Monday, November 7, 2011

Sewing, Sincerity, and Sexuality - The Inspiration and Humanity of Tim Gunn

It's not typically my style to be a celebrity chaser. I am not easily starstruck or impressed with fame for the sake of fame. I enjoy following the tabloid headlines here and there, but the vast majority of what poses as celebrity these days is talentless, manufactured deadweight. Many so-called "stars" are nothing but money making machines for themselves and their sphere of hyenas with no connection of value to the real world (can you tell I'm maxed out on the Krapdashians?).

There are notable exceptions. The George Clooneys, Jolie-Pitts, Matt Damons, Sandra Bullocks, Paul Newmans, and Madonnas of the world seem to try to do their part. They put in time as spokespeople for this cause or that and throw significant chunks of their earnings at their charities of choice. They make some attempt to put their celebrity to good use. Some are misguided or perhaps just looking for a good photo op, but at least they show some capacity to be outward-thinking and make the effort to carve out normal lives for themselves.

I don't necessarily expect the rich and famous to head up behemoth charitable organizations or adopt a gazillion impoverished babies. It's certainly refreshing though to at least see them acting appropriately and exhibiting an awareness beyond the ten-foot bubble of fame that encapsulates them. I know there are challenges that come with the role. The media and fan-base fixation on them can be suffocating and even dangerous. Still, despite the difficulty creating a normal life, some of them manage to get the important stuff right, or at least as right as any of us can - home life, relationships, parenting, generosity, behavior. They take their craft seriously, work hard, and set an example worthy of our attention.

Recently, my daughter and I saw the signs up at Annapolis Mall that Tim Gunn of Project Runway fame would be visiting for a fashion show with the opportunity for fans to meet and be photographed with him. While we would not have blinked at most opportunities to get up-close with a celebrity (Bieber? - blech, Lindsay? - laughable, Snooki? - snasty), we both resolved that if possible, we would not miss this chance to get some face time with Tim Gunn, one of our very favorite TV personalities. We read the fine print and marked the date on our calendar.

My daughter and I are huge fans of the show Project Runway. Reality TV can be hit or miss - mostly miss - but I find a lot to appreciate about this particular show. First, host Heidi Klum is a celebrity who it appears to me gets it right. She is smart, funny, and most importantly, does not take herself too seriously despite being fabulously beautiful and successful. Her family life seems wholesome and healthy, and she presents as real and sincere.

I might wait in a line to meet Heidi Klum, although waiting for hours to get a picture with a supermodel might be rough on the ego. On Project Runway, I find her comments entertaining and insightful and honest. If I had to choose a celebrity's life to lead, it might be hers (not that I fantasize about that or anything, um... but come on, Seal for a hubby? Does not get any cooler than that - just saying'). Even so, I don't actually think I would wait for any significant length of time to meet her. While I'm impressed with her, it's not the same warm fuzzy I feel for Tim Gunn.

Second, I love the insight into the world of fashion and clothing design on Project Runway. I find the designers to be truly talented and creative, and I love watching them interpret the challenges into high fashion (or low fashion on occasion). Their work demonstrates that fine line between tasteful and trashy or just ordinary. They have created masterpieces of fashion from birdseed and trash bags, and they all have personal style out the yingyang.

Third, I just enjoy watching the sewing that goes on. I come from a family of very capable seamstresses including my Mom, her sister, and my great-grandmother on my father's side. Even my brother has been known to whip up a kilt for a friend in need of a costume and sew canvas awnings for his house. I can remember my Grandmama Mac sewing for me when I was a very little girl - sweet little smocked dresses and play clothes. Here is one of my earliest Grandmama Mac custom designer fashions:

White Easter dress.

My mother sewed on Grandmama's old Singer throughout my childhood. She made Easter dresses for me, the odd John John suit for my brother, and doll clothes for my Barbies. She made us matching mother-daughter outfits that were the height of 70s fashion (take that for what it is - I'm talking orange polyester jumpsuits and full length denim skirts that would have been right at home on the Brady Bunch). She also sewed all the linens, curtains, chair covers and quilts for my daughter's nursery.

Mom sewing in a hotel room I think?

Mom on the old Singer making terry cloth
 robes for the whole family for Xmas.

Mom doing her best Florence
Henderson in a homemade maxi.

Very short pink Easter dress made by Mom
accessorized with some styling white sunglasses.

Again with the very short hemline!
Mom made both of these outfits
- venturing into menswear.

She was only responsible for mine here.
Don't know if my brother is laughing at
the thing on my head or his crazy outfit.

My Aunt Joyce has been a seamstress by trade in the latter part of her life, and as a young woman, she made my mother's wedding dress. The dress is a true thing of beauty - creamy, dense, white satin with a perfect neckline and long sleeves the likes of which you would never see today in a world of endlessly repetitive strapless carbon copies. It is classic and elegant and simple in a way that rivals Grace Kelly's. Aunt Joyce also made the red brocade satin bridesmaids and flower girl dresses for the December 26th wedding which were my goto dress up outfits as a little girl.

