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Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons for Making It Workby Tim Gunn
AS A LITTLE KID, when confronted with a difficult situation, I would run and hide somewhere in our Washington, D.C., house. I wanted to escape from the world. School, sports, church, birthday parties—anything social terrified me. All I wanted to do was hole up until the event had passed and I could go back to reading alone in my room.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay hidden for very long, because the house wasn’t that big and eventually my mother figured out my favorite hiding places. But usually it would be long enough to scare the living daylights out of her, which for me was not an unhappy side effect.
As my mother caught on to each new scheme, I got more creative. I think it was maybe the third or fourth time I hid, I actually ran away outside and found a good secluded spot in the yard. I was thrilled when I heard her inside tearing the house apart. Finally, I had really succeeded in terrorizing her. I could have stayed out in that yard forever.
Well, unfortunately for my escapist fantasies, we had a basset hound, Brandy. My mother sent Brandy out to find me, and she did so immediately.
This made me more determined. I thought: I need to get smarter about this. I need to run away with Brandy.
That didn’t work, either, because my parents would yell for me and Brandy would bark back.
Then it became a challenge to run away with her and to keep my hand over her mouth.
The whole project got more and more complicated until, ultimately, I decided it was less trouble just to stay home and be miserable.
In that moment, the seeds of “make it work!” were born. Running away from my problems didn’t help. I had to face up to whatever it was that I didn’t want to deal with—my homework, an angry parent, a fight with a friend—rather than just trying to put it off until it went away. Until you address them, I have since learned, such problems never truly vanish.
I had to make the best of the bad situation. What I found was that if I did that, the situation would rapidly become less bad, whereas if I hid from it or tried to make it go away, I would get more and more anxious and the situation would get worse and worse. I learned very early the wisdom of making it—whatever it was—work.
The phrase “make it work!” came later, but it didn’t originate on Project Runway. I began using it in my classroom when I was a design teacher at Parsons, the celebrated design college in Manhattan where I worked for twenty-four years. I found it to be an extremely useful mantra when my students were in trouble.
One such example came during a later phase of my academic career. I was teaching Concept Development to seniors. This was a six-hour class that met once a week for the entire academic year—two fifteen-week semesters. It was a long time to work on a single project, and students learned a lot by having to go deep into their own unique concepts.
The year began with the crystallization of each student’s thesis: five to seven head-to-toe looks that represented their point of view as a designer. (It was Joan Kaner, the celebrated style maven and former vice president of Neiman Marcus, who once said to me, “I can tell everything that I need to know about a designer from five looks.” I think about that all the time.)
Those looks were executed in muslin (an unbleached cotton fabric used for prototyping) in a corresponding course that was appropriately called Studio Methods. I would visit that class on a regular basis, especially during fittings, which happened every two weeks.
On the topic of fittings, I forbade my students from designing for themselves or using themselves as fit models for their collection. Why? Because when you wear your own designs, you lose objectivity. It’s important that each designer maintain a well-honed ability to critically analyze his or her own work. If you’re only ever designing for your own body, you’d better be prepared to have a clientele of one.
I like the Project Runway Season 7 designer Ping Wu, who famously used herself as a mannequin, as a person even though she’s exhausting to be around. She has so much personality. When I told her at the end of Episode 3, “The workroom won’t be the same without you,” I meant it! I had to talk Jesse LeNoir off a ledge during their team challenge. He’s a lovely guy and quite talented. He recognized many of the problems the judges saw, but he couldn’t convince Ping to fix them.
When we had the auditions, I found her work compelling but her pieces were all hand knits. I said, “How do you translate this to Project Runway? Would you do sewn knits? They won’t have the same Möbius-strip quality.”
In some ways I think she was handicapped by being a hand-knit designer, and by using herself as a dress form. As you may remember, in Episode 2, the model’s rear end was hanging out of her skirt. It was vulgar. Ping’s practice of using herself as a model clouded her objectivity. I think that’s a big part of why she made it only to Episode 3.
One instance in which “make it work!” came in particularly handy was during the spring semester of 2002. One of my students, Emma, was seriously struggling with the silhouette and proportions of the items that made up the looks in her collection. We had three fit models before us, and frankly, the collection was a hot mess.
