Prabal Gurung: Play it cool


Prabal Gurung: Play it cool

From Nepal to NYC, he talks runway inspirations and dressing A-listers for the red carpet

By Nidhi Jacob  December 22nd, 2014

It’s a muggy Saturday afternoon when I meet Prabal Gurung, who is in Mumbai for a short, packed trip. He greets me with a shy grin, which I find surprising; I'm not sure why, but I was expecting sass. He’s dressed simply in his trademark uniform — a white muscle tee and indigo jeans — which is a bit of a paradox when you consider just how glamorous and statement-making his creations are. Perhaps it’s because dressing up is the last thing on his mind, especially since he happens to be running a booming business and putting out designs that make it to practically every red-carpet event there is. “Let’s just say 24 hours in a day are not enough,” he laughs. I feel him (and I’m not even remotely as busy or successful).

From being a young boy in Kathmandu, his notebooks filled with doodles and fashion drawings, to being repeatedly told he was ‘different’, Gurung has come a hell of a long way. “I didn’t fit in, I wasn’t allowed to fit in; and it forced me, it allowed me, to think of life in different terms,” he says. This, despite his claims that Nepal is extremely tolerant and LGBT-friendly even while struggling with economic development. I ask him about the bullying he faced, but he fends me off, preferring to focus on the happier bits. “Growing up [in Nepal] was bucolic; the treks, the hikes, the mountains were mentally stimulating in the most serene way. I also had a very strong support system: my family.” No sign of teenage angst here, and why should there be? His current status as America’s go-to glamour guru is retribution enough.

The beauty and complexities of his country continue to influence Gurung — not just his personality but also his body of work. For Fall/Winter 2014-15, he went on a journey to the Himalayas that continued well into Spring/Summer 2015. Leaving behind the proper, ladylike Gurung aesthetic, this season was monastic and calm, as models walked past humongous brass gongs, wrapped in cashmere and draped in silk — in tones of serious navy and ivory, burnished oranges and reds — save for a few flashes of skin. His current muse, British artist Cecily Brown (exactly the kind of woman he loves to dress), inspired the print and colour story with her Abstract Expressionist style of painting. It felt like he’d finally found the right way to connect his old life to his new. This season also saw him become more focused than ever on what he (surprisingly) counts as his leitmotif: sportswear. He breaks into a high pitch — the only time during our entire conversation — as he excitedly explains, “I always say that my clothes are deeply rooted in American sportswear and couture ideals. Now, as time goes by, people see the ideas; it is truly about the way they are finished.” Take, for example, the active polo necks intentionally inserted under floaty chiffon gowns or the knits with charmeuse lining and chiffon seaming — all little details with big impact. “If you do a full-on beaded gown, it becomes something else. There’s got to be something cool about it.”

I want to talk to him about America; why would he pick New York (wearable, sensible and low-key) over fashion meccas Milan and Paris? As it turns out, he went on a long journey before finally zeroing in on the Big Apple. Having realised that he wanted to design, Gurung moved to New Delhi (because “at that time there weren’t any design schools in Nepal”) to study at the National Institute of Fashion Technology. After living in Delhi and Mumbai, Gurung focused on a concrete vocation. “It was the first time I realised that I could actually make a career out of design, I could sustain myself and have a business, doing what I love.” He interned with and assisted Manish Arora (someone he now counts as a friend), who was starting out himself, but Gurung was itching to see some of the world before he decided on his final plan. What followed was two years of travel through London, Melbourne and Sydney, that finally ended in New York. “This really is the place where American dreams happen,” he says. “It is a city of misfits; everyone comes here from where they didn’t belong. [And] I found myself here [too].” Settling down and making his presence felt couldn’t have been easy, but that is, again, an experience he turned into a life lesson. “I think my heritage, the very fact that I lived in Nepal and in India, the beliefs, the reverence, the grace — it is the culmination of all these things that made me stand apart. I did feel like I was different, but I didn’t feel like an outsider.” 

Gurung’s confidence in himself and his product is just as solid as when he was starting out in 2009. He used his stints at Bill Blass, where he spent five years working his way up from design assistant to design director, and Cynthia Rowley, where he did production, not design, as sounding boards to build his own brand. He entered the market with luxury pricing — hardly the act of a young designer, who would usually be looking to sell widely. “I had a sense of [the] kind of clothes I wanted to make fairly early on. I wanted to play with the most beautiful kind of fabrics and I thought in the American scene, [where] a lot of contemporary fashion [was] happening, there was a voice that was missing. I knew I could fill that void.” However, intricate details and higher price points didn’t mean he was trying to create only red-carpet-friendly gowns; his clothes needed to be wearable. “There are great designers who can push artistic boundaries, but I have always been interested in dressing women,” he points out.

