Prabal Gurung: Nepal needs women and minorities at the decision-making tableThe New York-based fashion designer on what he owes women, how he comes up with his creations, and why identity—not attention—should drive our work.
It is 10.30am when Prabal Gurung arrives at the Hotel Padma in Boudha. We are overlooking the grand stupa where the faithful, tourists and idlers all circumambulate, following the path of the rising sun.
Gurung introduces himself, as if I wouldn’t know who he is. When we sit down, he picks up the menu and without even glancing at it, asks if he can have momos. Two decades of living in the US and dressing some of the world’s most powerful women—Michelle Obama, Kate Middleton and Oprah Winfrey—has apparently not numbed Gurung’s very Nepali hunger for momos. But that’s just him. Despite being one of the most talked-about fashion designers in the world, he’s never really lost sight of where he’s come from.
And he’s never been someone to keep his opinions to himself. After all, he’s worn his heart on his sleeve at every fashion shows he’s done, quite literally by putting on a t-shirt that reads: “This is what a feminist looks like”. He’s sent out models with sashes that ask: “Who gets to be an American?”
“It’s because of what is happening in America right now that I’ve been very vocal about the idea of identity,” he says, referring to the rise in racism and anti-immigrant sentiment since the election of Donald Trump. “Growing up in Nepal with a single mother, we always talked about doing the right thing. When I went to the US, I realised I have been influenced so much by my upbringing.”
Although he was born in Singapore, Gurung grew up in Nepal and he’s made no secret of it. His shows, his designs, his sensibility and his activism—they’re all inspired in some way by Nepal, he says.
“Nepal’s diversity is an asset,” says Gurung. “I’m not oblivious to the discrepancies between castes and classes, but when you think about the divisive nature of politics across the world, the beautiful coexistence here is important for the world to know.”
Gurung has consistently been a champion for Nepal, raising over $1 million when the 2015 earthquake struck, and making it a point to talk about the country in his interviews. Nepalis too have leapt to embrace him, which is why quite a few had a gripe when a full page ad appeared in the New York Times, identifying Gurung as someone from Singapore.
“They were simply going off of my birth place,” he says. “Yes, I was born in Singapore but I am Nepali. No one is going to be able to take that away from me.”
Gurung is very generous, not just with his sentiments but also with his momos. He offers me some, but I politely decline, sticking to my masala omelette—it is only 11 in the morning and perhaps I’m just not that Nepali.
But Gurung is a little miffed at the way Nepali media chooses to cover him. Everyone seems to share in the adulation when he dresses Priyanka Chopra or Michelle Obama. But just a few weeks ago, he was made honorary designer of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, a position that had never existed until now. He’s very proud of this honour but a little perplexed at the lack of coverage back home.
“I don’t crave attention; I know very well who I am,” he says. “But forget about me for a moment. We really need to think about who and what we’re celebrating.”
Gurung’s point is that Nepal might celebrate Prabal Gurung the fashion designer, but it rarely celebrates him for the right reasons—as an artist, a creative person.
“We also need to celebrate feminist writers and artists, people who are pushing culture forward,” he says. “We can’t just be celebrating Miss Nepal.”
As someone in the fashion industry, he has his own beef with how some Nepalis are obsessed with Miss Nepal.
“I understand that it provides access and that it’s the women’s choice to participate. I don’t want to take away from the hard work they do, but what are we telling our young girls?” says Gurung. “What I find problematic is that there is one idea of beauty. People ask me why haven’t I dressed any Miss Nepals and I say, I will, when it’s run by women or minorities.”
It’s a belief that he’s put into practice, regularly sending out models who are size-inclusive, ethnically diverse and nonbinary. His staff consists of a majority women and he constantly makes it a point to talk about how much he owes to women.
“I wanted to study fashion after watching Oprah Winfrey. After I came to the US, Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, became my biggest supporter and all the celebrities who are wearing my stuff happen to be women,” he says. “The only reason for my existence is women.”
He’s said this before—that he cannot continue to benefit from women without standing up for them. It is a refreshing attitude. Gurung expresses himself through fashion, but he would like everyone to do it in whatever way they can.
“The world will not survive if it’s business as usual. The future of Nepal depends on women and minorities being at the decision-making table,” he says. “It may not happen in our lifetimes but it is our responsibility through our body of work.”