I was struggling, too, in my efforts to get Emma to see solutions. What exactly was it that was so wrong? Even I couldn’t describe it. The only word that came to mind was everything. She was frustrated to the point of tears when she declared that she was going to throw everything away and begin again from scratch.
“You are not starting over,” I responded. “Besides, even if I agreed that you should, you’ve put twenty-five weeks into this collection, and it will be presented to the thesis jury in a month. It will be impossible to present anything of quality in that short amount of time.” (This was before Project Runway, which would recalibrate my thinking about time!)
“Then what am I going to do?” Emma asked, looking at me helplessly.
“You don’t have time to reconceive your designs, to shop for new fabric, or to make new muslins,” I replied. “You’re going to diagnose the issues with your collection and offer up a prescription for how to fix it. You don’t need to start from scratch! What’s at the core of this is working. The problems have to do with fit and proportion. Do you need to create new patterns? No! You need to take these existing pieces and retool them. You’re going to make it work!”
And she did. Emma’s collection was a success, and she learned so much from seeing it through.
If you look at the process of creating a work of art or a design as a journey of one hundred steps, steps one through ninety-five are relatively easy. It’s the last five that are hard. How do you achieve closure? How do you finish it? That’s the hard part.
MAKING IT WORK MEANS finding a solution to a dilemma, whether it’s a senior-year thesis collection, a difficult boss, or a flat tire. When my students made it work, they reached a new level of understanding about their abilities to successfully problem solve, and that gave them additional resources when moving forward to the next task at hand. When we figure a way out of a tricky situation in our own lives, we learn something and gain confidence in ourselves. Making it work is empowering.
On Project Runway, the phrase serves as a constant reminder of the seriousness of our deadlines and of the finite limitations of each designer’s material resources; in other words, when we return from shopping at Mood, that’s it. Whatever they purchased is what they have to execute the challenge. If they discover that they’re without some critical ingredient, then they’re stuck, and it’s “make-it-work” time.
There’s a big difference between my relationship with my students and my relationship with the Project Runway designers. When my students were in a jam, I could tell them what to do to get out of it. By decree, I cannot tell the Project Runway designers what to do, nor can I assist them in any way other than through words. I learned this the hard way.
During Season 1, Austin Scarlett was having difficulty threading one of the sewing machines. In my then state of naïveté, I sat down at the machine to help. After all the years I’ve spent around designers, I can thread a sewing machine with my eyes closed.
Within seconds, one of the producers called me out of the sewing room.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “You can’t do that.”
“It’s just a sewing machine,” I said. “It will take me one minute to fix.”
“But if you do that for Austin, then all of the other designers will expect you to do it for them,” she said. “And if you don’t, then it may be perceived that Austin had an unfair advantage.”
I hadn’t thought of that. She was right. I had to let go and watch the designers struggle. It took a little while, but eventually I got used to this new role as a hands-off mentor.
But I still enjoy being a hands-on instructor whenever I get the chance. I love how fresh young minds are, and I love watching them grow to take in new information. It’s so satisfying to see them come out the other end of the school year more sophisticated and closer to knowing what they need to know in order to accomplish their goals.
Truth be told, I never dreamed that I would become a career educator. In fact, it’s ironic, because growing up I hated school. And I do mean hated.
Don’t misunderstand me: I loved learning. As a child, I always had a million creative projects going on at home. But I hated the social aspects of school. I was a classic nerd with a terrible stutter. I preferred the sanctuary of my bedroom, and I was crazy about books because they transported me to another time and place (one far less oppressive than Beauvoir, the National Cathedral Elementary School in the 1960s, I can assure you). I was also crazy about making things: I was addicted to my Lincoln Logs, Erector Set, and especially my Legos.
I would spend almost all of my weekly allowance on Legos. And in my youth, Legos weren’t packaged in the prescriptive way they are now; they came as a bunch of anonymous blocks that you would purchase according to size and color, plus doors, windows, and, later—be still my beating heart—roof tiles.
As you can probably imagine, between my stutter and my fetishizing of Lego textures, at school I was taunted and teased. I knew that I wasn’t one of the cool kids, and I never tried to pretend otherwise. I was always the last kid picked for games at recess. (Perhaps it’s no wonder that I hate, loathe, and despise team sports even to this day.)
