The complexities of life

Star designer Prabal Gurung has both feet firmly on the ground

The morning after Prabal Gurung showed his third collection, he sat down to read the reviews. The designer was keen to see the reaction from critics, but he wasn’t prepared for what he saw. “On the cover of Fashion Week Daily it read, ‘A Star is Born’, with my picture and collection. I was really grateful, but I sat with it, I am not even kidding, for an hour or two and I said, ‘It is too soon.’”

The headline was the reward for his risk taking. He had moved to New York knowing no one, graduated from Parsons and left his position as design director at Bill Blass during a recession. Unemployed, he had pooled his life savings and, in 2009, begun working out of a tiny East Village studio. But that morning, he did something unusual. He called his family in Nepal. “I spoke to my brother and my sister and I said, ‘Listen, all this attention is coming my way; I’m getting a little audience. I think I need to find a reason for my doing all this stuff here, so let’s start a foundation.’” He became a founding member and ambassador of the Shikshya Foundation Nepal, providing girls with access to education.

“I would say I’m a big, big pro-women person,” he says. “Growing up in Nepal and also in India and that part of the world, I realised that girls’ education had been compromised, along with their privileges and their rights. Their brothers would be more of a priority. And I was very aware of it because we would go to the villages and see that. I understood the disparity between men and women in terms of education and privileges and it really bothered me.”

Who Gurung is and where he came from can’t be untangled from his designs. It is woven through everything he does. “There are layers and layers of stories, historical references, ideas and arts and artefacts,” he explains of Nepal. “It’s just fascinating, and I want to capture the layering and the complexities of it.” In the past he has been tempted to add every layer for a collection, with too much embroidery and too many frills, but this season was cleaner. He created shapes that were more forgiving. A grey strapless dress was slashed high but gathered across the middle to flatter the stomach. An oversized black and white sweater was matched with a high-slit leather skirt. Gurung had hit his stride.

When, in April, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck near Kathmandu, Gurung was about to go to bed in London. Then he received a text and checked the news. Sections of the city were flattened, historic buildings reduced to rubble and over 1,900 were killed. On Everest, 17 climbers died. In northern India 34 were killed and 4,700 injured. By early May, the death toll was 7,300. “I started fundraising on Crowdrise because I had to do something. I started tweeting on social media and posting on Instagram. Then a lot of influential people also shared, my friends shared, everyone came, and the CFDA pledged $10,000 immediately. Michael Kors came, then the Swarovski Foundation came; everyone came on board. We raised close to a million.” How the people around Gurung and those back home have come together, he says, has been an “incredible, incredible moment in the midst of tragedy and loss”.

“Working in fashion, it’s very easy to get carried away and swept away by the fabulousness of it all,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I truly love it, but I always want to stay firmly on the ground. Everything makes sense now. I am so in love with what I do – the privilege of coming up with a story and a silhouette – but the foundation, and directly making a difference in lives, has brought a new-found meaning to my love for designing.” §

All clothing by Prabal Gurung / Text: Naomi Bikis / Photography: Bruno Werzinski / Styling: Nobuko Tannawa / Hair: Maki Tanaka using Bumble and bumble / Make-up: Natsumi Narita using M.A.C Cosmetics / Videography: Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie / Styling assistant: Hakan Demiray / Model: Martina Lew at Next Management London

  • Prabal Gurung