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The mentor becomes the host in TV’s new ‘Under the Gunn’

Under the Gunn

• 8 p.m. Thursday

• Lifetime

Posted 12:00am on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014

Tim Gunn’s new TV show, Under the Gunn, sounds suspiciously similar to that other fashion competition series for which he’s so widely known.

So how exactly does this one differ from Project Runway?

Aside from Gunn, America’s favorite mentor, now filling the Heidi Klum role as host, and beyond the element of three new mentors competing against each another to deliver the winning designer, the show is almost exactly the same.

In fact, the 15 aspiring fashion designers, including one from Fort Worth, initially auditioned for and were selected to compete on Runway.

Under the Gunn, which premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday on Lifetime, didn’t exist when they were selected. The show was created, well, under the gun of deadline pressure.

“Lifetime’s plan was to do Season 13 almost immediately following the finale of Season 12,” Gunn explains. “But Heidi wasn’t available. So there was a scramble and this whole new concept was born.

“We went back to the designers who were selected for Runway and said, ‘It’s a new show. If you want to back out, if you want to wait for Runway, you can.’ But no one did. Everybody wanted to come to Under the Gunn. I was pleased with that.”

The stakes are just as high as on Runway. The winning designer will receive a cash prize of $100,000, a top-of-the-line sewing and embroidery studio, an all-expenses-paid inspirational trip to Paris, a fashion spread in Marie Claire magazine and a 2014 Lexus CT 200h.

The three mentors are all former Project Runway favorites: Mondo Guerra, Anya Ayoung-Chee and Nick Verreos.

The designer with Fort Worth ties, who will be introduced in the second episode, is Rey Ortiz, a 32-year-old from Puerto Rico.

We talked with Gunn this week about the new show.

What’s the best part and the most difficult part of having your own show?

The best part and the most difficult part are the same: saying that I have my own show. It sends terror through me, to be perfectly honest. On the one hand, I’m thrilled about it, but on the other hand, I feel very exposed and I’m nervous about how people are going to respond to it.

I will tell you this: You won’t see it in the first episode, but you will see some dimensions of me that you don’t see on Runway, especially my temper. I hope people just recognize that I’m a real person and some things can really push my buttons.

This genre of television show hasn’t gotten old or repetitious for you?

After 12 seasons of Project Runway, I think I was more invigorated by Season 12 than I’ve ever been. As for Under the Gunn, making it certainly felt different. Certainly there’s some comfort zone. I love walking into the work room. You know what to expect in terms of the rhythm, the cadence of how the walk-around critiques work.

But no, it never gets tired, ever. I taught for 29 years and I never once — well, there was an occasional semester where I would think, ‘Good heavens, how did I get dealt this dubious hand of cards?’ But I always rose to the occasion and enjoyed it.

What exactly are you looking for when you see a designer’s work, either in the context of the show or out in the real world?

I want to be wowed and dazzled. I really don’t know what that is until I see it. To make real clothes that are innovative and believable is a huge challenge. Most of what’s out there is not very innovative. That’s why when people do it well, the world cheers.

I’m always making the distinction between clothes and fashion. We need clothes; we don’t need fashion. We want fashion and we have a fervor for it, but we don’t need it. For me, clothes are what you see in the L.L.Bean catalog. I’m happy that those clothes haven’t changed for decades, because I buy some of them and I know what I’m going to get.

But when it comes to fashion, we want something new. We want something that lifts us a couple of inches off the ground spiritually.

What are some of the mistakes that a designer should strive to avoid at all costs?

The two easiest things to do are to create dumb clothes and to make jokes. Dumb clothes, for me, is a T-shirt. The world doesn’t need for you to make a T-shirt. There are plenty of them out there. And jokes, for me, are those things that we see walking the runway during Paris couture week.

Those two polarities are too easy to design for. It’s easy to make a T-shirt; it’s easy to make a float in a parade.

Is any designer capable of shocking you after all your years in this business?

I don’t know that I’ll say shock. But I will say dazzle. I think I’ve been unshockable since the 1960s. But yes, in particular, when you’re talking about Project Runway and Under the Gunn, what dazzles me is what the designers are able to achieve in this incredibly tight time frame. It’s quite remarkable.

Given that Under the Gunn puts an added emphasis on mentoring, what do you think makes a good mentor?

A good mentor is a coach, a cheerleader, a truth teller. My own particular approach is to pummel people with questions. I need as much of the context as possible to understand what their point of departure is and what they’re trying to achieve.

I would never just walk up to someone and just start speaking and offering critical analysis of their work without fully understanding as well as I can what that designer is trying to achieve.

How did the three rookie mentors do?

There were many times I had to step in, including at one point laying down some rules. One of the first rules I needed to lay down was that the mentors had to leave the work room an hour before I called time to go to the runway. Because they were becoming these irrepressible nags.

They would be hanging over their designers saying, ‘No, don’t work on that; work on the collar.’ It’s like, ‘Get out of there. The designers need to hear their inner voices.’ It’s really difficult. There’s such a delicate balance here between offering too much and offering not enough.

Did you miss Heidi?

Of course. I missed her deeply and dearly. She is the judge on our finale. She said, ‘I just want to show support. I wish I could have been here more.’ Her conflict was that she was taping Germany’s Next Topmodel and that’s like Runway for her, a 24-hour-a-day job. But she was constantly in my head. Constantly.

What’s the future for Under the Gunn ? Will there be additional seasons?

Like everything else in TV land, it’s all directly dependent on the audience reaction and the ratings. I have no expectations other than I’m thrilled to have this show and I’m eager for everyone to see it. But I have no expectations that we’ll do another season.

Do you think you’ve heard every Gunn pun under the sun?

Yes, I’m quite certain I have heard every pun. But that’s OK. I never tire of hearing them.

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