My big macho FBI-agent father, George William Gunn, was J. Edgar Hoover’s ghostwriter, and he not entirely happy about the oddness of his only son. He coached the Little League team and did everything he could to get me on a sports field. It was a disaster. I was bullied. I was beaten up.
Looking back, it seems like having a tough-guy father would have been helpful, but the truth was, he really never seemed to understand me, so we never had much of a relationship. And oddly enough, even when he knew I was getting pummeled at school, he didn’t teach me how to fight back. He never once said, “Let me show you how to sock someone.”
The result was that I was a terrible fighter. I thought I was going to be a concert pianist (yes, I was every kind of nerd), so I would not hit for fear of breaking a hand. That meant I was a biter and a hair puller. If you got into a tangle with me, that’s what would happen. You’d get bitten and have your hair pulled. I wouldn’t even know what I was biting. I would just be in a frenzy, biting anything I could get a hold of.
An interviewer once asked me, “Who would win in a fight, you or Michael Kors?”
“Oh, that’s easy: Michael Kors,” I said. “Because I’m a hair puller, and he barely has any hair. There’s not enough to hold on to.”
When I was older and had to declare a sport, it was swimming. I loved swimming primarily because it’s solitary—that and you don’t sweat. (My sense of propriety was off the charts even back then.) Furthermore, I was good at it, especially the breaststroke and backstroke. In an unexpected and extremely appreciated show of support, my father took up coaching the swim team.
So I had swimming and my grades to be proud of. I also had the piano, which I studied for twelve years and became quite good at, but there was no reason to share that tease-worthy tidbit with my classmates. And yet, I was flailing. What was I going to be truly good at? What would it take to prove to my peers that I did in fact have value other than as a punching bag? For a long time I had no idea.
My teaching career began in an innocent enough way. When I was twenty-five years old, a former and much beloved teacher, Rona Slade, invited me to be her teaching assistant for a summer course for high school students at the Corcoran School of Art (now the Corcoran College of Art), one of the nation’s last remaining museum schools and my alma mater (class of ’76).
They really care about craft there. The Pre-College Intensive Workshop met six hours a day, five days a week, for a month. Rona and I had a great time and played off each other well. I felt proud that I could help someone for whom I had so much respect.
At that point I was a financially strapped sculptor who made ends meet by building models for architecture firms in Washington. Although I enjoyed model making, it wasn’t very lucrative when one factored in the vast amount of time required to make each model. I was probably making about a dollar an hour.
But I loved sculpture. One of my favorite artists is the sculptor Anne Truitt. When I first saw her work in 1974, I was transformed. It was like the first time I saw a painting by the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. I felt physically lifted off the ground. I’ve always thought the reason Truitt wasn’t as well known as she deserves to be is that she doesn’t easily fit into any particular genre—neither in the Washington Color School nor the Minimalists. There’s not a box to put her in, so she gets lost. I was so lucky later to study under her and then to speak at the opening of her posthumous retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2009.
In any case, when Rona asked me to stay on at the end of the summer of 1978 to work at the college, I jumped at the chance. The position would include teaching a three-dimensional design course as part of the first year of studies. Furthermore, it was full-time, which meant that it came with benefits. Even better, it paid a whopping $6,000 per academic year. Needless to say, I was ecstatic.
But then, when it got closer to my start date, I was terrified.
I realized I had no idea how I would fare in the classroom without Rona at my side. Would I be teased as I had been in grade school? Would the students throw paper planes and spitballs? Would they tie me up and hurl me out the window and into the parking lot? The more I thought about it, the more gothic the scenarios became, and the more I was struck mute and paralytic with terror.
Attempting to drive to work on that first day, I found that I was incapable of pushing down on the accelerator. I sat for a good ten minutes or so before I rallied sufficiently to get the car to move. When I arrived in the school’s parking lot, directly across the street from the White House, I got out of the car and … promptly threw up on the asphalt.
Ah, the dawn of a glorious career, I thought, vomiting in front of my new place of employment.
I washed up and walked dizzily into my classroom to greet my new students. I found that the only way that I could appear to be even remotely composed before them was to stand with my back braced against the blackboard, because my knees were shaking so badly that I knew I would topple over without the wall’s support.
