NEW YORK, N.Y. – As cliches go, designer Prabal Gurung is the first to say he’s living the American dream: Kid from Nepal is now dressing Michelle Obama, wife of the U.S. president, on a regular basis.
Top fashion magazines heap praise on his work, celebrities call to borrow dresses, orders are flowing and surely his runway show next month at New York Fashion Week will be one of the hot tickets.
Yeah, Gurung says, life is good.
He takes issue, however, with being called an overnight success. Gurung has been sketching since he was a young boy and left Nepal for India to work as an apprentice, and then went to Australia and London assisting stylists. He flew clear across the world — alone — to land in New York, a place he’d never been before, attended Parsons The New School for Design, interned at Donna Karan and worked for Cynthia Rowley all before getting his big break as design director at Bill Blass.
Last fall marked his first formal collection presentation for editors, retailers and stylists under his own label, and he staged his first runway show in February.
“For 10 years, I’ve paid my dues, but everything has just now fallen into place,” he says.
Not that he’s unappreciative. During a recent interview, Gurung several times talked about the generosity of an industry that too often gets a bad rap for being cutthroat. As he gains success, he pledges to share his knowledge with even younger designers — he won’t give his age, only saying he’s “young enough” — and to try to keep busy the struggling old-school artisans who can do with feathers, beads and bows things that a machine can’t.
He applauds the work ethic he has found in the U.S. “I’m not a believer of luck. I think opportunity and hard work becomes luck.”
OK, well, he’ll allow one lucky thing: He tasted bacon for the first time within the first few days of his arrival in Manhattan. Now he’s hooked, joking it’s the one thing he probably couldn’t live without.
But what pushed him here in the first place? Bergdorf Goodman couldn’t be the end goal of too many young Singapore-born boys growing up in Nepal.
Oprah Winfrey made him do it.
“I was toying with doing something big like coming to New York. I watched ‘Oprah.’ I didn’t know who she was, but the show was about living your dream. I decided if it was going to be a mistake to come to New York and try and make a career in fashion, then it was going to be my mistake. … But the American dream is real. I’m living it. “
Gurung has thought about fashion for as long as he can remember. Sketching gave him peace, when, as a student at an all-boy Catholic school, he realized he wasn’t into all the games, sports and interests of his peers. He loved to watch his mother get ready for an evening out. He loves the ritual that women go through to get dressed, he says. “Women are so complex and layered. I’m fascinated by the colours they wear and how they’ll be transformed in clothes.”
He adds, “There is one universal truth: All women, all over the world, want to look beautiful. That is always the theme of my designs.”
Men, he says, stealing a quick glance at his own button-down shirt and jeans, aren’t nearly as interested.
Gurung gets up early most mornings to go to the gym and he likes spending downtime on the weekends in the most casual of clothes, hanging out with friends.
He always walks around with wide eyes, he says, waiting to see that shape, print or colour that will send him to his notebook. Right now, the wall of his studio is littered in his vision of next spring, which has a little more colour to it than the very black-white-and-red graphic palette he used for fall.
Gurung has a new office in the Garment District, part of the incubator program from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which arranged for a collective, affordable space for up-and-coming industry players who couldn’t support a full showroom on their own. Gurung also is a finalist of the Vogue Fashion Fund competition, which could land him a $200,000 grant.
“What’s special about him is that you’ve got this wise, talented head on top of fairly young shoulders,” says Vogue magazine fashion news director Mark Holgate. “He really knows how to make clothes and he makes them beautifully.”
Holgate says Gurung seems almost like a hold-over from a previous generation — he could imagine him in conversation about fine tailoring with the late Blass or Pauline Trigere — yet Gurung also has a distinctly downtown, hip viewpoint.
“He can dress younger and older women. That cross-generational appeal that he has, I think that’s important,” Holgate says.
One of Holgate’s favourite looks in the fall collection was a camel-and-black coat with rounded, sculptured shoulders that mimic, in the most luxurious fashion, the jackets worn by the Hell’s Angels bikers that hang out across the street from Gurung’s apartment.
“There’s something different about his collection. It’s not a rehash and he doesn’t follow in the footsteps of anyone,” says Sasha Iglehart, deputy fashion director at Glamour. “He has his own direction and a very recognizable look.”
“Part of me hesitates to say he’s the ‘next great thing,’ but the trajectory seems unstoppable,” she says.
Iglehart zeros in on the cocktail dresses, which she says are refined and sophisticated yet sexy.
A red, asymmetrical dress worn by actress Zoe Saldana on the red carpet while she was promoting “Star Trek” was a turning point in his career. A photo appeared on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily — and that’s when the phone started ringing, Gurung says.
On this day, he can’t immediately produce a copy of the photo, but he says, “We have it here somewhere. OK, we have it everywhere.”
“There’s such a feeling of satisfaction when something you imagined turned into something real,” he adds.
There were no words, however, to describe his feelings when Obama wore his red boatneck gown to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he says.”She is totally the woman I describe when I talk about what an American woman is. She’s strong, she’s feminine, she stands for something — and she’s changed what American women wear.”
Obama also changed the course of his life. “If she hadn’t worn that gown,” he says, “I’d just be another ‘young designer.'”