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Prabal Gurung and Steven Kolb Have Some Good Advice for Fashion Students

Plus: Their thoughts on normcore and the Vogue Kim and Kanye cover.
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Fashion students are always on the hunt for the secrets to success, and earlier this week an audience at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus got to hear Council of Fashion Designers of America CEO Steven Kolb speak to fashion designer Prabal Gurung — who was just back from a well-deserved vacation in Mexico — about his. The talk was a part of part SCADStyle, a week-long series of conversations on fashion and design.

"I use you as an example of a designer who has really benefitted from the CFDA because you were living in the East Village, working and living in a studio apartment, then you moved to our incubator space, which is an 800-square-foot space. You won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, you won the CFDA Fashion Award, and now you’re in a 5,000-square-foot studio in the Garment District with lots of employees,” Kolb said to Gurung.

The pair talked about how Gurung started his namesake label after losing his job as design director at Bill Blass when the company shuttered in 2009. “I didn’t want to ask for money from my parents,” said Gurung, noting that he moved into a smaller apartment during that period. "I just felt I wanted to give it a shot."

Kolb also asked Gurung about his 2013 Target collection, which Gurung described as "luxury with a soul." He explained: "The idea of exclusive luxury, where you’re completely shut down from the rest of the world, I think it’s a little antiquated. What you need to have is an aspirational luxury idea, where people who may not have the resources might feel the connection, might one day want to get there."

Fashionista had the chance to sit down with Kolb and Gurung before the conversation, and discussed normcore, the Kim Kardashian and Kanye West Vogue cover, and how the CFDA selects its CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund winners.

Is fashion school essential?

Gurung: I think it makes you equipped to handle and tackle situations that confront you later in life as a designer. I may not make patterns myself, but I understand it. You understand that techniques of it, the aspects of it, so you’re not completely lost.

Kolb: I think if you look at any successful designer who didn’t go to school, they have some kind of schooling that might have been practical schooling -- maybe he or she worked in PR for a fashion designer, where they got access to what that process was. Diane [von Furstenberg] always says when she started she worked for a factory. She was a receptionist. She was right in the heart of it. I think it’s not that you go into fashion; there’s some kind of practical connection to it.

What’s one thing you would tell fashion students to expect in the real world?

Kolb: There’s a lot of optimism, and I think sometimes that can be a false sense of  — you’re going to graduate and you’re going to be that —  there needs to be a lot of patience I think. You’re never just going to graduate from school and you’re going to have your own name on the label and have this great kind of success. I actually think leaving school and going to work for someone for six, seven years, and having that next layer of education, almost like an apprenticeship, being paid in a real job, learning who the factories are, learning where fabric is sourced, how to buy fabric, the practicalities of it, that you don’t necessarily learn in school, go work for somebody, and don’t be so anxious to be your own company, be your own label. That to me is something I always tell people.

Gurung: It runs up to paying your dues. Humility. We live in this day and age with a sense of entitlement, which I think could be quite destructive to the industry, but more than that I think what I would really like to see in schools is a thought process about the kind of designer you want to be. Measuring your success, and not basing it on someone else’s. Everyone has a different success story. Everyone has a different path and reach what you need to reach. I think it’s about figuring that out. You just need to find your own niche. You need to find your own voice.

Prabal, which celebrity surprised you the most when wearing your label?

Gurung: The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, when she wore my dress in Singapore. She normally doesn’t wear anyone but the British designers, and that has been her thing. I think she’s worn an American designer — Diane [von Furstenberg] once. I felt great. 

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Are you going to increase security at your next show after that streaking incident?

Gurung: Definitely. It was a moment of complete surprise turned into shock turned into humor. You had to laugh it off. What the person didn’t realize probably is that there are hundreds of people who get involved in producing a show. For me I could laugh it off, for them that 12 minutes on the runway is their moment also. What can we do? You laugh it off and you move on.

Kolb: All that work and you guys are working 24/7 and to have someone come and disrespect that — it’s not fair.

Steven, the last two CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund winners — the Elder Statesman’s Greg Chait and Public School’s Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne — seem like a departure from past winners, who have been womenswear designers including Gurung, Proenza Schouler and Sophie Theallet. How did you select them?

Kolb: We get about 150 applicants that gets narrowed down to 50 that gets narrowed down to 10 and then there’s three winners. There’s 10 judges, and when we go through that process, we’re not looking at anything other than what is talent and potential and sustainability in terms of that business, and how can we support that business and help this business become part of a new generation of American talent. We’re really starting with talent and what is that business and I think that’s a valid point. Everyone has a very strong opinion, and what we do, when we vote in the end, nobody knows who anybody else voted for. We have a discussion, and say this person really hit it, this person kind of missed it, but that’s it. And we vote, we do it privately, so I’m not intimated by how anybody else is voting.

What do you think of the whole normcore trend?

Gurung: I think it will pass. That’s what I think about it.

Kolb: What is it?

The recent Vogue Kim and Kanye cover was so polarizing. What do you think? Brilliant, or huge mistake?

Kolb: I thought it was brilliant. What’s the purpose of a cover? To sell magazines, and that weekend, if you follow sports, you talked about Michael Vick getting picked up by the New York Jets because he’s their new quarterback and he got arrested for dog fighting. Everyone else was talking about Kanye and Kim, and whether you like them or not is irrelevant. The magazine, people talked about it. From a magazine perspective, I think it was really well done. 

Gurung: What do magazines reflect? Where the minds of society or a world is. The reason why Kim Kardashian has the power to be on the cover of Vogue is because we all did it, we put her in that position, so for people to cry about it, these are the same people who I bet are watching her show. When I saw it, I said to myself, of course she would be on the cover, why wouldn’t she be? She’s the most talked-about person. I have a tremendous respect for Anna [Wintour] and Vogue because she understands the pulse of the nation and the world, and she got it.

Ann Binlot is currently teaching a writing workshop for students at SCAD.