Tim Gunn, of ‘Project Runway,’ Talks About Dressing for Black-tie Events


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Against a backdrop of January cold and snow, the annual Charity Preview party (Jan. 14) on the eve of the North American International Auto Show shines extra brightly.

But what to wear? During a recent stop at Somerset Collection in Troy, Tim Gunn — chief creative officer for Liz Claiborne Inc., Project Runway mentor, and author of Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons for Making It Work — offered a few tips on black-tie style.

In your book, you write that, for women, black tie no longer means a floor-length gown; it just means dressy. Can you explain what “dressy” means?

I hope people have the presence of mind to make the distinction between what’s appropriate for evening and what’s appropriate for daytime. For me, black tie for women doesn’t need to be floor length. It can certainly be cocktail length, and it can also be a pants look, providing that there are luxurious textiles — and a little bit of bling and shine is always good. I love sleek, black dress pants and a sequined jacket, for instance, for black tie for women. … The rules are off, other than it be dressy. [In truth], when a woman wears full length, unless it’s sleek, I feel it looks kind of dowdy.

For a man, it means a tuxedo. Are there any exceptions?

I’d like to say no. What man doesn’t look great in a tuxedo regardless of size and shape? Which is why I don’t understand why men seek out other options. There are men who are more dandyish who can pull off their own personalization of black tie, but it still means black in some form.

Tie or bow tie?

I’d say bow tie, but you see a lot of straight ties, usually on younger guys. But I still think the classic tuxedo with the bow tie and cummerbund just looks great.

In your book, you write that wearing shorts to the theater is totally unacceptable. What are your black- tie rules that fall into that category?

Ugh, please. Don’t wear shorts [laughing]. Some men opt to wear a black suit with a white shirt and black tie, but to me it says, ‘I was lazy.’

Can a man incorporate color to his look?

It’s tacky. 

What are your thoughts on bright, bold, and vibrant colors at a black-tie event for women?

Absolutely. Also, a woman who’s a little color shy but who wants to make a statement can do it with accessories. A wonderful colored clutch, a great cuff, or even a shoe.

Do you think fashion-forward looks are appropriate at black-tie events, or is it better to dress classic?

It depends on the event. Generally speaking, it’s better to stay classic; otherwise, it seems like you’re trying to hard.

Do you have hair advice? Should hair be worn up or tied back?

It depends on the dress and neckline and what [a woman’s] hair is like. Depending on who you are and how you want to present yourself to the world, you can pretty much do anything.

In your book, you say, “A good rule is no beige after five.” Is there any other after-five fashion advice you can share?

No boots. I can’t imagine a boot working at a black-tie event. Not even a high-heeled black suede stiletto. It’s too casual by definition.

What’s your best fashion advice?

My refrain about getting your fashion right has to do with the harmony and balance of three elements. Silhouette, proportion, and fit. When they are in harmony and balance, whatever you’re wearing, you’ll look great in it.  When women are putting together looks, they have to think about the relationships of the items within the look. Also, the relationship to those items to their own proportions. No matter how big you are or how small you are, if silhouette, proportion, and fit are in harmony and balance, you will look great.

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