Colman Domingo
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Tim Gunn Is the Mentor the World Needs on Making the Cut

Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum

TOKYO — The models floated down the staircase of the studio in Japan last July. Visions of water, fire, stars, and other fantastical projections — brought to life in a fusion of fashion and technology — danced behind them as they descended in staggered pairs toward the hushed audience waiting below.

The judges of this particular Making the Cut challenge—luminaries Heidi Klum, Joseph Altuzarra, Chiara Ferragni, and Naomi Campbell — were lined in an illuminated row next to the runway. They outlined observations in notebooks and traded feedback among themselves. Was a given ensemble pretty, practical, wearable, sellable?

Campbell alone was quiet in the lineup. "What does Naomi think?" Klum wondered aloud at one point. The other judges turned. Campbell, unhearing or laser-focused, remained silent. She continued to write intently on the pad.

For an audience member, the sound of a pen scratching was a riveting moment. The drama of the runway was on full display, but the opinions of the judges — and whatever pronouncements that were etched in the supermodel’s notes — would be reserved for the designers in the workroom for their follow-up assessments.

Making the Cut
Pictured: Judges Naomi Campbell, Nicole Richie, Chiara Ferragni, and Joseph Altuzarra

And there is much at stake in “first-ever global and instantly shoppable series,” where viewers can purchase the winning looks from each episode as soon as it airs. The winning designer of the new Prime Video competition takes away $1 million to invest in his or her brand and an exclusive line on Amazon.

However, it is not only the 12 contestants awaiting judgment. The show marks the reunion of three key Project Runway alumni — hosts Klum and Tim Gunn, as well as out showrunner Sara Rea — who are hoping the alchemy of success from their pioneering cable TV reality series carries over to a new concept on a streaming platform.

“I'm a nervous wreck, to be perfectly honest,” Gunn admitted to The Advocate before the March 27 premiere.

Making the Cut, Gunn stressed to potential viewers, is not a clone of Runway. It is the search for “the next big brand” in global fashion, which requires a 360-degree understanding of design and business. “If you don't know how to market yourself, how to do public relations, how to do visual merchandising, how to do sourcing, forget it. You're not going to go anywhere,” Gunn asserted in his trademark frankness.

Making the Cut opens a unique dialogue between its designers and judges, a rotating assemblage that also includes French fashion editor Carine Roitfeld and celebrity designer Nicole Richie. An elimination can be averted if a contestant is able to articulate “the bigger picture” of his or her vision to the panel, which can sway its vote to a save. The interaction plays like a courtroom scene and is often as riveting as the runway.

Gunn once again opted to be an advisor to the designers, rather than a judge. “You'd need an electric cattle prod and some huge incentive to get me to do that,” Gunn joked of the latter role.

Making the Cut
Pictured: Tim Gunn advises designer Will Riddle

Another difference from Project Runway? Making the Cut is international. With workrooms and runways set up in Tokyo, Paris, and New York, this is “a fashion show that travels,” confirmed the mentor, and shows a cosmopolitan look at the market. Moreover, Gunn and Klum — “joined at the hip” on Making the Cut — embark to various destinations like the Moulin Rouge, where Klum does the can-can, or a spirited game of fencing.

“They don't necessarily advance the plot, but it's an enhancement,” Gunn noted of the segments. It also uncorks the magic in a bottle between the pair that helped make Project Runway a success.

“I keep saying we're the oddest couple in the world,” Gunn said of the pairing between a gay former professor and an ebullient German-American model. “We're such opposites in so many ways. I think that's what makes our chemistry work.”

However, like Project Runway, Making the Cut gives a platform to LGBTQ people — this time on a global scale. In addition to Gunn and judge Altuzarra, a prominent gay fashion designer, the reality show features several LGBTQ competitors and more than a few gender-bending moments on the runway. With Amazon’s reach, it has the power to promote acceptance around the world, particularly in areas where it is taboo or illegal to be queer.

“I hope that for people who demonize our community, this will help humanize it,” Gunn said of Making the Cut.

Gunn himself — known for his well-tailored suits — was “enraptured” by the show’s nonbinary designs on display. “I'd wear these in a heartbeat,” he told himself at the time of each’s presentation on the runway.

Making the Cut
Pictured: Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn sightseeing in Tokyo

Gunn, who grew up in a homophobic environment with no positive representation in media, is “extremely proud” that he continues to carve out this space for LGBTQ people. He recalled with horror how peers from his youth were forced to receive psychiatric treatment for being gay, considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973. “It was very, very disturbing, and it caused me to retreat and to come out rather late,” said Gunn.