I would like to tell you that the next day was better and that the day after that was better still, but that would be a lie. This same horrible scenario of fear and sickness was repeated for several days in a row.
Finally, I gathered up enough courage to share my terror with Rona. I was sure she would tell me I should quit immediately. But instead, she said very matter-of-factly with her Welsh accent, “Oh, I’m familiar with this malady. It will either kill you or cure you. I’m counting on the latter.” And she smiled tenderly, my very own Florence Nightingale!
Indeed, it cured me—eventually—and I was able to make it through the year without dying or passing out in front of my class. And the students didn’t throw airplanes or hurl me out the window. From then on, I was even able to keep down my breakfast. Talk about make it work!
I’m not built to be a public persona, but through sheer force of will, I’ve made myself step up to the plate. I’m really fortunate. I had parents who believed in education and a mother in particular who nurtured and fostered culture in our home. She wanted her children exposed to as much as possible. We went to museums all the time. We read books. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I was extremely lucky, because in our home education and exposure to culture were everything. Either one can help you through life.
Everything got better when I became a teacher. I found an apartment and moved out of my parents’ house. I was part of a new community and made new friends.
The only sad thing was giving up my sculpture studio, which I’d long shared with the painter and my dear friend Molly Van Nice. In fact, I gave up sculpture altogether. I thought I was going to miss it, but I found that the teaching experience was creative in its own way. It was so thoroughly satisfying and rewarding that I no longer felt the need to make my own artwork.
Within the hallowed walls of the distinguished institution in which I worked, it was the precedent that one practiced what one taught. Rona did not. She had been a textile artist, but she was no longer engaged in that work. I decided to embrace her as my role model, and even though my not being a practicing artist or designer raised some eyebrows, I thought: I’m not apologizing for this. And I’m not pretending that I’m doing something that I’m not. Besides, I can always return to sculpting if I hear the call. It’s not going anywhere.
One spectacular experience from my time teaching at the Corcoran was a classic “make-it-work” moment. In late October 1979, the school received a call from the White House requesting that our students make original ornaments for the Christmas tree in the Blue Room. The president at the time was Jimmy Carter.
My reaction: How exciting! The catch was that we had a mere week to create everything, because whoever had made an earlier commitment had backed out, or perhaps had made something horrible and unacceptable. (We heard a rumor that the Jimmy Carter White House perceived the work of this original ornament maker to be “inappropriate,” and we had a wonderful time trying to imagine what in the world those ornaments had looked like.)
In any case, who would say no to this request? Debate about how to get this done ensued. There was a lot of talk about making this a special project and inviting the participation of any interested students and faculty. Many people were against leaving this important task up to young people. But ultimately it was decided that my second-year Three-Dimensional Design students were up to the challenge. As an enhancement, a class of ceramics students would make “wrapped packages” for under the tree. Fantastic! We charged full steam ahead. And we made our deadline!
Our ornaments were stunning. We chose a folk art theme and, using balsa wood, created the most elaborately beautiful shapes and forms—musical instruments, animals, pieces of furniture, and buildings—including a miniature White House that allowed you to peer inside and see miniature rooms.
But, oh, we were so very, very delusional. None of us had a grasp on the size of that tree. We carefully walked our boxes of meticulously wrapped ornaments and ceramic packages over to the White House, navigated the security and X-ray process (security opened each and every wrapped ornament, which took hours), and were eventually escorted to the Blue Room.
The tree was at least as big to my eyes as the one at Rockefeller Center. As I continued to stare at it, it became bigger still, like the magical tree in The Nutcracker—only more like a giant redwood than a ceiling-brushing pine. And its scale was exaggerated by a formidable scaffolding of many layers that encircled it and went up to the ceiling. We had enough ornaments, I figured, for a hedge out back.
Indeed, as we started hanging, the tree quickly consumed our works of art. We looked through the boxes hoping there would be some giant ornaments we’d forgotten, but no. We were toast.
So what were we to do? We had to make it work. Our reputation as an academic institution and our individual reputations as artists were on the line.
I left and drove to Sears Roebuck on Wisconsin Avenue, because I had recently been there and had seen a Christmas display that included life-size bright red lacquered Styrofoam apples. Sure enough, I found piles of boxes containing a dozen each. I took all of them to the register and asked if more were in stock.
Could they be ordered from another store?
