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Prabal Gurung Created His Own American Dream

The designer will celebrate his 10th anniversary this fall, but he's already left an indelible mark on the fashion industry.
Designer Prabal Gurung. Photo: Courtesy of Prabal Gurung

Designer Prabal Gurung. Photo: Courtesy of Prabal Gurung

Here at Fashionista, we're passionate about covering all the ways that the industry is changing for the better. That's why we wanted to honor the forces working tirelessly to reshape what it means to work in fashion and beauty. With our new annual series, Fashionista Five, we'll be doing just that by highlighting (you guessed it) five people whose work we've admired over the past year.

Fresh off the heels of a presidential election which left many feeling disappointed (to say the least), the Fall 2017 runway season proved to be quite political in nature in New York City. From the CFDA's partnership with Planned Parenthood to more slogan tees than you could shake a stick at, it was clear that the American fashion industry was grappling with the realities of the new administration in the Oval Office.

But what was ultimately a fleeting moment for so many turned out to be a critical turning point for designer Prabal Gurung, whose powerful Fall 2017 show moved many in the audience to tears.

"When I put those T-shirts on the runway, it wasn't a publicity stunt. It was more that I felt collectively how we all were mourning and I wanted to acknowledge it because that was important," he says. "The shift in the political and cultural landscape happened, and it's important for us to show up; when we are talking about women's rights, we as women's designers, we need to speak up. It is a responsibility. You can't just be profiting off of women and not speaking on their behalf — that's what I believe."

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A look from the Prabal Gurung Fall 2017 finale. Photo: Estrop/Getty Images

A look from the Prabal Gurung Fall 2017 finale. Photo: Estrop/Getty Images

Since then, Gurung — who never shied away from the political to begin with — has charged headfirst into the fray, taking every opportunity granted to him to stand up for what he believes in. Sometimes that means inviting feminist icon Gloria Steinem to sit front row at his show; often it means posting to social media about issues like the recent controversy surrounding Hudson Yards owner Stephen Ross (Gurung, naturally, ended talks about showing at The Vessel in protest). He regularly co-hosts screenings of films centered around Asian representation, and in June, Gurung hosted a dinner to celebrate Pride Month, with no agenda other than gathering together some of his favorite people and celebrating the LGBQT+ community.

Most importantly, he puts real action behind his beliefs, making sure that the casting for both his runways and his ad campaigns is inclusive. While he's offered extended sizes in select items from his own ready-to-wear collection for years, in 2017 he collaborated with plus-size retailer Lane Bryant, a move he says earned "snickering" from the fashion industry. And when a devastating earthquake rocked his homeland of Nepal in 2015, he set up a relief fund and kept the industry's attention on his cause

It's this willingness to pay more than just lip service that makes Gurung one of the most essential American designers working today — but he brushes off the idea that he's doing anything extraordinary.

"That's truly how I am as a person; I feel like, at the end of the day, what are we going to leave behind when we go? I want to be able to see and look back at this change and say I made a contribution this way," he says. "To me, luxury for the longest period of time was isolated and specific for a certain race, a certain kind of woman, a certain size of women. It was just very snobby, and to me I always thought, 'Taste does not equal snobbery, insecurity equals snobbery'"

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What Gurung decided he wanted to leave behind was the legacy of a fashion brand that empowered women as much as it made them feel beautiful. As he bristled against "the whole 'you can't sit with us' attitude" that he says defined the industry during the early years of his career, he dreamed of launching "a luxury brand with a soul" that would let his customers know that they mattered — with or without his clothes. "Telling them, 'You're not good enough until you buy my stuff' is not a message that I want to portray," he explains.

More than just battling the idea that fashion is inherently exclusive, Gurung also wanted to push back on the stereotype that women who were interested in clothes were somehow unintelligent or flighty. "This notion that fashion is frivolous, I've always fought against it," he says. "I've always believed this: A woman in her full feminine glory is the most unnerving thing for a straight man and patriarchy." That fight makes the foundation of one of Gurung's chosen slogans, "Femininity with a Bite," which coincidentally could be used to describe his celebrity fans, who range from red carpet darlings like Jennifer Lawrence and Tracee Ellis Ross to global powerhouses like Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama poses (with designer Jason Wu) in a dress from Prabal Gurung's debut collection. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Former First Lady Michelle Obama poses (with designer Jason Wu) in a dress from Prabal Gurung's debut collection. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Of course, Gurung acknowledges that things weren't perfect straight out of the gate; he notes that the fashion industry wasn't as "woke" as it is now, adding, "I am part of that problem also, because I grew up in that and really celebrated size 2 and 0." He played by the rules. But as time went on, he grew more comfortable trusting his gut instinct over listening to everyone who surrounded him, and he became more outspoken about casting models who didn't fit the status quo.

"I have the power; it's my name, I own the business, I have to make the decision," Gurung says of the realization that he could create his own rules. "I'm no longer going to worry about what the critics are going to say, what the gods in high fashion are going to say. That's when I decided to really go for it."

Ironically, breaking the rules is what helped propel Gurung to the front of the fashion pack. He's been ahead of the curve when it comes to all the conversations happening around diversity and inclusivity — "Stronger in Color" is another of his slogans and how he makes decisions around his brand — and he continues to push the needle when it comes to staying politically engaged. It's a change that is slowly but surely permeating through the eindustry, which, despite its growing pains, has Gurung feeling optimistic. 

"There are more designers of color, which I think is the most exciting; the status quo is shifting. More than anything else, when you see the New York runway versus the rest of the world, [you see] the diversity, the inclusivity, the things that happen here that doesn't happen anywhere else," he says. "As New Yorkers, we designers, we talk to each other, we hang out with each other, we share our problems, we share our successes and joys and all that stuff, and then we are constantly like, 'How do we shift it, what can we do? We need to come together.' There is a conversation that is happening, and I think anytime fashion changes, that affects society in America, period."

Looks at Prabal Gurung's Spring 2010 presentation. Photo: Carlo Buscemi/WireImage

Looks at Prabal Gurung's Spring 2010 presentation. Photo: Carlo Buscemi/WireImage

Gurung will celebrate his brand's 10th anniversary with his Spring 2020 collection this September. It's been a long journey since he left the helm of Bill Blass to launch "a luxury brand with a soul" back in 2009; the winding path has seen Gurung collaborate with brands like MAC and Target and collect accolades like the 2011 Swarovski Award for Womenswear. He's launched a made-to-measure line and introduced menswear. Through his fund, he's been able to offer an education in the arts for hundreds of young girls in Nepal and started an education program for female prisoners. There's a coffee table book coming to document his decade in business; he has plans to expand his vision beyond fashion and hopes that one day he can bring his beloved industry back to Nepal to stage a fashion show there. 

Through it all, though, while celebrating the highs and waiting out the lows, Gurung has attempted to navigate the fashion industry with integrity. He officially became a U.S. citizen in 2013, just four years after launching a brand in the middle of a recession, and has spent every moment since defining his own American dream — one that is, as he would say, "stronger in color" — and we have all benefited from it. It's not something he ever takes for granted.

"I was a kid from Nepal who never saw any designers or fashion designers in my country, and had dreams and desires to come here to live the American dream and see even if it was going to be possible for me," he says. "For me, as an immigrant coming here knowing no one, really trying to live my dream and being able to fulfill that and continue to go on, it's a validation for me as a person that I was doing the right thing. The path that I took was the right one."

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