warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Tim Gunn At USC: More To Success Than Just "Make It Work"

D. Asal Ehsanipour |
October 30, 2011 | 9:36 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Tim Gunn speaks at the University of Southern California (photo by D. Asal Ehsanipour)
Tim Gunn speaks at the University of Southern California (photo by D. Asal Ehsanipour)
With immense poise and earnest gratitude, fashion mogul Tim Gunn accepted his invitation to the University of Southern California’s Bovard Auditorium as a guest speaker Friday night, offering life lessons and tips for how to “make it work” in the fashion industry and beyond.

Best known as a Mother Hen figure and self-proclaimed “cheerleader” to contestants on Lifetime’s hit reality series, “Project Runway,” whose season 9 finale aired the night before, Gunn is also the current Chief Creative Officer at Liz Clairborne Inc. and former professor and chair of the fashion department at Parsons The New School For Design. 

The debonair fashionisto—who was crisply dressed in  a chic eggplant-accented pin-striped suit and polka dotted tie—divulged stories and words of wisdom from his latest book, “Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons for Making It Work.”   

The event’s honesty paralleled a mix of tell-all gossip session with an old friend and an intimate exchange of encouragement and words of inspiration. Entire families in town for the university’s Parents Weekend laughed and applauded to Gunn’s quirky mantras, which he expressed with candid compassion and unapologetic sass.

1."The World Owes You Nothing”

“The world owes you nothing,” Gunn began—the first life lesson of many which he disclosed that night. “You have to make your own way.”

Gunn divulged into stories of entitled and irresponsible former students at Parsons who asked for letters of recommendation after pulling their looks from Parsons’ annual fashion show; students so audacious as to stand up job interviewers from top design companies in New York. 

“I wouldn’t recommend [these students] to walk a dog around the block,” Gunn said to applause and laughter.  But more importantly, Gunn, who believes in karma, believes that humility represents respect for the world and for others. 

“We need to be good citizens of the world,” he said.

2. “Don’t Lose Your Sense of Smell”

The act of losing one’s smell, Gunn explained, could be encapsulated by the disgusting smell one notices upon initially walking into a monkey cage at the zoo, followed by not recognizing the smell at all the longer he stays there.  

Gunn recalled his own experiences of “losing his sense of smell” upon receiving a lamp he had ordered online in an ugly “acidic apple green.” His adamant reaction of “this lamp stinks!”  transitioned to “this lamp is… unexpected” the longer it remained in his house. Gunn humorously acted out this scenario—arms across his chest and hands on his chin as if to analyze a “Project Runway” contestant’s fabric selection from Mood.

Gunn likens his experience with the lamp—which he again declared is hideous—to an approach to fashion. Though Gunn embraces style risks, he instructs fashion-lovers not to wear anything that inspires a negative visceral reaction.

“Trust your gut,” he said. “Your gut won’t betray you.”

3. On ‘I Just Need to Get This Off My Chest’

According to Gunn, if someone has done something cruel, such as having an affair, that person deserves to “suffer with the knowledge silently.” 

“We need to keep to ourselves more,” he said; a lesson he practices while offering critiques to contestants on “Project Runway” by avoiding negative assessment of the  unchangeable aspects of an outfit, like a fabric choice, for example.

Instead, he would rather focus on constructive criticism; the aspects of an outfit—or anything else, for that matter—which remain fixable.

4. “Accept Responsibility for Your Actions”

When the New York Post asked Gunn what had been the most surprising thing he had ever seen in fashion, Gunn answered honestly: it was when he witnessed bodyguards carrying Anna Wintour, Editor in Chief of “Vogue,” down five flights of stairs and straight to her car, in a “ well-choreographed fireman’s lock.”

Gunn recalled his panic when he received a call the following Monday from Wintour’s Vice President of Communications insisting that he demand a print retraction

“Oh my God, I can still feel it!” he said theatrically with his hands over his chest.

However, rather than imply that he had been dishonest in his comments involving Wintour, Gunn remained unapologetically steadfast in defense of his story, reiterating that this situation could have been avoided if Wintour had admitted to her actions and taken responsibility.

“Just own it!”

5. “Make It Work”

“Make it work,” Gunn’s most celebrated catch phrase, permeates all other life philosophies he seeks to share with the world. 

But how might one go about “making it work,” especially in the daunting fashion industry?

“Create opportunities for yourself,” Gunn instructs. He makes direct contact with audience members at this point, as if hoping this piece might stick tighter than the rest. 

“Take risks” and “step out of your comfort zone.” Gunn explained that he did just that when he dropped a degree in architecture in favor of literature and fine arts, an academic choice required sudden renavigation toward a new undergraduate degree.

However, he insists the same advice applies to individuals seeking to launch a new career.

“No matter what it is—even if it’s a low level position—do it at 150% and do it better than anyone else.” Gunn is unwavering in his belief that a commitment performed with passion will lead to bigger and better things. He himself accomplished his most impressive career achievements after the age of 50.

In order to make it work, it’s especially important to retain individuality and a strong sense of identity. He instructed audience members to know who they are, what their voice is, to evolve, edit, and soak everything in.

“Who are we without dreams?” he asked. “We’re nothing!”

6. “Be Nice.”

The golden rule of success, Gunn said, is as follows: “If you’re nice, people in the industry will notice.

“Be nice. Now go out and kill everybody!”

Reach reporter Asal Ehsanipour here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Best way to find more great content from Neon Tommy?

Or join our email list below to enjoy the weekly Neon Tommy News Highlights.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.