With this question, the sales associate began to look at me differently, as though I were operating a bootleg Christmas apple operation and would be selling them out of a truck in the parking lot at twice the price.
“They’re for the White House!” I finally blurted out, with both pride and panic.
This got her attention. The next day, we had fifteen hundred stunning red lacquered apples for the tree. In fact, we had too many. I enjoyed giving them as gifts with the message: “Almost made it onto the White House Christmas tree.”
Our folk art creations stood out brilliantly against the enormous cone of glistening red lacquer. It was a masterpiece. We’d made it work!
Let me add that the Iran hostage crisis was going on at the time, which generated a huge amount of Sturm und Drang and loads of extra security.
Let me also add that Mrs. Carter was kind enough to pose for an official White House photograph with each of the students and then with all of us as a group. After the holidays, we hadn’t received the photos, so I followed up with the press secretary and learned that there had been no film in the camera (imagine: the predigital era!). The photographer had not, alas, made it work.
NOW FOR A MORE modern example of making it work: Project Runway’s entire Season 6 was plagued with problems from the start. You may remember that as the year we saw a battle over who would get the show: Bravo or Lifetime. While taping the season, we were in a period of suspension, not knowing how the lawsuit would be resolved and, therefore, not knowing our network destination. Also, it was our first season in L.A., and we were all adjusting to being out there. Luckily, all the producers of the show have been fantastic, and everything worked out for the best.
I’ve heard that a lot of people were disappointed when Gordana Gehlhausen and Christopher Straub went home in the last challenge. I see their point, especially when it comes to Gordana. In fact, it’s the only time I’ve ever heard what the judges were planning and gone up to Heidi Klum and said, “Are you sure this is the way you want things to go?” Not because there was anything wrong with the three who went to Bryant Park: Carol Hannah Whitfield, Althea Harper, and Irina Shabayeva (the winner). They are all incredibly talented young women with great futures ahead of them.
But there was not a lot of diversity represented. I was sad about that from a design perspective and from a home-visit perspective. Remember, I had to go to each of these people’s homes and hang out with them and their families. It just seemed very one-dimensional to have them all be women in their mid-twenties and relatively well to do. I asked Heidi, “Are you really certain? The homogeneity bothers me.”
It didn’t bother her or anyone else, so what can you do?
Season 7, by contrast, was glorious all the way through, and I think the best year so far. We returned to New York, and Michael and Nina Garcia were able to be part of every episode.
The talent was amazing, and even the eccentric characters were appealing in their own way. Seth Aaron Henderson, the Season 7 winner, is a very caring, thoughtful guy. He has a wife and two children. If you took his wife and son and daughter and lined them up in their house in Washington State, you would say, “This is a classic American family.” Then you bring him in and you think, When did the circus come to town? And his mother-in-law lives in the basement, which seemed a little Freudian. His children even said he’s like a kid himself.
Mila Hermanovski, Emilio Sosa, Jay Nicolas Sario—all of them, too, were very gifted.
But even that blissful season had its wrinkles.
Now that there are sixteen designers a season, it gets hard to follow. I never was able to tell the two twentysomething brunette designers, Janeane Marie Ceccanti and Anna Lynett, apart, lovely as they were. I kind of miss it being just twelve. At the reunions, you find yourself saying, “Who are all these people?”
Season 2 had a preliminary episode called “Road to the Runway,” which introduced everyone. I loved that, and I hope we do it again sometime.
More frustratingly, two of the best designers, Emilio and Jay, seemed to have disdain for me. They rolled their eyes at everything I said. The show is edited to look like I’m in the workroom just once or twice a challenge, but I’m there all the time. It was a lot of scorn to soak up.
Their attitude was something of a shock. I said to one of them, “I feel an obligation to each of you, and an aspect of that is to give you equal time in the workroom. But if you don’t want it, we can talk to the producers. We can say that you actively don’t want me engaged with your work, and you will never again see me at your workstation.”
But they kept having me there, and it began to hurt. I thought: What did I do to offend you? It’s my job to talk to you about your work. I have a lot of experience. Why won’t you let me help?
One time Heidi made the workroom rounds with me. Jay acted like she was the Second Coming. He oohed and ahhed over everything she said while continuing to give me the cold shoulder.
