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Prabal Gurung is the thinking woman’s designer

The strong streak of feminism in Nepalese couturier Prabal Gurung’s creations has attracted some of the world’s strongest women, including Michelle Obama and Britain’s future queen

brunch Updated: Nov 12, 2016 19:26 IST
Prabal Gurung

A darling of the New York fashion world, Prabal Gurung’s rise has been meteoric. But this Nepal-born designer still has his feet firmly planted on the ground

You might expect a certain amount of altitude sickness from a man who’s scaled the highest echelons of the world of fashion, with Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States, among many others, on his client list. Especially since that man arrived from out of almost nowhere: just another designer from the subcontinent trying his luck in New York.

But Prabal Gurung, when you meet him, exhibits no such symptoms. Instead, the 37-year-old designer from Nepal, who graduated from Delhi’s National Institute of Fashion Technology before moving to New York and the Parsons School of Design in 1999, is as proud of his achievements in his profession as anyone who’s worked his way to the top has the right to be.

“Dressing the Duchess of Cambridge, Michelle Obama and Oprah (Winfrey, media’s biggest star) were my biggest achievements,” he says. “I have always had immense respect for these three ladies. There are certain things you can wish to happen but can never plan. I believe the universe has its own way of rewarding you when you are honest and authentic. I made the clothes and they responded to them. And I am glad they did!”

Looking smart

According to Gurung being at the right party and being seen with the right people definitely helps the brand. However, one needs to be smart and clever to be able to choose that ‘right party’ (Courtesy: Prabal Gurung)

If you imagine there’s a touch of arrogance in these words, you’re wrong. Gurung is as grounded today as he ever was: you can tell this right away when you first meet him – while exchanging pleasantries he comments, “You know, I really miss the time when ‘how are you?’ was a genuine question, not a statement.’

But you’d also be a bit of an idiot if you didn’t acknowledge Gurung’s business genius as much as his creative brilliance. His first ever collection under his own name was launched in 2007, right in the middle of the recession, after Bill Blass, where he had worked as a design director for five years, had to close down.

Where other suddenly jobless people might have dived headfirst into depression or scrambled for any kind of employment elsewhere, Gurung “took that as a sign” and went solo instead, launching his eponymous label guerrilla-style in front of “a few assistant editors from the press”.

Within days, one of the pieces from this collection, a red dress with a Valentine bow on the shoulder, was on the cover of WWD (Women’s Wear Daily). Later, Zoe Saldana, who also wore his now iconic black sheer cut-out gown at the 2012 CFDA Fashion Awards, wore this dress for the Star Trek premiere in Germany, and Rachel Weisz bought one piece from the same collection. Before New York’s fashion leaders knew what hit them, several celebrities had Gurung originals in their wardrobes, especially after Demi Moore tweeted about him, “This is a new designer to look out for – Prabal Gurung.”

Nearly 10 years later, he’s very much a celebrity favourite, with glamorous clients such as Marion Cotillard, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lawrence, Demi Moore, Zoe Saldana, Emma Watson, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Jessica Parker, Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor and Alia Bhatt. This, in addition to the future queen of Britain and the current FLOTUS as loyal customers.

Feminism on a sleeve

Today, Prabal can be seen rubbing shoulders with Hillary Clinton during the day and partying late into the night with a gaggle of gorgeous girls that include international models as well as Hollywood royalty. Seen here with (from left ) Jennifer Hudson, Zoe Saldana, Priyanka Chopra, and Solange Knowles (Getty Images)

Perhaps his client list would not have been quite as strong as it is, in all senses of the word, had Gurung not turned his deepest convictions about women and the world into his creative inspiration.

“Women all over the world want to feel beautiful. They want their voices to matter. And that is exactly what I do through my garments,” says Gurung, as he tries to analyse his style.

His fashion is feminist and that comes from his background as the gay son of a single mother in Nepal. “My mother’s biggest passion in life was equality for herself and others. So for me, feminism is not a trending topic on social media or a vehicle to forward my own agenda,” he says. “The more I read about body shaming or slut-shaming, the more I realise that it has little to do with the women and more to do with the men. It is not the women wearing the clothes that are the issue but the men judging them. Feminism has been part of me since day one. It is in my DNA.”

Apart from his twice-a-year outings at New York Fashion Week, Gurung is regular in the city’s party circuit, and although he had created his Twitter account just to say thanks to Demi Moore for her tweet, he now tweets and instagrams almost every move he makes. All this, Gurung says, helps him reach much larger audiences than ad campaigns can get him, and builds his brand.

“However, you need to be aware of your motive,” he says. “You could be at the right place at the right time, but if you don’t know what to do or don’t have a well-etched out purpose then it hardly helps. I always believe that you should be in a room filled with people who are smarter than you. That helps you become a better designer.”

Constantly hanging out with people gives him great access to information, allowing his political and social ideas to grow... and become his designs. Because for Gurung, creativity is nothing without conviction.

