So what is it about Tim Gunn that I admire?
HE CARES ABOUT DESIGN
When I read his books or listen to him give advice and feedback to new designers on Project Runway, it's clear that he truly loves design, and considers all aspects of it when he looks at clothes. Clothes are not trivial... we all wear them, nearly all the time, and they contribute greatly to our comfort/discomfort. Good design makes our lives better, and bad design plagues us with vexation and waste.
So, having established that he knows his stuff, and is eminently qualified to talk about it let's look beyond clothes to some more human characteristics.
HE'S A GOOD MENTOR
It's hard for a person with lots of know-how and experience to stand back and watch others fumbling around at the start of that long road. It's natural to want to help, and want to prevent them from making rookie mistakes, but how to help without taking over...? That's the trick, and it's one Time Gunn does with style.
The Project Runway contestants are certainly lucky to have him mentoring them. I love to see him come in to give them feedback on their designs: he listens; he works hard to understand what they're trying to do; he gives honest feedback on what the clothes say to him, and how to tweak them to better achieve their vision; he asks rhetorical questions to get them thinking about new options; and he respects and encourages them no matter whether they take his advice or not! His advice is never about being "trendy" and always about good design and how to serve the client. More importantly as far as soft skills go, his counsel is never about himself and always about helping the other person grow.
HE EXPECTS MORE FROM HIS INDUSTRY
I mean that in the best possible way: when you truly love something, you hold it to higher standards, and that's what Tim Gunn does to the fashion industry which has been his life: he demands the best from it and calls it out when it falls short.
In September 2016, Tim Gunn wrote an editorial for the Washington Post (Tim Gunn: Designers refuse to make clothes to fit American women. It’s a disgrace.) in which he blasted the fashion industry for ignoring and disparaging women of larger sizes. And he's not talking just about the obese or unhealthy; he's talking about all women larger than size 12, which encompasses a variety of perfectly normal and healthy shapes and sizes. (Although the obese and unhealthy need clothes too, it's easy for critics to counter that they should just lose weight and not expect designers to cater to them, which is an irritating straw man in this argument.)
Addressing both the moral side of things and the financial incentives, he doesn't mince words: "There is money to be made here ($20.4 billion, up 17 percent from 2013). But many designers — dripping with disdain, lacking imagination or simply too cowardly to take a risk — still refuse to make clothes for them." And this is refreshing language, because the "dripping with disdain" thing is real, but usually those who comment on it are outsiders to the industry, not insiders.
(This video is pretty much the same content as the editorial, but you can hear and see him talk, and admire his wonderfully made suit. Look at the stripe matching, horizontal and vertical, in the sleeve-to-armscye!)
HE CARES FOR ANIMALS
When it comes to fur as a fashion choice, Gunn is equally blunt, calling it "fashion's most egregious vulgarity". When working at Parson's, he invited PETA to come and speak, to help budding fashion designers understand how their animal-skin products were harvested. He also speaks on a PETA video called Fashion Victims, in unapologetic terms (it's a hard video to watch, because of the scenes of cruelty to animals).
My own position on fur and leather is not the same as PETA's. For instance, I dislike waste so I make exceptions for vintage garments and second-hand shoes; I think sometimes fur is the warmest option and leather the most practical material; and I think medical research is often justified -- all of which fail to align with PETA's stance. Moreover, PETA's arguments often posit that humans are animals too, and therefore we have no rights over them, but I can't see how that position leads to ethical behavior: a cat and a mouse are on equal footing (both animals), but one torments and plays with the other, even when she's not hungry! The reason we don't call the cat unethical is that cats don't have moral sense. If we act like that cat, we are being wicked. Our responsibility toward animals comes from the fact that we're different from them, not the notion that we're the same!
Nevertheless, I am with Gunn in abhorrence of the cruel methods by which furs are often taken and the inhumane way animals are treated. God gave us dominion over nature not as tyrants but as stewards; ultimately, "the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein" (Psalm 24:1). Would you want to stand before the Lord and explain that you deliberately abused one of the creatures He made? Worse yet if your only justification was that you thought it would make a cute coat or trendy purse? I wouldn't!
The thing about moral feeling is that it grows from specific instances to general ones. If we show disdain for one part of creation, we degrade it all, but if we show respect and love for one part of creation, we grow in love of it all. Once a person wraps their head (and heart!) around the fact that their dog can suffer pain and that they, as the powerful and morally responsible party, can help or harm, they soon wonder if a rabbit or fox is so different. Once they choose to eschew pesticides in their yard, they start to wonder about pesticide use in cotton fields in India. Similarly, we often overcome our prejudice toward groups through interactions with individual members.
By speaking out against fur and animal cruelty, Tim Gunn is using his fame and the individual credit he has with people like me to challenge how we see the world. He's reminding us that as humans we have power over creation, and are capable of better things in how we treat it. This is a good thing. And if I as a Christian hear the Spirit prompting me to look at the issue further and see that we are not just capable of better, but accountable for our actions to God, then I'm probably going further than Gunn or PETA would. But I don't mind that!
"WHATEVER IS ADMIRABLE—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."
I admire Tim Gunn for living his values. Plenty of people say they value things, but you'd never know it from their actions. Tim Gunn's actions, however, show what he values. He values design so he studies and promotes it. He values the creativity of others, so he teaches and mentors them. He values animal life and quality of life, so he fights for it. That is all praiseworthy.
I hope that someday someone can look at my life and say "This is what Karen valued..." and have that list match the list I hold in my heart.
Quilting, dressmaking, and history plied with the needle...
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