I said to him, right in front of Heidi, “I wish I had that kind of response from you. I guess maybe Heidi should do these workroom visits instead of me.” Heidi looked at me, clearly thinking, Whoa, what’s been going on here?
But I couldn’t hold back. I was really pretty upset by the whole thing, and as much as my feelings were hurt, my sense of what’s appropriate was, too. My feeling is that people should want to be nice, but even if they don’t want to be, they should fake it, because being abusive to someone who’s deeply involved in the industry you hope to excel in just makes no sense. What do they get out of making me, or anyone, into an enemy?
I’m not saying this in any kind of threatening way. I just think the more friends, or at least friendly acquaintances, you have in a small world like fashion, the more opportunities are likely to waft your way. If you get a reputation for being a diva, you’d better be truly phenomenal to overcome the personal bias people are going to have toward working with you.
Sometimes there is direct payback. In Season 5, I was made a judge for one episode, and a lot of people saw that as a kind of revenge for Kenley Collins’s being so dismissive of my opinions throughout the season. Well, that wasn’t the thought behind it at all, and I was very much against judging. In fact, from the start I begged the producers to keep me out of the judging chair. And I’ll never, ever, ever do it again, but I did learn a lot from the experience.
Here’s how it happened: I was at Christian Siriano’s show and received a call from the producers asking me if I could fill in the next day as a judge because Jennifer Lopez had backed out at the last minute. I begged them to find someone else. I said if they made me be a judge, I’d have to go back to the workroom that night and say I couldn’t engage with the designers as they finished up their collections.
I am always with the designers for the five hours before the show at Bryant Park, and I thought that I couldn’t spend all that time backstage if I was then going to be judging them. It wouldn’t be fair, I said, for me to wear two hats like that, to potentially guide them toward choices that I would then judge them on. It would appear duplicitous and potentially corrupt.
Plus, there were the personal biases I’d built up from spending so much time with the designers. I said to the producers, “You know I have a terrible relationship with Kenley. I don’t like her work and have been very vocal about it. Her not winning could become a self-fulfilling prophecy on my part. It would look bad, and quite frankly, it would be bad.”
My arguments had no effect on them. So I said, “Please do your very best to find someone else. If at the very last minute you need me to sub in, I will do it, but I beg of you to find someone else.”
They promised they would move heaven and earth to find someone else and so spare me from having to judge.
The next morning Heidi comes up to me and says, “Okay, we need you.”
“No, you don’t,” I said. “It’s you and Nina and Michael. What’s wrong with three judges?” (Yes, I had thought about it all night.)
Well, Heidi was so wonderful. I just love her. She is such a strong, smart woman. She said, bluntly, “What’s your problem with this?”
“I have a relationship with these designers. In the case of Kenley I have a really bad relationship,” I said. “I don’t sit in judgment of them in this manner.”
“Are you telling me that in all your years of teaching you couldn’t separate your students’ work from their personalities?” she asked me. “And you couldn’t evaluate their work independent of who they were as people?”
Well, that left me speechless. She had me there. How was this different from an academic environment in which I had to spend a year with these students and then grade their work? I looked at her and stiffened my back and said, “You’re right. I can do this!”
And things happen for a reason. I learned that I was in fact able to separate my personal feelings from my judgments. I also learned a great deal about the designers’ work that I never could have known just from seeing them in the workroom.
Most significantly, before that moment, I’d never had a chance to evaluate the work off a dress form, aside from the flurried moments during which I escort the designers and models from the workroom. In the workroom, it’s always static. When the models come in for the fittings, I’m not there. When I come in afterward to ask how it went, every one of the designers says, “She looks great in the clothes!”
(Which reminds me, I’m always perplexed when they switch models. You know your current model’s size and shape. Why would you switch? It only makes your challenge more difficult.)
So to be at the judging and to see the clothes move—or, in the case of Kenley’s work, not move—on models was really transformational for me. I learned to wait to pass judgment on things. I used to tell the producers what I thought of the garments as soon as the models left the workroom for the runway. But from Season 6 on, when the producers would ask me prerunway, “What do you think? Who are the top three?” I would respond, “I’m not saying a thing until I see it on the runway. You just can’t tell until you see it move—or not.”
© 2010 Tim Gunn Productions, Inc.
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