The thing to know about Gurung is that he loves women. Even with someone like me — a quite large, interrogative stranger — he is polite, attentive and sweetly coy when it comes to the touchy questions. We intrigue him. As he puts it, “[Women] look at things not so [much in] black and white; it’s very complex and I find that complexity really fascinating because I don’t think like that all the time.” Having grown up with strong female influences (his mother and his older sister, who he also calls “a dear friend”) and being continuously surrounded by women he admires (he has dressed Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Zoe Saldana, Diane Kruger and Deepika Padukone, to name a few), Gurung finds that he has had a chance to study what makes them tick, and has words of advice that come from great respect: “The biggest realisation that I hope women find, sooner or later, is the fact that the maximum strength comes from embracing your femininity. Not from anyone else. Not from a man, not from society, and not by feeling less about being a woman.” And you can see the effort he puts in to make sure there is diversity in each of his designs. “Femininity with a bite,” as he calls it — a balance of contrasts, multiple facets just like the women he so greatly adores.

You can see that Gurung counts his blessings: rewards like sitting down and having a conversation with a woman he dressed; the luxury of being able to put something down on paper and see it come alive; or finally being able to create his own line of shoes, which debuted in the S/S 2015 show. On July 27, 2009, a little after he had launched his first collection, Demi Moore sent out a tweet with a picture of herself in his monochrome draped and feathered dress, saying, “This dress is gorgeous, who is the designer?” Gurung was on Twitter by then, but yet to send out a tweet; his first was a thank you to Moore and fashion mover and shaker Rachel Zoe, who’d styled her in his dress. That’s when he realised the power and directness of social media. Currently with over 166,000 followers on Twitter, and over 290,000 on Instagram, Gurung knows how to use these tools with wisdom, and how best to leverage his company’s presence. “I want to share my joy. I just don’t want to tell them that I am really living this fabulous life. I want to take them on the journey,” he says. “I believe in the philosophy of the Tibetan prayer flags. When it blows a prayer, it spreads around the world. That’s how I look at social media. I want to put something out there that people (whether they like it or not) don’t feel negative about.”

Despite his Zen state of mind, there are things that can still surprise. Like the cameo of infamous Ukrainian prankster Vitalii Sediuk, who streaked past the runway  at the F/W 2014-15 show, just after look eight, wearing a leopard-print thong, a flimsy paper crown and a big smile. “My immediate thought was, ‘What the hell?’” exclaims Gurung, but after he allowed the incident to settle, he went through a series of emotions. The first of these was worry, because he didn’t want his team to feel let down after all their sleepless nights of meticulously planning the show, and the second was release. “At the after-party, I made sure that all of my friends went out and bought these crowns. You gotta laugh about it,” he shrugs. Another life lesson learnt: you can’t control everything.

Photograph: Maneesh Mandanna, Imaxtree.com/Alessandro Lucioni (Runway), Davide Gallizio (Backstage)

It’s a muggy Saturday afternoon when I meet Prabal Gurung, who is in Mumbai for a short, packed trip. He greets me with a shy grin, which I find surprising; I'm not sure why, but I was expecting sass. He’s dressed simply in his trademark uniform — a white muscle tee and indigo jeans — which is a bit of a paradox when you consider just how glamorous and statement-making his creations are. Perhaps it’s because dressing up is the last thing on his mind, especially since he happens to be running a booming business and putting out designs that make it to practically every red-carpet event there is. “Let’s just say 24 hours in a day are not enough,” he laughs. I feel him (and I’m not even remotely as busy or successful).

From being a young boy in Kathmandu, his notebooks filled with doodles and fashion drawings, to being repeatedly told he was ‘different’, Gurung has come a hell of a long way. “I didn’t fit in, I wasn’t allowed to fit in; and it forced me, it allowed me, to think of life in different terms,” he says. This, despite his claims that Nepal is extremely tolerant and LGBT-friendly even while struggling with economic development. I ask him about the bullying he faced, but he fends me off, preferring to focus on the happier bits. “Growing up [in Nepal] was bucolic; the treks, the hikes, the mountains were mentally stimulating in the most serene way. I also had a very strong support system: my family.” No sign of teenage angst here, and why should there be? His current status as America’s go-to glamour guru is retribution enough.

The beauty and complexities of his country continue to influence Gurung — not just his personality but also his body of work. For Fall/Winter 2014-15, he went on a journey to the Himalayas that continued well into Spring/Summer 2015. Leaving behind the proper, ladylike Gurung aesthetic, this season was monastic and calm, as models walked past humongous brass gongs, wrapped in cashmere and draped in silk — in tones of serious navy and ivory, burnished oranges and reds — save for a few flashes of skin. His current muse, British artist Cecily Brown (exactly the kind of woman he loves to dress), inspired the print and colour story with her Abstract Expressionist style of painting. It felt like he’d finally found the right way to connect his old life to his new. This season also saw him become more focused than ever on what he (surprisingly) counts as his leitmotif: sportswear. He breaks into a high pitch — the only time during our entire conversation — as he excitedly explains, “I always say that my clothes are deeply rooted in American sportswear and couture ideals. Now, as time goes by, people see the ideas; it is truly about the way they are finished.” Take, for example, the active polo necks intentionally inserted under floaty chiffon gowns or the knits with charmeuse lining and chiffon seaming — all little details with big impact. “If you do a full-on beaded gown, it becomes something else. There’s got to be something cool about it.”