Mom and Dad on their wedding day. Designer
Aunt Joyce just over Mom's right shoulder.

Me dressed up in the red brocade.

Whoa, getting sidetracked... Fourth, and most importantly, we love to watch Project Runway because of Tim Gunn. This guy is a gem among men. He is intimately knowledgeable about fashion design. He taught and was chair of the fashion design department at Parson's, the famous New York school of fashion design, for twenty-four years before taking over as chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne. The thing that is most appealing about him beyond his wit and expertise, though, are his remarkable graciousness and warmth. He is quick with a hug or supportive critique for a distraught or conflicted contestant and not afraid to show emotion. His sincerity and honest nature radiate right out of the TV. I don't know how many times I've said I would love a Tim Gunn in my life when I need words of support and encouragement.

So when we learned Tim Gunn was coming to town, we went into full-on groupie mode and figured out where to be when. He has partnered with the Lucky Brand clothing line to promote their stores and fashions while at the same time promoting his book, Gunn's Golden Rules, Life's Little Lessons for Making it Work. His visit included a Lucky Brand fashion show commentated by him followed by a question and answer session and then an "after party" catered by California Pizza Kitchen. For a $100 purchase at Lucky Brand, you also had the opportunity to meet Tim, get a free signed copy of his book, and get your picture taken with him.

Since we just had to have that face time, we made our purchase and then waited in the gargantuan line following the show to get our picture. I ended up being placeholder as my daughter and her friend took a few strolls down the mall to pass the time. The wait was made much more bearable by the endless flow of drinks and pizza provided by California Pizza Kitchen staff. I have to hand it to the organizers, they did not skimp on refreshments. They even had ladies from Bare Essentials freshening up makeup at the head of the line so we didn't look too homely after our ordeal when we met Tim.

Despite the long, slow wait, I didn't see any disgruntled fans in the crowd. It was mostly women of all ages, a few brave, self-confident male fans, and confused but devoted-to-their-wives-and-daughters dads. While I was initially discouraged by the amount of time Tim spent with each person who came through the line, by the end, I was just astonished and impressed at his ability to keep up the meaningful and sincere conversation. That graciousness that comes across so distinctly on TV was on full display for his fans who love him for that very reason. His hugs were just as forthcoming as on the show.

When it was finally our turn, we basked in the glow of his company for our few moments as he signed our book. We spoke about his family tradition of men at the Naval Academy (no kidding) and my family tradition of sewing. I told him in all honesty that his show had inspired me to take up the craft in a more serious way. For years, I threw together Halloween costumes on Grandmama Mac's old Singer, now in my possession. Recently, in large part as a result of watching Project Runway, I have purchased a more modern, if inexpensive, sewing machine and taken on some more challenging projects. I made a cute wool blend skirt with kick pleats and a zipper, and I'm now about halfway through a wool blazer - darts, sleeves, pocket welts and all. OK, it's not Project Runway material, but not bad for a first try.

A few puckers to iron out on the sleeve.

Still have the collar facing,
lining, and hemming to do.

Miraculously a perfect fit. Pleats need ironing.

Sewing and sincerity are not the only ways that Tim Gunn has been inspirational. He also has been open about his sexuality and contributed a video to the It Gets Better Project that has done such a wonderful and powerful job of increasing awareness about and acceptance of GLBT youth.

I, for one, am tremendously happy that Tim Gunn was unsuccessful in his desperate suicide attempt as a young man. Otherwise, we would not have known the terrifically entertaining, wise, and kind man that he has become. I know that my gay friends and family must be inspired by him as I am. I am so pleased to have had the opportunity for me and my daughter to shake his hand and return his hug. I am not awed by his celebrity but rather his humanity.

The girls with Tim

Wore my It Gets Better Project T-Shirt.
The sweater is my Lucky Brand purchase.

In closing, I will leave you with Tim's list of Golden Rules from his book. They are the titles of each of the chapters. Good ones for all of us to keep in our poorly stitched and ill fitting hip pockets...

Gunn's Golden Rules

  • Make It Work!
  • The World Owes You . . . Nothing
  • Take the High Road
  • Don't Abuse Your Power - or Surrender It
  • Get Inspired If It Kills You
  • Never Underestimate Karma
  • Niceties are Nice
  • Physical Comfort Is Overrated
  • Talk to Me: There's Always Another Side to the Story
  • Be a Good Guest or Stay Home
  • Use Technology; Don't Let It Use You
  • Don't Lose Your Sense of Smell (*i.e. don't get used to things that stink)
  • Know What to Get Off Your Chest and What to Take to the Grave
  • When in Rome . . . I Still Wouldn't Eat Monkey Brains
  • When You Need Help, Get It
  • Take Risks! Playing It Safe Is Never Really Safe
  • Give Back (but Know Your Limits)
  • Carry On!