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Why Prabal Gurung Is Building a Fashion Brand That Champions Visibility and Representation

The designer who's collaborated with Lane Bryant, dressed Michelle Obama, hosted Gloria Steinem at his runway show and spoken out against Terry Richardson, told his story at FashionistaCon.
Fashionista Editor-in-Chief with keynote speaker Prabal Gurung at FashionistaCon 2017. Photo: Ashley Jahncke/Fashionista

Fashionista Editor-in-Chief with keynote speaker Prabal Gurung at FashionistaCon 2017. Photo: Ashley Jahncke/Fashionista

At this year's fifth-annual "How to Make It in Fashion" conference in New York City last Friday, our Editor-in-Chief Alyssa Vingan Klein sat down with designer Prabal Gurung to discuss, in-depth, his rise to success and recent accomplishments. Gurung launched his namesake label at the height of the recession in the fall of 2009, but still managed to establish a business and win such famous fans as former First Lady Michelle Obama and activist Gloria Steinem — who was spotted front row at his Spring 2018 show this past September. 

"Femininity and feminism have been a big part of my upbringing, having been brought up by a single mother, and my DNA has always been about style and substance and the celebration of that," began Gurung, who aside from his design achievements, has used his large fan base to speak out about political and social justice issues, as well as champion racial, age and size diversity in the industry. On top of all that, he also found time to start a foundation in his native Nepal that educates impoverished girls. 

From positive collection reviews to iconic red-carpet moments to mass retailer collaborations, Gurung has experienced several markers of industry success. But for him, getting Gloria Steinem at his show was the ultimate moment of validation. "She's been a personal hero of mine and my mother's." said Gurung. "Everything that I've been doing in fashion and with my philanthropy work back in Nepal — educating girls and talking about all these issues — her coming to the show was the highlight and exclamation mark and a validation that I am on the right path." 

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It isn't enough for Gurung to simply be in fashion; instead he wants to challenge it, which is what he's done by using his large social media following as a platform for speaking out against industry predators, such as Terry Richardson, as well as challenging industry norms by casting and collaborating with a diverse group of women. "My question when I put that Instagram out there about Terry Richardson was about silence and complicity in this industry," Gurung explained. "I am shocked that everyone else is silent. It's not a blaming game, it's about why is fashion — this industry that's given me everything that I've wanted — so silent, complicit and afraid to speak up, and I wonder if it has a lot to do with this need to belong."

A feeling of belonging is something foreign to the designer who grew up attending an all-boys school in Nepal and always felt out of place with his effeminate tendencies. "I know what it feels like to grow up and turn the pages of a magazine and not to see anyone that looks like you," Gurung said. "I know what it feels like to feel not wanted or desired. So my quest when I started was to make sure that what I put down the runway represented a lot of people."

Gurung continually emphasized the importance of visibility and representation for his brand, which was a big reason he decided to collaborate with Lane Bryant on a plus-size collection. "The first thing I said to Lane Bryant was, 'I want to shoot with the best model, with the best photographer and I want the story in Vogue.' I knew that this girl's voice hadn't been heard at all, and I knew that she needed to be represented in what we call the best magazine out there, and I wanted to have an elevated conversation."

"I don't do anything that I don't truly believe in, and I felt that it was my responsibility to do it [the plus-size collaboration] and that's why I did it," he continued. "What you do with style, comes with big responsibility." Hence, Gurung is very adamant about aspiring designers having clear motives for breaking into the industry. "Make sure you don't compare your career to someone else," he advised. "You don't want to be the next x-y-z, you want to be the first." 

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