Fashion’s fresh face, Prabal Gurung, recapitulates his multi- faceted and multicultural journey to success in the competitive fashion industry. He discusses how his numerous interests and life philosophy contribute to the creation of a new brand that is a balance between fiercely bold and classically elegant.
Dressed in casual and simple elegant clothes, newcomer Prabal Gurung arrives at the The Ground office for an interview. Although, the term, “newcomer,” is presumably an under- statement: Since he launched his eponymous collection at the February 2009 New York Fash- ion Week, Prabal Gurung has been named run- ner-up for the 2010 CFDA/Vogue fashion fund, and the women who have worn his designs in- clude such impressive names such as Michelle Obama and Lady Gaga. Also, reaching this point has been a long journey for Prabal.
Although he was born in Singapore, Prabal Gurung grew up in Kathmandu, Nepal. Like many young artists, his schooling is not something that evokes positive memories. He recalls being very different from the other children and fre- quently being bullied at Saint Xavier’s, the all- boys catholic school he attended in Nepal. Not surprisingly, he decided to take refuge in draw- ing mostly what he describes as “stick figures” and various articles of clothing, which slowly developed into more detailed fashion sketches. Originally, Prabal did not have grandiose am- bitions for himself. Prabal recalls, “Nepal is a very traditional society. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who was a designer; I didn’t even know there was such a career. I just drew be- cause I liked it.” So he hid away, covering his notebooks in doodles, from the time he was eight years old until he finished high school and started to learn about how his passion could be- come a career.
Afterwards, Prabal jumped from New Delhi to Melbourne to London. He came to New York to study at the Parsons School of Design in 1999. Prabal worked at Donna Karan, Cynthia Row- ley, and Bill Blass before finally launching his own collection in the middle of the recession, despite warnings from his friends and col- leagues that it was not the right time. Imme- diately after starting his new business, Prabal filed for unemployment. However, Prabal’s collec- tion soon appeared in the Women’s Wear Daily and garnered a celebrity following. Today, the brand continues to expand, and his studio re- cently relocated to a new office space. The new office space is an enormous change from Pra- bal’s original, tighter workspace. Prabal’s small downtown apartment had previously acted as
his first studio and business meetings would take place in the coffee shop nearby. Prabal says, “It’s been a journey. A lot of people are amazed that it all “happened overnight” but it really didn’t.”
Portrait by Seiji Fujimori
Grooming by Cedric Jolivet at Joe Management.
While Prabal’s success didn’t happen over- night, it certainly happened fast. He spends a few moments reflecting on the surprises he encountered from arriving so suddenly into the spotlight. Prabal recalls, “I respect the fash- ion industry because it allows me to do what I love, but truthfully, the superficiality can be overwhelming at times.” Although Prabal ex- pected hypocrisy when he gained popularity, he admits to being shocked by the differential treatment from the people who used to ignore him in his pre-fame days. Prabal prioritizes be- ing surrounded by good friends with a sense of integrity, stating that he has been with the same group of friends since his days at Parsons. This is the same group of friends that he credits for helping him get through the rough times in the beginning, who constantly lend him support.
So what does it take to run a thriving fashion label like PRABAL GURUNG? According to the designer, there is no secret. It all boils down to the balance between the creative process and practical business management. He explains that his schedule is aimed at incorporating the two equally. He sketches and brainstorms ideas from 9:00 A.M. to noon daily, and then takes care of formalities until 3:00 P.M. The rest of his time is spent running around. Even though Prabal says that, if it were up to him, he would spend all day sketching, the reality is that he has to sustain himself. Prabal is extremely busy with the eight collections he churns out every year. On top of working on his own four collec- tions, he is also the chief designer at Onward Kashiyama’s Japanese-based brand, ICB. Like the notebooks he used to fill with doodles, Pra- bal says that he is constantly jotting down or sketching ideas as they come to him during the day.
Prabal states that the greatest difficulty he faces in making his brand work is balancing innova- tion and consistency between collections. It is important that customers associate a brand with a particular image that they know and adhere to. Of course, the flipside to consistency is repet- itiveness. Someone who likes the brand wants familiarity but is also starved for novelty. Prabal says that there is always a fine line to walk with each collection. Sometimes balance is achieved and sometimes there is an “off” season, but Prabal constantly tries to push himself.
According to him, comfort is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. He is not one to follow what is popular, saying, “Fashion trends are fleeting. I am actually much more interested by trends in technology or art.” This is apparent in the con- sistent, cerebral quality of Prabal’s designs.
ILK VISCOSE CHARMEUSE TANK DRESS WITH BURNOUT AND RE-EMBROIDERED LACE INSERTS
Prabal is concerned with making every wom- an look beautiful rather than with trendiness. Growing up with a single working mother, Pra- bal instated a certain fascination with the finer sex. “I find women much more beautiful to look at; and it is this beauty that I try to preserve and enhance in my designs. Trends come and go. The only one that sticks is that all women want to look beautiful.” What is most important for Prabal is that when a woman wears his designs, she feels empowered in some way. He thinks that this is the principal function of a designer in general. Indeed, when considering his most re- cent collections, which are rife with bold colors and softer feminine shapes, the type of woman it was conceived for is almost self-explanatory.
