Prabal Gurung: ‘I design for the modern feminist’


Prabal Gurung: ‘I design for the modern feminist’

For a full day before he addressed an engaged audience on breaking the Western barrier, the buzz around New York-based Prabal Gurung at the Mint Luxury conference in Mumbai last week was that he is a celebrity designer with a flair for casual luxury who has enamoured everyone from the duchess of Cambridge to US First Lady Michelle Obama. While his penchant for embellishment, fussy furs, trailing scarves and multiple patterns is seen by some fashion critics in the US as an aspect that could be toned down, his ingenuity at mixing a sporty attitude with unabashed glamour or giving prêt the hauteur of couture has made his label a success in a variety of fashion segments and markets.

When the smiling Gurung (he wore that happy smile for the evening party too) glided into—almost as if he was wearing skates for footwear—a coffee lounge overlooking the sea at the Taj Lands End hotel in Mumbai, his fashion sensibility of casual haute was evident. He dwelt upon his Nepalese heritage, his caution about the voice he wants to share on social media, his training under designer Manish Arora, and being inspired by Yves Saint Laurent.

In the conversation that followed—after Gurung took a photo on his phone of the orange-gold sun setting over the Arabian Sea—he also spoke about style and persistence, the urbane appeal of sporty glamour, and why fashion is as much about change as it is about repetition. Edited excerpts:

You are referred to as a Nepalese-American designer. Have you been defining and refining this identity as a person and a designer?

I have never had an issue with my identity because anyway you can never run away from it. Originally, I am from Nepal in the sense that my parents belong there, but I was born in Singapore, grew up mostly in India, in Mumbai and Delhi, studied at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (Delhi), and my career began in New York. I embrace all this and my work is a juxtaposition of ideas and cultures. What I do stands out in New York. I am not an ethnic designer but I bring varied influences to my fashion, which I would say is a marriage of American sportswear and the exotic.

Your Autumn/Winter 2014 collection, with its chunky knits and brush-wool jackets, was inspired by the Himalayas, and your Spring/Summer 2015 collection took that story forward. Unlike designers from the East, who use royalty or embroidery as inspiration, why did you choose the Himalayas?

Each of my collections, ever since I launched my label in 2009, has been true to my heritage. I was an explorer as a kid and loved adventure sports and trekking up mountains, and later began exploring the Mustang (the trade route between Nepal and Tibet), which I like to do even now. I find the intense solitude of the mountains inspiring and humbling. It is particularly important in the midst of all the noise provoked by the social media.

The Mustang exposed me to the serenity and ferocity of nature with all its colours and textures. It is the kind of beauty that is so unfamiliar to us. I felt a desire to convert that part into a whole but without any sugar-coating. I usually bring back images from my journeys, in this case from my trekking expeditions.

Inspired from those photographs, the fabrics for my Himalaya-inspired collections were made in Italy and France, where materials for Dior Couture and Valentino are created. We come to India for embroideries and then everything is assembled in New York. It’s truly global in that sense.

It is curious that instead of changing the look completely every season, you want to continue a story in fashion.

I believe in continuity; in being consistent yet different. I believe in repetition. After all, you work to define who you are. Is everyone able to do that all the time—be new yet consistent all the time? Perhaps not. There may be blocks, but that’s what I aim to do.

What are your favourite materials? Often the materials and fabrics a designer chooses reveal the design signature.

I am a designer with a luxury price point so I work with fine materials. Silks, duchess satin, silk charmeuse, pure cashmere knits, double-faced cashmere for coats, and so on…

Luxury price points…how much do your clothes cost?

Our printed T-shirts are priced at $250 (around Rs.15,400) and dresses and other garments are priced between $999-20,000. So here is the thing. As a designer who comes from this part of the world, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as someone not being able to handle luxury. I wanted to break that barrier—for myself. It was not arrogance but a personal need as a creator.

How do you define the Prabal Gurung woman?

The most important value for me is being constant and substantive. A thinking man’s sexy woman, if I may say so, is a Prabal Gurung woman. An intelligent, aware person who embraces her femininity and recognizes it as her true sense of power. Unlike former feminists who denied their gender, I design for the modern feminist. Someone like Emma Watson or Angelina Jolie—young, fashionable, unafraid of how they feel about themselves, who are conversant with everything from art to news.

You dress so many celebrities across the world. Do you really believe celebrities are fashion’s royalty?

I have always said that whether it is celebrities from Hollywood, Bollywood or public life, we have to be careful and discerning about who endorses us. It needn’t be the most happening or successful woman in the world, and certainly not a snobbish person. But a celebrity who has the desire to make a difference, someone you want to have a coffee with. Like Demi Moore, Zoe Saldana or Sarah Jessica Parker, women who went out there and discovered themselves. Or girls like Sonam KapoorDeepika Padukone or Priyanka Chopra, who are pushing themselves.

I decide by instinct which celebs to dress as they are our unintentional ambassadors, and I have made my style philosophy very accessible. But I am also aware that because of ladies like Kate Middleton and Michelle Obama, our brand has become globally recognized. When the First Lady of America wore my designs, I realized it was bigger than me.

What motivated you to found the Shikshya Foundation Nepal?

It was in the second year of my business that I felt I couldn’t keep it all to myself. That one needs a vessel to give direction to work, life, thoughts and ideas, and pass it on. So we started this NGO to educate disadvantaged children in Nepal by starting with 12 girl children. Today we have 80. My mother lives in Nepal and my aim is to fund the education of 300 people within 10 years of launching this organization, so that within 20 years we have a critical mass of leaders who can turn Nepal into a secular, progressive and prosperous society. And if every woman on this earth can have one piece of my clothing, my job is done.