Why Prabal Gurung Is A Socially Minded Designer
“Success is a true test of your character.”
At a time when fashion is in a state of flux, we're looking to the industry's next generation of influencers as a guiding light. This New York Fashion Week, Refinery29's Future of American Fashion series is highlighting the designers, brands, and retailers we're betting on big. The future starts here.
Since his label launched in 2009, Prabal Gurung's shrunken blazers and graphic cocktail fare have had the fashion industry hooked. Recently, though, the designer has stepped into more of an advocacy role for everything from women’s rights to diversity on the runway, deciding that his position of power has given him a platform to speak for others. “I got all this attention and am quote-unquote a fabulous designer, but it just can’t be for my ego,” he says. “I really struggled with it, I won’t lie: Am I going to just keep this attention for myself? Because I truly believe success and failure — especially success — is a true test of your character.”
The Power Of Politics
Though Gurung has faced his fair share of opposition for sharing his political beliefs on social media, he nevertheless persisted with his fall 2017 collection. It was actually an extension of his spring offering, which was an homage to Gloria Steinem. “I didn’t think there would even be one order,” says Gurung of the infamous T-shirts inspired by the January Women’s March, which featured slogans like “Revolution has no borders,” and “I am an immigrant.” “I’ve always felt like the biggest strength from a woman comes from understanding and embracing femininity,” he says. “Perhaps the fact that I come from a single mother, who brought us up with strong female role models in my life, I saw pretty early on the power of women, the power of dressing up, the power of choices.”
In the same fall show that featured Bella Hadid, Josephine Skriver, and Jasmine Tookes, Gurung made a point to include plus-size models Candice Huffine and Marquita Pring, saying, “We can’t look at beauty in such a myopic way, this one vision of beauty. Diversity everywhere should become the norm, and it’s not just about plus size, it’s about trans models, it’s about everything.” Gurung, who is launching his second plus offering with Lane Bryant this fall, credits his own diverse upbringing for his ability to see that representation matters.
“I was born in Singapore, grew up in Nepal, and lived in India," he says. "I grew up surrounded by colorful things, different things, women in Nepal and in India, not all of them are size zero.” The designer admits we still have a winding road ahead to face these issues, but believes that consumers and fans of fashion can drive the conversation forward. “Be accountable for yourself, call me out as a designer if I’m doing something wrong; you need to be able to have a voice now,” he advises. “Demand that seat at the table. That’s the only way. If you think a white, size two editor is going to think about diversity and representation, you’re completely mistaken.”
While Gurung certainly has a lot to say about the opportunities in fashion and is also cautious about the future of retail at large (“When I started in 2008 it was a similar vibe, department stores are so down.”) he often reminds himself of why he gave this industry a shot in the first place. “I’m still that guy who turned the pages of Vogue or saw my mom’s Dior lipstick or YSL perfume and was mesmerized by it. I wanted to be part of it,” he recalls. “Fashion has given me the platform to really make an impact, but I’m also that person who, when I’m on the subway or in a taxi or in a car and I see a normal girl wearing one of my pieces, I want to stop them and say thank you.”