one day Anya was just on a stool, two feet away from one of her designers, just staring at him while he worked. I would implode! At one point Mondo was in the sewing room, standing over the designer's shoulder at the machine, telling him to fix the collar. Nope. Out.

Laying down the law.

And they were upset, but it had to be done. I said, "Look, I know you feel so emotionally invested in these people, and they've been through Scylla and Charybdis to get to you and you feel this sense of proprietary ownership, but you must step back and be objective because that work was not great. The fit was not great."

Let's talk about the work. Do these designers rival some of your "Runway" designers?

Oh, most definitely! I'll be honest with you: We were shooting a season of "Runway," we thought … they auditioned for "Runway." We went back to them later and told them the truth and I was expecting people to drop out, but no, they all said they wanted to do it.

Well you're the best. I always love your insight. Now I don't want to get you gossiping because I could go all day, but I have serious "Project Runway All Stars" questions … Alyssa Milano?

[Whispers.] I've never seen the show. But I do read the Facebook page. I don't get it. I don't understand it. Like the people writing on the Facebook page, "Huh?" But just being honest with you, I've never seen a single, solitary episode of "All Stars."

That's surprising. Why is that?

Part of it is because I'm not there, and frankly I'm a little resentful that they do it when we're doing "Runway." If they did it at a different time, Heidi [Klum] and I could both do it. But they do it simultaneously. It's just not physically possible, and it wouldn't be a responsible thing to do. And also I'm terrible at multi-tasking. [Laughs.]

Watch a promo for "Under the Gunn":

"Under the Gunn" premieres Thursday, Jan. 16 at 9 p.m. on Lifetime.