Why Designer Prabal Gurung Doesn't Want To Just 'Stick to Fashion'
Prabal Gurung is best known as a world famous luxury fashion designer, one whose designs are worn by boldface names like U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who wore a matching maroon set during an Inauguration week event in January. But what sets the Nepalese American apart from other designers is his seamless ability to unite activism, inclusivity, and justice in his work.
Gurung has long used his platform to advocate for causes he cares about. His Spring 2020 collection posed the question “Who Gets To Be American?” — a phrase that was emblazoned on sashes worn by models — in a timely message as the country engages in a contentious debate over immigration. Last summer, as the Black Lives Matter movement came to a crescendo following George Floyd’s death, Gurung used his platform to support the Black community and donated proceeds from one of his collections to The Bail Project, a nonprofit organization that pays bail for people in need.
In an interview with Asia Blog, Gurung discusses the current rise of anti-Asian hate and violence in the United States and how he uses his platform to discuss the role fashion has historically played in marginalizing people of color. He also talked about his desire to be a civically engaged citizen, and how he uses his influence to help support and grow AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) businesses — especially during the pandemic.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Your politically-charged fashion collection in 2019 focused on what it means to be American. What about the political climate during that time — before the 2020 election — inspired you to focus on American identity?
When I create, I am telling two unique stories: my own, and that of the wearer. I was born in Singapore, raised in Nepal, and lived in India, London, and Australia before coming to the U.S. to pursue my dream of being a fashion designer. My story is one that could only happen in a place like America, and I continue to live my American Dream each day. I built my brand from its inception as a “luxury brand with a soul.” This has always meant a holistic dedication to the values of diversity, inclusivity, and ethical practices, and leveraging my brand voice and platform such as runway shows, capsule collections, and social media to amplify messaging around these principles. Fashion doesn’t operate in a vacuum and as designers, we are storytellers and healers. The collective consciousness of the industry and our audiences has been on the rise, and there is now a more widespread feeling of responsibility to ensure we are meeting the moment and making changes to the way we do business in order to contribute to progress and unit.
In the years prior to my spring/summer 2020 ready-to-wear collection, highly divisive rhetoric from the Trump administration reopened deep wounds and disrupted the unity of our country. I've often been challenged about my "Americanness." During a planning meeting for my label's 10th anniversary collection in 2018, an investor asked me to express what I felt my brand stood for. I began explaining that American style had always been seen through a white lens. As a first-generation Asian immigrant, a minority, and a queer person of color, I wanted to redefine the country's style, because our experiences have been underrepresented. He, in turn, asked, "Well you don't look American. How can you define American style?" It was clear to me that he meant that because I wasn't white, I had no authority to shape the American ideal. He made this statement despite me being an American citizen who owns a business in this country — one that employs Americans and immigrants, pays taxes, and embraces a "Made in America" ethical manufacturing ethos with 90 percent of our business locally sourced to New York.
I ended up turning that collection into a celebration of American identity and belonging, sending a diverse cast of models down the runway in denim, white short-sleeved shirts, rose prints, and, during the finale, sashes bearing the question: "Who gets to be American?" Additionally, we sought guidance and advice from experts in the field like my dear friend, the journalist and immigrant activist Jose Antonio Vargas, who founded Define American, a non-profit organization highlighting immigrant stories. We wanted to ensure we were doing the issue of immigration reform justice while being sensitive to its complexities. As immigrants continue to help birth this "new America," we must remember all versions of our history and take ownership of our past while forging a more inclusive future.
Whereas other brands often want to steer clear of any controversy, you aren’t afraid to make political statements with your work. How do you respond to critics who think you should “stick to fashion”? Do you see other designers becoming more outspoken?
I have always felt that fashion and politics aren’t mutually exclusive. I created the organization Shikshya Foundation Nepal early in my career to empower women and children through education. It started with a modest goal to improve 300 lives, and we have since been able to impact over 90,000 lives. I grew up in a household that was extremely involved — we were encouraged to speak our minds and to contribute positively to change in our community. It is because of this that I have always felt an immense responsibility to give back, and is why activism has naturally become a key part of the brand. I don’t listen to critics that want me to “stick to fashion.” I have a right to voice my opinions and I do so through my work and activism. As designers, we are influenced by the world around us, and we also contribute enormously to the global economy.
I do see more designers becoming more outspoken. I am overjoyed to see people joining the fight and excited to be alongside peers that are choosing to utilize their platform. No matter how big or small a brand is, there are ways to ensure you are contributing to the larger conversation and making a difference. I have always believed that the one truth in life is impermanence — and that the legacy we choose to leave behind is important. We must consider what we want to do during our lifetime and how we want to make an impact. This motivates me each day to be fully present. I am more than a designer: I am an engaged citizen. I don’t perceive activism as speaking out on political issues, but rather about human issues because they affect all of us. I truly believe in having difficult conversations with those who might not agree with you and reaching across the aisle.
You helped co-organize a Black and Asian solidarity march with other designers and activists. Why is it important to you to highlight intersectional activism?
Issues that impact marginalized communities have always had a special place in my heart, because I know what it feels like to not be represented. The only way to move forward is when every marginalized group’s voices are heard. Brands’ decision-makers and boards need to be fully diversified and represented by people actually willing to strike up difficult, uncomfortable conversations that challenge biases — or else it’s just Band-Aid, performative ally-ship. Since the inception of my brand, diversity and inclusion has been at the forefront of our messaging, and I continuously push the need to dismantle systemic racism and celebrate matriarchy and feminine energy. It is important for people to not be divided during times of injustice. I have always felt that people need to come together to condemn racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. Give us the microphone so we can tell our own stories and craft our own narratives. We are the majority — all the minority groups coming together is a force to be reckoned with. I truly believe in my brand ethos — “stronger in colour” — which is the idea that the world is a better, stronger, and more beautiful place when we celebrate diversity.
You served as one of the judges for Gold House’s Gold Rush initiative, which provides economic support to Asian and AAPI-led businesses. How did you become involved with the initiative? What types of businesses stood out to you?
Gold Rush came from Gold House’s first Salon in New York City that I co-hosted with Michelle Lee of Allure to determine how we could better support Asian and AAPI founders — just as Gold House had done with films and Hollywood. Around this time, The Harvard Business Review reported that AAPIs are the least likely demographic to be promoted to management. As an AAPI founder, I knew that we could either rise up the corporate ladder — or build our own. Gold Rush was created for exactly that — helping Asian and AAPI founders provide mentorship, career-making business development opportunities, and an intimate world-class community of the most promising founders. Especially given the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and the fact that AAPI businesses have been the hardest hit of any in the pandemic, our focus on sustained socioeconomic equity by investing in the next great companies — that reimagine industries, drive billions in value through IPOs, and employee tens of thousands — has never been more critical. It’s been a joy to have been involved since the beginning.
Our Spring 2021 cohort features incredible founders and is groundbreaking for us in many ways. Amplifying Asian and AAPI women-led businesses was a priority for us, which led to 60 percent of our cohort’s founders being female. Our programming expanded to include a new women’s track with curated workshops and mentorship chaired by Julia Gouw, long-time president of East West Bank. We are also welcoming our most diverse cohort yet (60 percent identify as East Asian, 13 percent as Southeast Asian, and 27 percent as South Asian). There is still more work to be done in uplifting Asian and AAPI-led businesses across every industry but I’m proud to be part of a venture that consistently works to champion them.