Yet this background instilled in him the importance of advocacy, which did not begin with his job on reality TV. The 66-year-old served as the chair of fashion design at Parsons from 2000 to 2007, where his office door was always open to students wanting to discuss issues like coming out. He did so because, despite preconceptions about the fashion world, that openness was not always the norm. “My predecessor as chair was, I hate to say it, something of a homophobe. And I thought, well, you're in the wrong place,” Gunn said.

Queer acceptance was not the only change Gunn made at Parsons. When he took over the fashion department in 2000, it was “a dressmaking school,” with no lessons on the art form’s history or contemporary relevance. “They're making clothes that could have been made in the 1950s. Why?” he asked the dean at the time. Gunn overhauled the curriculum.

“Fashion really does come out of a context that's societal, political, historic, economic, and cultural,” Gunn said. “That's what I would say to my students: ‘You are responsible for knowing everything that's going on in this world. From what the headlines in The New York Times are to what podcast people are listening to, to what shows that are streaming, to what Kindle books they're reading. You have a responsibility to know this and to look at the world through a lens that filters that through your own DNA. Otherwise, what makes you stand out? What makes you different? What makes your vision of the world something that we should wake up to and pay attention to? Otherwise, you're just making clothes.’”

Making the Cut
Pictured: Making the Cut's diverse group of designers

Gunn sees this torch being carried by Christian Siriano, a former Project Runway winner who is now a mentor on that reality series and a force in the worlds of fashion and activism. Last week, the 34-year-old gay designer made headlines for constructing medical masks for hospitals in need during the current health crisis. Siriano has also emerged as an advocate for size inclusivity in fashion; he designed a stunning red-carpet dress for Leslie Jones, when no one else would for the 6-foot-tall Saturday Night Live actress, and worked with Lane Bryant to stage a plus-size fashion show at the United Nations.

Gunn recalled the day he auditioned Siriano for season 4 of Project Runway. On paper, he was doubtful of Siriano because of his youth. But after meeting him in the audition room, Siriano changed his mind. "When he left, I turned to my colleagues and said, 'I have never met a fashion prodigy until today,'" recalled Gunn, and this was well before Siriano became the youngest winner in the show's history. "He's a powerful guy."

It also came as no surprise to Gunn that Project Runway made headlines earlier this year after a contestant threw shade on host Karlie Kloss for her ties to the Kushner family; she is married to Jared's brother, Joshua. (Kloss, for the record, said she intended to vote Democratic in 2020.) Although some criticized the contestant's remarks as verboten, political commentary "should be part of the industry," Gunn declared.

In fact, Gunn wishes more people in the political world would take advantage of fashion's power. Gunn cited House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who famously wore white during the State of the Union in reference to the women's suffrage movement — and former First Lady Michelle Obama as role models.

"We know the clothes we wear happen to be a form of semiotics. They send a message about how the world perceives us and that's hugely important," Gunn said. "I've been a fan of Pelosi and her fashion for as long as she's been in Washington. In fact, during the Obama years I kept saying, we have Nancy Pelosi, we have Michelle Obama. Why aren't more women on Capitol Hill taking note and following suit? I just couldn't understand it."

"It's not some mysterious, mystical formula that you have to divine in order to get your fashion right. It's about three elements, silhouette, proportion, and fit. And when they're in harmony and balance, you'll look great no matter what you're wearing," Gunn advised. "Know who you are and how you want to present yourself to the world. I mean, Nancy Pelosi looks great because she's Nancy Pelosi, but that look wouldn't be the same on [Maine Sen.] Susan Collins."

So does Gunn consider himself an activist? “By just living the life that we live and being respectful citizens of the world, I think we do what we need to do. In that respect, we're all activists,” Gunn said.

“I just hope, like we all do, that the world comes around to understanding how important it is to accept everyone and that differences help define us,” he concluded. “And if you eliminated all the LGBTQ people from the present day and from history, this would be a very sad planet indeed.”

Amazon Prime Video’s Instagram is hosting a live premiere party for Making the Cut with Naomi Campbell Friday at 5 p.m. Pacific Time, with a virtual afterparty on DJ Questlove's Instagram Live beginning at 7 p.m. Pacific Time. 

Fans are also encouraged to participate in the social media campaign #StrutForTheCut, which raises awareness of the work of the World Health Organization during the current health crisis, by posting videos of strutting their hallways in "home couture." Additionally, Making The Cut will donate more than $600,000 to the WHO and local charities in its filming locations of New York, Paris, and Tokyo.

Watch the trailer below.

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