While many choose fashion as a career, Prabal Gurung, you might say, was cosmically appointed. Schön! meets the boy from Nepal who took a childhood curiosity and turned it into a global empire.
Prabal Gurung was born in 1979 in Singapore, a place he credits with informing his precision. “Then when I moved to Nepal, it was chaotic, exuberant, crazy textures, colours, nature.” He studied at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in India, before brief stints in London and Australia, finally making a home base in New York City. There, at only 18 years old, he began working as Production Manager for Cynthia Rowley. “I wanted to know not just how to make the clothes, but how to price them,” he explains. That, in brief, was just the beginning. The ‘rest’ – which we’ll get to – has included launching his eponymous brand in 2009, as well as receiving the coveted CFDA Swarovski Award for Womenswear in 2011.
As a diligent student and quick patternmaker and sewer, Gurung was sure of his talents, but his calling was confirmed when in London for the first time aged 17. It was late at night, everything had shut, and Gurung had suddenly taken a wrong path, landing in front of a Chanel boutique. “I still remember that dress vividly,” he recalls. “It was ivory bone coloured chiffon; billowing. I cannot tell you how powerful that was for me. I had been thinking, ‘I don’t want to be a doctor, I don’t want to be an engineer, what do I want to do?’ and I remember in that moment being so struck by the beauty of that dress. It was a feeling I couldn’t ignore.”
Soon the teenager was working for Cynthia Rowley and then Donna Karan, before being appointed Design Director at the iconic Bill Blass. He stayed with Blass for five years, honing not just his skillset but developing his target woman, whom he describes as a “thinking man’s sex symbol”. He launched his own label because, he states: “I knew I had something to say. I told myself if I found one or two people that liked it, that was enough. It was never ‘I want to be discovered’ or ‘I want to be the biggest.’ For me it was ‘I hope a few people like it and I hope those people talk about it.’ The rest just happened.”
Gurung’s debut Spring/Summer 2009 collection received unanimous praise, gaining the attention of Anna Wintour and American Vogue. He describes its completion – and the 21 subsequent collections – as both euphoric and immensely heart-breaking, likening it to a loss: “I always say, the highs and the lows in this industry are of epic proportions. All that, you feel it alone. There’s nobody else that feels it. It hits you hard and it hits you good.”
The label also launched around the same time as Instagram, which quickly became one of fashion’s most influential lenses. Though Gurung admits social media has played a vital role for his brand, he’s quick to note its greater pitfall: “Just because a select group of people were really smart about using [it] and leveraged it into a business, everyone now thinks that’s the way to do it. We have created a lazy world, that is not really curious, that is not really about working hard. The world we are living in now is about churning out shit constantly. Unless you are mentally prepared to handle the level of stress that comes with being a designer, running your business, you won’t be able to survive. It requires such grit to be able to do what we do.”
This grit has led to Gurung outfitting Michelle Obama, Kate Middleton and Oprah. He further cemented his ‘it’ boy status (following in the footsteps of Isaac Mizrahi, Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy and Proenza Schouler), by collaborating with retail powerhouse Target. The entire collection sold out almost completely in one day (this, in 2013, when high-low collaboration era seemed to have heard its swan song). “I’d rather fail and fall hard and I’ll pick myself up than not try at all,” Gurung elaborates. “Any kind of collaboration I do, I want people asking ‘Oh, are you sure?’ not ‘Oh, OK, yeah, makes sense.’”
Amal Clooney is now top of Gurung’s wish list of who to dress next. “In the world that we’re living in, where the number of followers and number of ‘likes’ are celebrated so much, women like her often get bypassed,” he explains. “It’s great to see the world’s fascination with her.”
We conclude by asking a question that his idol, Oprah, asked Rihanna during a 2012 sit-down: “Who are you?” Unknowingly, Gurung gives the same answer as Rihanna. “Who am I? I’m a person that cares. Deeply. Whether it’s my work, the people that work with me, my family, my friends, or the world we live in. If I was to describe myself I would say I’m a person who truly, deeply feels and cares.”