After 10 seasons as the confessor and critical eye for design contestants on Project Runway (returning Jan. 24), Tim Gunn knows everything about making it work. The fashion guru spoke to TIME about why he’s still excited to see what comes down the catwalk.
TIME: So, season 11.
Tim Gunn: It’s my favorite season ever.
It’s a whole season of team challenges so they have to play nicely with each other.
I’d imagine that doesn’t always work out.
We’ve already announced that it’s a season of team challenges, and the fans have gone crazy. They hate the whole idea! Everyone is making the assumption that the designers are compromising their own point of view in order to create a collection together. Nothing could be further from the truth. They’re put into teams but they’re still creating their own vision and creating their own work independent of the other designers on their team. However, one team’s going to be on the bottom after the judges’ evaluation and one team will be on top. So there’s an incentive to speak forthrightly and positively to any teammate you feel is doing substandard work, as opposed to just being snarky about it behind their back.
Don’t you miss the snark?
I’m such an antisnark guy. But trust me: they’re fashion designers; there’s plenty of drama. Also, when I conduct my rounds of critics we do it as a team, so I’m pushing and prodding everyone to critique each other’s work. It was like teaching a class.
What was behind the decision to go with the team format?
We just got out of ten seasons of the show. We needed to change things up. I attribute the idea to our showrunner. She called me a little trepedatiously about it, she was ambivalent, and I leapt on it. The other aspect of the season that I love is that we have a more mature and experienced group of designers and I enjoy them because they have depth to offer that younger people—it’s not their fault—just don’t have.
Can you usually tell early on who’ll go far?
Never! I wish I could. I’d love to have a Project Runway divining rod. I just don’t It’s not unlike my 29 years of teaching. Every semester I would see the start as being an even playing field and you earn points up or down according to what you do, and I was just as surprised with my students.
After ten years—
It’s actually been eight. Heidi keeps saying that, but I say, ‘Heidi, you can make yourself older but don’t make me too!’ We’ve had a couple of back-to-back seasons. I don’t mean to interrupt.
Of course. After eight years and ten seasons, do some of the contestants who’ve watched the show before try to game the system a little bit?
I can’t help but think that there’s some of that, operating in some of the designers’ minds. But when they’re actually there and they’re in the thick of it, from my perception it tends to disippate. They can’t sustain the game-playing. In fact, it is too difficult. It’s so physically, mentally, creatively and emotionally draining, that they just don’t have the resources to sustain it. It was very interesting, last season, Season 10, we had a designer who upped and left, Andrea, who was a fashion teacher. Her reason for leaving was that she didn’t know the show was going to be like this. What are you talking about? You never saw it? It’s inconceivable.
I have to ask you about your catchphrase. How many times a day to people tell you to make something work?
With some frequency. It’s very flattering, I have to say. I never get tired of it. It’s usually shouted at me from a moving car.
You don’t mind? Really?
When this phenomenal, phenomenal thing happens to you after you turn 50, you really appreciate it. There’s not a single day that I don’t feel this is all very surreal and there’s not a single day when I don’t knock my forehead and say, “I’m the luckiest guy alive.” And I mean it. I’m having a blast!
Do you ever tell people to make it work even though you think it’s not possible to fix something?
Some things are beyond work.
I will just say that I’m in awe of the designers. I look at them and I think I couldn’t do it. I know I couldn’t. That’s part of what fuels me forward with the show, not knowing what the designers are going to do but knowing that it’s going to certainly be a surprise and hopefully a “wow” moment. Sometimes there’s a collosal defeat in a challenge…but that usually involves menswear.