He describes the process of creating a new design as a form of courtship for a particular woman, a way of seducing her while discover- ing the depths of her soul. Although he does not have a precise woman in mind when he designs, he likes to think of his muse as “the thinking man’s sex symbol.” This concept of the strong, thinking woman is so important to Prabal that he has actually politely declined to dress a few celebrities who he felt didn’t line up with the brand’s ideology. He is just as selective in his choice of models, adding, “When I pick my models, I want them to represent different kinds of beauty. It would be a lie to say [that] I find every woman beautiful, but I do firmly believe [that] there is beauty in all colors, shapes, and sizes.” This launches Prabal into a recollection of how it felt while growing up without models of beauty. He says that the standard of beauty is something he wants to change, especially in consideration for his niece. Prabal claims, “My goal is that when she is 16 or so, she sees ex- amples of beautiful women that look like her, so that she can feel beautiful and not ‘interesting’ or ‘exotic’.”
PYHON ACCENTED COAT WITH ORGANZA INSERTS, SILK COTTON MIKADO MULTI-LAYERED BLOUSE AND PYTHON CROPPED PANT
Influences and Inspirations
Having lived in many different places, Pra- bal possessed an obvious and rare original- ity through the exposure of different cultures. Although he spent his formative years in Asia, he does not consider any traditional costumes as inspiration. He is more interested in the in- tricacies of Asian craftsmanship. Prabal seems to have taken away many lessons from the dif- ferent cities he has lived in. Furthermore, he is interested in the changes that take place within a city itself. Having lived on the lower east side since his arrival in New York, Prabal is fasci- nated by how the concept of a “downtown girl” has evolved over the years, explaining, “It used to be anti-fashion, all about the spikes and the ripped jeans. Now I feel like that roughness and grit has been internalized. The downtown girl is into fashion but shows her spunk through little details like her nail polish and jewelry. ” This “downtown girl” image is often a source of in- spiration for Prabal.
In a more general sense, Prabal seems to be heavily influenced by the mixed mediums of fine art.
Surprisingly, he has spent a lot of time painting and is potentially interested in getting more involved in fine arts. He firmly believes that different fields should build upon each other and interact. Indeed, he gives the example of two of his collections: one inspired by Geor- gia O’Keeffe, and the other by Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Prabal likes to do this be- cause he feels that each work of art, whether it is a painting or a song, evokes a particular feeling within each person. His goal with each collec- tion is to capture that feeling. Even the music he chooses for the shows is meant to contribute to the general ambiance he is trying to convey.
Prabal also receives inspiration from bartering with his friends for unique items. He likes creat- ing clothing for his friends in exchange for other interesting items. He made a wedding dress for emerging artist, Cassie Cook, in exchange for one of her huge paintings. Another example of an exchange is the interesting jewelry that he is currently wearing in the form of earrings and a bracelet.
When discussing his personal style, he admits to favoring simplicity: jeans, a t-shirt, and some high-tops on most days. “It’s not that I don’t like dressing up or anything, but for the amount of running around I do, I need to be comfortable,” says Prabal. Even in his casual attire, there is something very stylish and understated. Not surprisingly, other people are also interested in Prabal’s personal style as well. Because there are already many inquiries about a menswear line, Prabal, should he be inspired, has the pos- sibility to crossover into menswear.
Charities and Contributions
Prabal is still at the beginning of his career and feels that he still has a lot to accomplish, but in the three years since his brand took off, his contributions have been numerous. For one, he serves as a model to aspiring designers because his story of starting out and achieving quick success is a rare one. Prabal explained, “All I had was the love of my craft and my ambitions.
But I’m not blind; I know I’ve been given a lot, and because of this, I want to try my best to help out other young designers. I was never trying specifically to be a cultural influence but now I know the platform that I have. How I choose to use it is up to me.” It would seem as though he is using this platform in very constructive ways as one of the first things he did with his success was to start an education foundation in Nepal with his siblings. Even before opening this char- ity, the fact of his success alone has tremendously changed the mentality of the young Nepalese generation.
ORGANZA, PLASTIC, AND SEQUIN EMBROIDERED NEOPRENE SWEATSHIRT AND PRINTED SILK COTTON MIKADO SHORTS
It gave them a sense that there were other possibilities out there besides traditional occupations.
In creating his foundation, Shikshya, Prabal was hoping to contribute to Nepal’s development. The organization chooses 23 girls and spon- sors their entire education. Soon, they will add 23 more. In Nepal, a young boy’s education is often prioritized over a girl’s education. Girls who are not educated in Nepal are often mar- ried off or sold into prostitution. Prabal’s mis- sion is to help empower females and set them free. On top of this foundation, Prabal is also an ambassador for Maiti Nepal, a non-profit orga- nization that aims to help victims of the human trafficking trade. All of these charitable contri- butions were necessary to him, not only because he didn’t want his sudden success to go to his head, but also because giving back is of great importance to Prabal. This seems to line up quite well with his life philosophy and spiritual qualities. “A lot of people take spirituality as something very complicated. All it really means to me is that you have to treat people right. I’ve been very lucky and I hope [that] I can spread that luck around to others,” says Prabal.
Prabal’s good luck and fortune is not about to end anytime soon. Indeed, it would seem that Prabal’s fans are about to get lucky since Tar- get recently announced their collaboration with Prabal Gurung for 2013.
Photography by Seiji Fujimori
Styling by Yuki James
Makeup by Cedric Jolivet at Joe Management
Hair by Yoichi Tomizawa at Art Department
Model: Saara Sihvonen at Supreme
All clothing by Prabal Gurung.
The GROUND Issue #03