I want to talk to him about America; why would he pick New York (wearable, sensible and low-key) over fashion meccas Milan and Paris? As it turns out, he went on a long journey before finally zeroing in on the Big Apple. Having realised that he wanted to design, Gurung moved to New Delhi (because “at that time there weren’t any design schools in Nepal”) to study at the National Institute of Fashion Technology. After living in Delhi and Mumbai, Gurung focused on a concrete vocation. “It was the first time I realised that I could actually make a career out of design, I could sustain myself and have a business, doing what I love.” He interned with and assisted Manish Arora (someone he now counts as a friend), who was starting out himself, but Gurung was itching to see some of the world before he decided on his final plan. What followed was two years of travel through London, Melbourne and Sydney, that finally ended in New York. “This really is the place where American dreams happen,” he says. “It is a city of misfits; everyone comes here from where they didn’t belong. [And] I found myself here [too].” Settling down and making his presence felt couldn’t have been easy, but that is, again, an experience he turned into a life lesson. “I think my heritage, the very fact that I lived in Nepal and in India, the beliefs, the reverence, the grace — it is the culmination of all these things that made me stand apart. I did feel like I was different, but I didn’t feel like an outsider.” 

Gurung’s confidence in himself and his product is just as solid as when he was starting out in 2009. He used his stints at Bill Blass, where he spent five years working his way up from design assistant to design director, and Cynthia Rowley, where he did production, not design, as sounding boards to build his own brand. He entered the market with luxury pricing — hardly the act of a young designer, who would usually be looking to sell widely. “I had a sense of [the] kind of clothes I wanted to make fairly early on. I wanted to play with the most beautiful kind of fabrics and I thought in the American scene, [where] a lot of contemporary fashion [was] happening, there was a voice that was missing. I knew I could fill that void.” However, intricate details and higher price points didn’t mean he was trying to create only red-carpet-friendly gowns; his clothes needed to be wearable. “There are great designers who can push artistic boundaries, but I have always been interested in dressing women,” he points out.

The thing to know about Gurung is that he loves women. Even with someone like me — a quite large, interrogative stranger — he is polite, attentive and sweetly coy when it comes to the touchy questions. We intrigue him. As he puts it, “[Women] look at things not so [much in] black and white; it’s very complex and I find that complexity really fascinating because I don’t think like that all the time.” Having grown up with strong female influences (his mother and his older sister, who he also calls “a dear friend”) and being continuously surrounded by women he admires (he has dressed Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Zoe Saldana, Diane Kruger and Deepika Padukone, to name a few), Gurung finds that he has had a chance to study what makes them tick, and has words of advice that come from great respect: “The biggest realisation that I hope women find, sooner or later, is the fact that the maximum strength comes from embracing your femininity. Not from anyone else. Not from a man, not from society, and not by feeling less about being a woman.” And you can see the effort he puts in to make sure there is diversity in each of his designs. “Femininity with a bite,” as he calls it — a balance of contrasts, multiple facets just like the women he so greatly adores.

You can see that Gurung counts his blessings: rewards like sitting down and having a conversation with a woman he dressed; the luxury of being able to put something down on paper and see it come alive; or finally being able to create his own line of shoes, which debuted in the S/S 2015 show. On July 27, 2009, a little after he had launched his first collection, Demi Moore sent out a tweet with a picture of herself in his monochrome draped and feathered dress, saying, “This dress is gorgeous, who is the designer?” Gurung was on Twitter by then, but yet to send out a tweet; his first was a thank you to Moore and fashion mover and shaker Rachel Zoe, who’d styled her in his dress. That’s when he realised the power and directness of social media. Currently with over 166,000 followers on Twitter, and over 290,000 on Instagram, Gurung knows how to use these tools with wisdom, and how best to leverage his company’s presence. “I want to share my joy. I just don’t want to tell them that I am really living this fabulous life. I want to take them on the journey,” he says. “I believe in the philosophy of the Tibetan prayer flags. When it blows a prayer, it spreads around the world. That’s how I look at social media. I want to put something out there that people (whether they like it or not) don’t feel negative about.”

Despite his Zen state of mind, there are things that can still surprise. Like the cameo of infamous Ukrainian prankster Vitalii Sediuk, who streaked past the runway  at the F/W 2014-15 show, just after look eight, wearing a leopard-print thong, a flimsy paper crown and a big smile. “My immediate thought was, ‘What the hell?’” exclaims Gurung, but after he allowed the incident to settle, he went through a series of emotions. The first of these was worry, because he didn’t want his team to feel let down after all their sleepless nights of meticulously planning the show, and the second was release. “At the after-party, I made sure that all of my friends went out and bought these crowns. You gotta laugh about it,” he shrugs. Another life lesson learnt: you can’t control everything.

Photograph: Maneesh Mandanna, Imaxtree.com/Alessandro Lucioni (Runway), Davide Gallizio (Backstage)