That shows in his Spring Summer 17 collection, which he showcased for the first time in India at Le Mill’s limited edition trunk show on October 26. This collection was inspired by legendary feminist Gloria Steinem’s poignant memoir, My Life On The Road. The pieces are replete with famous speeches by prominent women, or famous quotes related to women’s empowerment.

“I am a designer who has much more to say than just fashion stuff. I am very politically aware. I thought this would be the right time for such a collection, with America likely to get its first woman President in Hillary Clinton,” he says. [This interview was conducted before the US elections were held on November 8] “I am a 100 per cent feminist and a very vocal one at that. I have always believed that more women in decision-making positions will make the world a better place.”

Women and the world

While the Duchess of Cambridge wore this purple-and-white printed shift from Prabal Gurung’s spring/summer 2012 collection during her Singapore visit, Michelle Obama made her Prabal Gurung debut in an off-white silk twill dress back in 2010 and has been often spotted in his creations since then (Getty Images)

Gurung’s feminist convictions may stem from his ‘gay designer’ experiences – one kind of underdog standing in solidarity with another. While Nepal is certainly more gay-friendly than India, even permitting gay marriages, society as a whole is still homophobic, he points out.

In any case, the Himalayan country was officially not gay-friendly while Gurung was growing up, and since he spent his childhood tagging along with his mother, making doodles and playing with paper dolls, he was always marked out from other little boys. “I was different and I knew it from the very beginning,” says Gurung. “I was teased and mocked for it. But my family was always supportive, especially my mother. She would always encourage me to be my own person. I would shut out the criticisms and concentrate on my sketchbook.”

Gurung thanks his mom for every detail of his life. “Everything stems from her. Apart from being my support system, she also formed my aesthetics,” he says. “She’d save up to buy that one exquisite piece. Till this day I remember all her outfits – the sarees, the dresses, the shoes and even the height of her heels.”

Like his mother, most of Gurung’s clientele are women who are strong, intelligent, independent, and appreciative of the finer things in life.

But they’re also diverse in many ways, including size, and Gurung loves that. “My goal as a designer is to give options,” he says. “I am not a good designer if I am only good at making size zero clothes. Since day one, I have provided size zero to size 22. It’s a shame that retailers don’t pick those. Also, I am working on a plus-size range as I believe in being inclusive. In fashion, inclusivity doesn’t only mean including models of different colours and race, but also of different body types.”

His design aesthetic is not only minus embellishments, but straight out strong: Gurung designs for women he calls ‘a thinking man’s sex symbol’. But though over the years, he has dissed clothes that are “too short and too tight”, today he has a more rounded viewpoint.

“Today, Kim Kardashian also wears my dresses. My perspective on women has changed. I have learnt not to create an opinion based on how a person dresses. Although I still celebrate the ‘intelligent woman’, now I can also appreciate a woman wearing the skimpiest of clothes, because at the end of the day, it is her choice. There is nothing wrong if you are confident about your body.”

“I do have a problem when that simply becomes your identity and you have nothing else to offer. I have a problem when girls dress a certain way just to attract men and get validated by them. There should be more to you than the body. You need not wear a billowing khadi gown to look intelligent.”

When you acknowledge your true self and become comfortable with who you are, like-minded people come flocking, says Gurung, who was a shy kid and would often be found at her mother’s shop drawing doodles of playing with paper dolls (Courtesy: Prabal Gurung)

Quick Qs

Your inspiration, apart from your mother:

The women I design for – substantive, intelligent, curious, and confident.

One person you would love to dress:

Hillary Clinton. I would love to dress her for the inaugural night when she becomes President.

What Hillary Clinton should trade her pantsuits for:

I don’t think she needs to let go of her pantsuit. I want her to feel her 100 per cent best when she takes centre stage.

What’s your style?

Femininity with a bite.

Your favourite material?

Non-toxic.

What India means to you...

Designers in Nepal are associated with housewives. It was only after I came to India that I realised the possibilities of being a designer – it cemented my dream.

Bollywood Dreams

Today, Katrina Kaif, Alia Bhatt, Sonam Kapoor and Deepika Padukone, are among his regular clients. But he has developed a special fondness for Alia, who he thinks has the potential to become a true crossover actor

Although he was born in Singapore and shifted to Nepal as a child, Prabal Gurung is a self-proclaimed Bollywood buff. “It was a world unlike anything that was happening around me. But at the same time, it looked so real! I always thought I would have 60 dancers behind me when I wooed someone, or there would be violins and maple leaves when I fall in love,” laughs Gurung.

Still, the subtle elegance of his designs is far removed from the OTT grandeur of Bollywood. “Bollywood actually has had a huge impact on me. Maybe not the styling part, but it opened my mind. And when the mind is open, you can receive ideas more quickly. It taught me to dream the seemingly unreal, ridiculous dream. It made my imagination soar.”

Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor are among his regular clients, but Gurung has developed a special fondness for Alia Bhatt. “I think she has the true potential to become a crossover actor,” he says.

Would he ever style a Bollywood film? “I have been waiting for something exciting to come my way.”

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From HT Brunch, November 13, 2016

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