The Style Arbiter: Project Nashville

Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 1:00am
The Style Arbiter, Libby Callaway, with fashion guru Tim Gunn recently at the Kate Spade store in The Mall at Green Hills

The Easter Bunny’s pastel photo shed was open for business, but that’s not what was causing lines on the upper level of The Mall at Green Hills earlier this month.

The queues located outside the Kate Spade store two Thursdays ago were actually for another white-haired visitor: Tim Gunn, the famed fashion mentor/guru of the hit TV reality shows Project Runway and Tim Gunn's Guide to Style.

Gunn, who is the chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne (the company acquired Kate Spade in 2006), was visiting the upscale accessories Mecca as part of a multi-city spring tour of the chain, speaking about personal style and having his picture made with some of his many local fans. (Eat your heart out, Bunny.)

Before the event, the pinstriped and pink-tied “fashion therapist” graciously took the time to answer questions Style Arbiter blog readers submitted for him in advance.

Here, Gunn espouses the benefits of buying accessories during a recession, the importance of a good jacket, and what it means for us as a fashion nation to have a strong sense of style back in the White House.

What are some recent trends you’ve enjoyed?
I’m not a supporter of trends. I believe in buying things without a shelf life and I believe fashion can be on-trend without being trendy. On-trend can mean the color that’s relevant to the season, a certain silhouette, but not necessarily that big editorial item. Because if you wear it two seasons from now you’ll look like a circus clown.

Is it important to have one personal style and stick with it or it is OK to be experimental?
It’s a matter of what works for you. I think it’s a relief for a lot of people to be able to tap into a personal style that works for them; they feel buoyed up by it. But some people will find that that’s too dull and want to be more chameleon-like.

You may know this about me, but I’m not a fashion dictator. I’m not a fashion magician or Svengali. I’m much more of a fashion therapist. So I have a very syncretic approach to this, which is tell me about you, tell me about what you resonate to, what your proclivities are, and how you want to present yourself to the world. I can help be a nurturer, a supporter, but it’s totally about you.

People who are stylists think I’m fearful. But I’m not fearful, I just don’t want individuals to become my dress up dolls; it’s not about me, it’s about who they are! And I have too much respect for people to do that.

I have $100. What is a good, classic investment for me to make this spring?
This is where I go back to my fashion therapist role. What do you have? What do you need? What do you think is missing from your wardrobe? I could have several dozen answers to that.

I will say, when it comes to apparel, the one item every woman — and man — needs is a blazer or a jacket. I’m not talking about a classic navy blazer with brass buttons — unless that’s who you are. It can be any number of styles. But it’s the item that allows you to take a T-shirt and jeans and go out. And it’s so easy.

I don’t care what you wear to work, but if you’re not wearing a suit or if you’re dressed casually, which the norm in many work environments — and the boss calls, have that jacket ready. It’s a sign of respect.

I’m always talking about the semiotics of clothes. The clothes we wear have impact on how we’re perceived and how we’re presenting ourselves to the world. (When people see you, they should think) ‘Oh, she cares.’ It’s a great reaction to get.

How do you define style? What makes a stylish person?
This is a really tough one. I hear people say style is innate, that it can’t be taught… I don’t believe it. I believe that you can get one by developing critical judgment and having a critical eye, and by being discerning and analytical. You get it by education. For instance, I’m delighted that I spent countless semesters in art history class; it really taught me how to look at things.

You develop your own sense of what you respond to by educating yourself in different ways, and by exploring what you enjoy doing, what living environments you like. And this all becomes a part of your personal style.

I believe we all do have a style, whether you know it or not, it’s there.

How can you get someone to become interested in developing a style?
I have to say I knock wood and thank my lucky stars that we have the Obamas in the White House. Finally, fashion is back in people’s vocabulary. We have a polished, dapper President and a First Lady who resonates style, and I really believe that helps people tremendously when they’re thinking about their own style.

What I also love about Michelle Obama is that she’s a real woman. She has a real figure. She dresses in a way that’s occasion-appropriate and age-appropriate. People are constantly comparing her to Jackie Onassis. I never do. Jackie was this rare, porcelain doll — a hothouse flower. With Michelle Obama, you feel like you want to throw your arms around her and give her a big hug. And she’d welcome it.

Michelle Obama is making fashion very accessible. When Jackie was walking around in her Dior suit, you would think ‘That can’t be me.’ I am in no way trivializing (Jackie), but the impact of Michelle Obama is profound.

What does your casual wardrobe look like?
Jeans, shirts, a blazer if I go out.

Style Arbiter: I think people think you wear this (pinstriped suit, crisp white shirt, pink tie) when you go to bed at night. And that you wake up looking just like this!
No! People think that I’m always stiff and starched, but I’m not. But also I would never come to this event wearing jeans and a T-shirt, because I have too much respect for the people here. They’d think, ‘Oh, he didn’t care.’ I do care!

Want more Gunn?
Outtakes from The Style Arbiter’s recent interview with Tim Gunn are posted on the SA blog,

The Style Arbiter appears Thursdays in The City Paper. You can e-mail her at or leave a comment on her blog: