Tim Gunn doesn’t seem like the mud-slinging type—or the type who’d get anywhere near mud without a lovely Burberry Prorsum slicker and some heavy-duty Fendi gloves.
But this fall, the fashion patrician is wading, couture-less, into the muck. Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons for Making It Work, purportedly an etiquette guide but actually the dishiest frock book since The Devil Wears Prada, goes on sale Tuesday, and in it, the Project Runway host takes aim at an assortment of fashion’s sacred cows, including Vogue titans Anna Wintour and Andre Leon Talley and designer Isaac Mizrahi. Not even Suri Cruise is spared.
Gunn says of Anna Wintour’s people: “If they wanted an apology, the best I could have come up with was, ‘I’m sorry to imply that she doesn’t know how to work a Manolo.’”
Gunn describes watching Wintour’s bodyguards carry her down the stairs after a fashion show, lest she be forced to cram into an elevator with the rest of the proles. He catches Talley being hand-fed grapes and cheese cubes while lounging under a tent-size plastic sheet. The 3-year-old Cruise (or, properly, her movie star mama) gets dinged for dressing the little one in high heels. And Gunn reserves special contempt for Mizrahi, whom he portrays as a petulant, insufferable diva.
“Do I fear retribution? Yes, absolutely,” the reality-television star, fashion executive, and surprisingly gifted generator of buzz said in a recent telephone interview.
In addition to his duties for Project Runway, Gunn serves as the chief creative officer for Liz Claiborne Inc.—or what’s left of it—which in 2008 hired Mizrahi, at great expense, in a bid to escape its “ frumpy death spiral.”
“On Isaac, my Liz Claiborne superiors said to me, ‘Do not include him in this book,’” Gunn said, “but I couldn’t not! His behavior is too egregious. But the story I included [about Mizrahi flipping out that his security guard is wearing brown] is very, I’m gonna make up a word now, ‘vanilla-ized.’ The spice is really taken out of it.”
When prompted, Gunn cheerfully offered up a spicier story, which didn’t make it into the book: “I was going to visit the Liz Claiborne showroom, with [company chairman] Bill McComb to see Isaac’s new collection. And all of a sudden, an arm comes down and blocks me. It was the security guard. ‘You’re not permitted here,’ he said. And Bill was going crazy: ‘What are you talking about? This is my company!’ And the security guard said, ‘I have explicit orders not to let you in.’ How preposterous!”
Gunn’s beef with Mizrahi is longstanding, ever since a reporter asked Mizrahi what it was like to work with Gunn and the designer, in Gunn’s retelling, replied: “Who? I don’t know who that is.” Gunn says the two have known each other since 1983 and attributes Mizrahi’s alleged misbehavior to “just a big massive dose of insecurity.”
Through a spokeswoman, Mizrahi denied having his security guard bar Gunn and McComb from entering his studio and said, “Tim is a doll. I hope these stories help him sell his book.”
They seem to be working. Juicy items in the New York Post and the New York Daily News have helped goose sales even before the book’s release, sending Gunn’s Golden Rules into the top 400 books on Amazon over Labor Day weekend—and all the way up to No. 2 in the subcategory “Conflict Management.”
The Wintour story originally appeared in the television section of the Post and, Gunn says, wouldn’t have made it into his book had the Vogue editor’s minions not called and demanded he apologize after the item appeared.
“I don’t believe she’s sitting around reading the TV section of the New York Post,” he said. “One of her people did, and they said, ‘Hey, look at this.’” Gunn bristled at their demand. “If they wanted an apology, the best I could have come up with was, ‘I’m sorry to imply that she doesn’t know how to work a Manolo.’”
A Vogue spokesman has denied all the stories Gunn recounts in the book, saying “Tim Gunn has a very vivid imagination.”
Gunn’s sticking to his version, describing the fashion business, at times, as “the monkey house in the zoo.” He said his publisher, Simon & Schuster, had their legal team poring over his manuscript for weeks, but that he didn’t give any of his subjects an opportunity to comment before publication. This includes members of his family—the mother he describes as cold and distant, the father he suggests might have been gay.
“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” he said. He is nervous about how the book will be received but Gunn, a survivor of childhood bullying who wears a bow tie and a tweed vest on the cover of his book, also sees the book as a kind of Norma Rae moment. “In the fashion industry and the entertainment industry, there’s a class system,” he says. “I find it offensive.”
Not that writing a tell-all was such a stretch.
“If one were to sit with me in a quiet little bistro somewhere, one would get these stories out of me pretty quickly,” he says. “It’s not as though I needed a sodium pentathol and a glass of room-temp gin to do it.”
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.