Gurung has been called the “most woke man in fashion” by Robin Givhan, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic, and he’s never let his success get in the way of his beliefs. He made headlines after he pulled out the 10th anniversary celebration of his fashion house from New York’s Hudson Yards after finding out that one of its investors was conducting a fundraiser for Trump. He can afford to take that kind of risk. After all, his beliefs are his brand.
But lest anyone think he’s just a lucky Nepali on New York’s Seventh Avenue, he makes it a point to stress all the work he’s put in.
“I get DMs all the time saying I want to be a fashion designer like you, I want to be glamorous like you,” he says. “But I want to tell them that if you’re lucky, 10 percent is glamour, the rest 90 percent is gruelling hard work.”
His advice to young Nepali designers is to do it only if you love it, not for the fame and not for the glamour.
“I don’t want people to say I want to be a famous designer,” he says. “I want them to say, I want to make beautiful clothes, clothes that people want to wear and create an impact.”
I ask him how he feels about Nepali designers.
“It’s really amazing and exciting to see a thriving community of designers,” he says, before launching into a critique. “Their work is heavily influenced by our neighbouring country, which I understand. It’s also important for a lot of these designers to focus on quality and workmanship by investing in local artisans. I also want to see an identifiable brand, an identity that is their own.”
On the runway, Gurung’s own work is difficult to describe, something that Givhan attests to. This is how she attempts to sum up Prabal Gurung: “It isn’t minimalist but it isn’t extravagant. It’s not gender-neutral or athleisure. None of the industry buzzwords apply. His work is unabashedly feminine in the traditional sense. He favors joyful colors, lighthearted prints, a ruffle or two, an hourglass shape. As the French say, his work has flou—a romantic, fluid, floating quality.”
Before I know it, Gurung is describing his process to me.
“Most of the time I see a collection in my head, before I even sketch,” he says. “Then I sketch it out, do a pattern and before the runway, I try everything on a fit model. When I zip up, look at it and it is perfect, I feel that everything is worth it—all the hard work, all the gruelling hours. When the runway show happens, I’m already checked out. I’m there to do a job. When Gigi [Hadid] walks out or Bella [Hadid] walks out, it’s a great moment for the brand but for me the real moment happens in the process of making the clothes. That, for me, is better than sex.”
Every artist identifies with that moment. For many writers, holding a published book in your hands is all well and good but the real satisfaction comes from having written something that came out just the way you’d imagined it. But that kind of success, when the most popular models in the world are wearing your clothes, that can go to anyone’s head.
“If everyone keeps telling me that I’m fabulous then I’m going to start thinking that. And the worst thing for a creative person is to believe their own hype,” says Gurung. “What keeps me grounded are my family and friends. Nepal. And more than anything, the [Shikshya] Foundation. It has really given me a sense of purpose.”
But a lot of it also has to do with how Gurung grew up, particularly going to an all boys’ school.
“I was bullied crazily because I was an effeminate kid,” he says. “As much as it affected me mentally, it really prepared me for the world. Because I was told that I was different, it taught me to do things differently.”
That’s also where his love of Bollywood comes from, as anyone who follows Gurung on Instagram knows. He’s buddies with Karan Johar, Priyanka Chopra, and Deepika Padukone, and he has a reputation for suddenly breaking into song.
“When I was going to school, my escape was sketching and movies. It really allowed to forget the misery that I was going through,” he says. “Bollywood also shaped how I learned to look at colour.”
In the shadow of Boudha stupa, it is easy to get contemplative and reflect on our own lives. Towards the end of our conversation, as we’re wrapping up, Gurung gets aptly philosophical.
“We all have to go one day. I don’t want to sit here and watch history pass me by,” he says. “When this particular moment becomes history, I just want a line. I want to be able to touch at least one life.”
When history is written, Gurung may get more than a line, given what he’s done and continues to do. In some giant existential way, that is perhaps what most of us want—a line in history, something that will attest to the fact that we were here.
“We are all similar, we are all working towards something because we want to be validated,” says Gurung. “We want the world, and ourselves, to say that we matter, our existence matters.”
ON THE MENU
Hotel Padma, Boudha
Chicken Steam Momo: Rs 400
Cheese Masala Omelet: Rs 375
Green tea: Rs 210
Americano X3: Rs 630
Grilled spicy chicken sandwich: Rs 460