Tim Gunn Excerpt: 'Gunn's Golden Rules'

Get some advice from an expert in fashion and life

ByABC News via logo
June 4, 2010, 1:13 PM

Sept. 7, 2010— -- Whether on "Project Runway" or in life, it's no secret that people listen to Tim Gunn. The man knows fashion, but what's perhaps more important, the man knows life.

In "Gunn's Golden Rules," the fashion icon shares the lessons he's learned, which you can apply to your own career, relationships and life.

Read an excerpt from the book below and head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.

On "Project Runway," I enter the workroom and offer my thoughts—as a mentor, not a judge—on the designers' work. The advice I give most often is to "make it work."

That's not just a catchphrase. It's a philosophy I've followed my whole life, and I credit it with all the wonderful and surprising success I've had as a TV personality, teacher, and writer. What "make it work" means is that you should use what you have on hand to transform your situation. It's always possible to use whatever tools you have at your disposal to create something that you're proud of and that gets the job done.

Far too often in classes I've taught I've seen students throw out a lot of hard work and start again from scratch. They may wind up with a good garment, but they aren't learning the skills that are essential to excelling in a creative field: patience, innovation, and diligence.

I love to see students trying to learn as they go along. The designers and artists I admire spend their whole lives learning. Everything they make may not be a commercial success, but every bit of effort they make gets them closer to realizing their vision.

One of the things I admire about Project Runway is that it's really about developing creative design work. I'll never forget a woman coming up to me at an airport and saying that she loved Runway because she felt it set such a good example for her nine-year-old daughter. "It demonstrates that good qualities of character—like hard work and persistence—pay off, and cheaters never prosper," she said.

Well, that was one of the nicest things anyone's ever said to me. I love to think that we're setting a good example in that way.Few people remember it now, but Project Runway was quite controversial in the beginning. It took the mystique out of the fashion world and said, "This is a demanding, gut-wrenching industry. You need a really strong drive and love for the work in order to be successful."

I guess we shouldn't have been shocked, but people in this industry did not react well. They thought we were taking the glamour out of fashion. The design world had been enshrouded in a kind of veil of mystery, and Project Runway pulled it back to let the world see it for what it was, warts and all. We got some very nasty reviews and some very harsh comments from our colleagues.

But we wanted to tell the truth. And the truth is that in this business, crazy crises happen, like when you're waiting for the knits to get off the boat from China and the show is tomorrow and the boat doesn't dock. What do you do? Remove fourteen looks from the show? You make it work, somehow. It's a fashion 911, and you have to respond to it. You can't pretend it doesn't exist.Now the industry has bought in to the show's concept completely, and everyone pretends they loved Project Runway all along.

Well, I'm happy that the show's become so popular and that everyone is so full of praise for it, but I do remember those early days, when we were treated as though we were magicians telling everyone how the rabbit got in the hat.

I like to think that my role in the fashion industry has been a bit like Project Runway's position among reality shows, which is a voice of simple reason. Let others be shimmery and flashy and brilliant. (And no one loves daring geniuses more than I do.) I will always be there in the wings saying, "You need to be good to people. You need to take your work seriously. You need to have integrity. You need to work with what you've got."

A woman behind me in line at Starbucks the other day introduced herself as an assistant at a popular women's magazine."Are you taking a break?" I asked.

"No, I'm here getting coffee for everyone." She laughed a bitter laugh and showed me a mile-long list.

"It's all in the details," I said. "Do everything one thousand percent. You could be editor in chief some day!"

I'm afraid she thought I was teasing her, but the fact is I am constitutionally incapable of being snarky. I'm not throwing out barbs and making fun of people. I believe in giving a dimension of seriousness to the whole enterprise of creating and talking about clothes, even to red-carpet reportage, and I'm very proud of that.

As anyone who's been on the red carpet can tell you, the experience is terrifying. You're always just a hair shy of enduring a humiliating moment or facing someone who's just there to make fun of you. I thought: I need to be an antidote to all this horrible stuff.

As many people who watch Project Runway know, I am a stickler for good manners, and I believe that treating other people well is a lost art. In the workplace, at the dinner table, and walking down the street—we are confronted with choices on how to treat people nearly every waking moment. Over time these choices define who we are and whether we have a lot of friends and allies or none.

So how do we do this social thing well? And by "well," I mean: How do we become more respectful and further our own goals at the same time? Dear reader, these two concepts are not mutually exclusive; they're mutually beneficial—and that's what this book is all about.

To maintain anything like a good working relationship with people, to get by in the world successfully, you need to have good manners. (And you need a sense of humor or you may as well slit your wrists.)

I reflect on manners, or the lack of them, each and every day. There are times when I want to stop the world for a moment and ask certain people some probing questions, such as: All of these people are trying to get off the subway train. Why do you six people think you should enter before we leave? Don't you realize that if you just clear a path we can get off and you can get on?In the Internet age, even the very word manners seems antiquated.

Life moves so rapidly these days that it's easy to feel justified in being rude.

"I'm rushing home to the babysitter. That's why I didn't say 'thank you' to the cashier."

"If I treat my assistant humanely, maybe it will be taken as a sign of weakness and I will lose my job."

"I get so many e-mails, there's no time to respond, much less to be eloquent."

With the advent of certain omnipresent technological devices, with chivalry long gone, with message boards teaching young people that anonymous rudeness is acceptable, we are looking at a great amount of change for the worse.

But let us not be swept up in this tide of rudeness. This book (in addition to being a fun excuse to tell some of my favorite fashion-world stories) is a call to arms, a manifesto for kindness, generosity, and integrity. I hope you will join me in trying to make society a friendlier, more polite, and less aggressive place.

Of course, it's not like I am perfect. I've made many mistakes, and I continue to slip up now and then in my effort to behave well. And you'll hear all about it!

And yet I always atone for my errors, and there are certain fundamental social protocols I've come to hold dear: I don't believe in texting while dining, sending one-word e-mails in lieu of formal thank-you cards, wearing shorts to the theater, or settling for any of the modern trends that favor comfort over politeness, ease over style.

Being a good friend to other people, being glamorous and attractive, being a success are no accidents. Having a rich career and home life are the result of a great deal of hard work.

But that doesn't mean the work isn't fun.

In this book, I will share my thoughts on what constitutes a life well lived. These rules are what I've always tried to impart to my students and have tried to follow in my own career and social life. In writing these chapters, I've tried to think of you, the readers, as beloved students who have come to me during office hours to ask advice, talk over a dilemma, or just hang out.

Good manners lead to better relationships, more career success, and less personal stress. Manners are a relief, not a terrible obligation. It's my belief that etiquette isn't cold and formal; it's warm and flexible. I am very concerned with manners, but I am not a robot. Manners are simply about asking yourself, What's the right thing to do?

I deeply believe that if we all have this simple question in our minds, we will do right by one another. We won't always succeed . . . As you will learn from this book, in the course of trying to do the right thing, I have let a closet full of unopened gifts pile up in my apartment, overextended myself to the point where I almost had a nervous breakdown, and even put a dear old lady in the hospital!

But I've learned from every mistake, and I'm eager for you to learn from them, too. In that spirit, I will be offering my thoughts on manners, reminiscing about my own experiences adhering or failing to measure up to them, and telling what I hope are entertaining stories—not too many scandalous ones, but I do have a few doozies . . .

So please, pull up a chair and let's start our chat!

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