THL Talks: Tim Gunn on Why the Future is 3D Printed AND Handmade

Tim Gunn for THL Talks

In the first installation of our THL Talks, in which we discuss niche areas of fashion’s arc with industry influencers, Tim Gunn talks about technology’s growing reach into fashion.  As it turns out, Project Runway‘s main man is a fan of wearable tech (even if the TSA lost his preferred gadget), just as long as it’s not on your face.

Gunn, the former chair of fashion design at Parsons The New School For Design, holds particular views on the evolving role of tech in fashion, from Nina Garcia wearing Google Glass to 3D printing (bonus — one of Project Runway’s next finalists is using it!), to what young designers, all technology aside, should always be able to do by hand.

The High Low: Tell us about your take on technology’s increasing application in the fashion industry, and in what we wear. Are you generally for it, or for any particular applications of it?

Tim Gunn: I’m constantly wowed by its potential. What’s so interesting about the relationship of design to technology is when you think about how technology has grown and evolved, fashion doesn’t get rid of it. Think about weaving or sewing machines, for instance. The sewing machine was invented in the 19th century and it’s still relevant. It’s not like technology goes away; we just keep accumulating things. We keep putting more arrows in our quiver, so to speak.

It’s really very interesting. I’ll tell you, too, that as the chair of fashion at Parsons, we were looked down upon by other departments because we [in fashion] can’t execute what we do in a virtual environment and have it be relevant to the customer. We get our hands dirty. Architects, for instance, can do everything on a computer, now. When I was an architecture student for a year during the 70s, you could work for 12 hours on a drawing, and had to drop indigo ink into a stylus. If it bled, you had to start all over. So in some ways, thank god for computer! That said, in fashion, technology enhances what the designer does, but doesn’t take away what’s already there.

THL: Is there any single tech-related fashion item you’ve seen so far that you think is great?

TG: For me, the test of new technology’s greatness is our not being aware of it. When it’s in our faces, I’m not a fan. I want it to be so much a part of the overall DNA of an item of apparel or an accessory, that it seduces us subtly and then we realize it’s there, as opposed to it being a blunt instrument. I think that’s what the consumer wants, too, unless they happen to be a techno geek.

THL: To that end, is there any fashion tech item that you personally use?

TG: I use a Nike FuelBand. Because I’m a New Yorker, I walk all the time, and Dr. Oz’s words are always in my ears. What is it, 5,000 steps a day, or 10,000? But 10,000 takes forever. Anyway, the FuelBand’s not obtrusive and it’s very informative. You plug it in and find out all about yourself — it makes me aware of what I do during the day — your steps, food intake, liquids. I have a much more acute awareness of my behavior, which is a good thing, as opposed to being oblivious to how we navigate the world.

And you know, the TSA had me remove it, recently, and when I came out on the other side of security, they lost it. The bowl it was in never came through.

THL: Is there some kind of dream fashion tech item, that doesn’t exist yet, which you could imagine being unable to live without in the near future?

TG: What I’m waiting for, and you can tell me if it’s already out there or not — I’m an ostrich — will be in the form of undergarments rather than apparel we see. I’m looking for something that is an excellent, foolproof sunscreen.

THL: Well, there’s UV protective clothing…

TG: True, but I don’t want to be choosing a shirt or pants. That’s why I say undergarments are so critical. It could be leggings for a woman or long johns for a man. I say this because with the shift in our environment, it’s affecting our skin, and the changes are going to be more profound. We think about putting sunscreen on our faces, but meanwhile, those rays penetrate our clothing.

THL: And speaking of wearable tech, we have to ask: do you think Google Glass will ever look fashionable?

TG: Let me tell you. Nina Garcia was on the set of Project Runway, and she tweeted that she’s going to wear Google Glass to all of the upcoming NYFW shows. I love Nina; she’s a stunning, fashionable individual. She looked like an idiot. If there was some way to embed that camera… I don’t want to see it. I don’t want it to bludgeon me. I asked Nina, “what is this?” And she said she was recording me. And I said, “why don’t you just hold the camera? Why do you have to wear the glasses?”

And then it becomes an issue, like wire tapping…maybe you should have to declare that you’re observing me and it’s being recorded. The glasses themselves, aside from the camera attachment, are all right, but the presence of the [camera] is too overwhelming for me.

THL: Gary Shteyngart wrote an amazing piece about Google Glass for The New Yorker, sometime in the last month. He’s one of the Explorers. It’s the most comprehensive picture of the experience we’ve seen so far.

TG: Great, I’ll have to find that one and read it. My New Yorkers are piling up.

THL: Mine too. Moving on, are any designers you know doing something you find interesting with 3D printing? We’re huge fans of the technology, so far. What are your general thoughts on it as it applies to fashion?

TG: I think it’s still in its infancy. But I’m rapt by it, I agree with you.  I’m in the middle of home visits for season 12 of Project Runway, and one of the finalists is using 3D printing. I won’t even give you a gender, but this individual is able to do this because of the support of a research center at a university. The individual does not own the technology, but has been given carte blanche to use it. I watched it in action — fascinating.

THL: That brings us to our final thought — as technology pervades all sectors of our lives, is there one analog technique or skill you’d tell fledgling designers never to forget?

TG: If you look at Michael Kors, he’s not making clothes. He can’t, he has an empire. But he can do it. When I meet young people who profess to be designers, I can tell from their 2D drawings whether they’ve ever actually made clothes or not. It’s so important to know how to build something. I was a Lego freak as a kid, so I understand that only too well. The actual making of clothes — we [designers] all still need to experience it. Do we have to do it forever? No. But we need to understand how things are put together.

Also, I tell my students, I want you to know the rules, so you can break them. Every designer has a responsibility to know, intimately, the history of their discipline. Students say “it’s so boring.” But what if you’re a sculptor and you’re working in isolation on a mountain top and you bring your work to a gallery, and the gallery says it looks just like Giacometti? Well, you have a responsibility to know who that is. I say to my students, we must collect the information that’s out there and put it in the Rolodex, so to speak. I’m always saying fashion happens in a context. Look at LL Bean. I have the greatest respect for the brand, I wear things from there — and it’s the same pair of boat shoes I wore 50 years ago.

And it’s not just in your discipline. Its political and economic — you need to know what’s going on in the world. Well, back to your question. The designer should still experience the making of the garment.