Photographed by:Rachel Bank
“This is a fabric that i have specially developed for the spring 2012 collection,” Prabal Gurung explains, showing me a single-breasted, tight-fitting jacket. “I was inspired by the Japanese erotic photographer Araki’s Sensual Flowers series, and, in particular, a black-and-white photograph of a rose. I worked for months with a printmaker in London to create this floral print. To cut this jacket correctly, I have to use over five yards because I have to align each side of the floral print pattern to exactly match the print of the fabrics so that the print on the jacket looks like a real three-dimensional flower.” He turns the jacket around. The back features oversized floral prints matched to each of the separate fabric panels.
“This is what luxury means now—the product has to be perfectly made with the best possible fabrication and materials. And there are many customers who are looking for those special items now,” he says. We are at Mr. Gurung’s office, and it is less than a fortnight before his Spring presentation. He stands in front of a wall comprised of color sketches and computer printouts of a fit model in several dresses. On the rack, among the samples, hangs a white floral sheath dress. Surely, this is one of the pieces that will be a best seller at retail come next spring.
Ten days later, at his midday show in the lobby of the IAC headquarters in West Chelsea, the model Alana Zimmer comes down the runway in the flower print jacket; the show program calls the print “surreal flower.” The jacket is paired with matching low-slung pants and a black blouse. As the model passes by, it is difficult to distinguish the efforts the designer took to match the print perfectly along the various trims and panels of the jacket. The old adage rings true: if something is in perfect proportion, you won’t notice it. Imperfection is easier to spot.
Prabal Gurung’s attention to the minute details and processes of crafting a garment is part of a precise vision he has followed since December 2008. It was then that Bill Blass—the fashion house where he was Design Director and then Chief Designer for five years—abruptly closed. In less than two months, Mr. Gurung launched his eponymous line, a collection shown at the FLAG Art Foundation on the first day of New York Fashion Week in 2009. Bear in mind, this was all in the midst of a worldwide financial and economic crisis. But we’ll get back to that.
Born in Singapore and raised in Nepal, Prabal Gurung would sketch ideas and designs in his schoolbooks or on blackboards while studying at the St. Xavier’s School in Kathmandu. “My mother was a big influence. She was always pushing me to do what I wanted to do,” he says. With her encouragement, he enrolled at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi. There, while still in school, he gained his first real experience in fashion, working with the various local enterprises in the blooming fashion industry of New Delhi, a counterpoint to Mumbai’s Bollywood. He apprenticed as a design assistant to Manish Arora, then an unknown designer, who gave Mr. Gurung a lesson in experimental shapes and materials.
He traveled for a while, stopping in Melbourne and London for projects, but Mr. Gurung knew that New York would be his final destination if he were serious about fashion. In 1999, he enrolled at Parsons School of Design and took an internship at Donna Karan. After graduation, he worked in the design and production department at Cynthia Rowley, and two years later was appointed Design Director at Bill Blass, a once venerable New York fashion house struggling to rejuvenate after the death of its founder. Then Bill Blass closed, and Prabal Gurung—the label—opened.
Put together with the help of friends, Mr. Gurung’s debut collection comprised of “well-made clothes”—a black cashmere, tailored, double-faced suit with short pants; a silk, pleated, one-shoulder dress with hand-sewn white feathers; jackets made of silk-velour jacquards; a red silk sleeveless gown; and a white strapless cocktail dress with black graphic lines. In the next season, Mr. Gurung confirmed his command of craftsmanship, showing a silk organza strapless dress with a hand painted black floral print peeking from the folds of the corset, a silk dress with sheer chiffon crisscross wrapping, and a flawless white silk duchess satin tuxedo with flared pants and bowtie lapel.
The similarities between Mr. Gurung’s first two collections were deliberate, an attempt to foster elements that would become his signature: complicated draping made to look simple, the perfect tailoring of coats and jackets, and the use of luxurious materials. In his runway show for Fall 2010, these silhouettes became apparent in the 36 looks, with color blocking as a leitmotif for voluminous cashmere coats; a black silk double-face dress; a white off-shoulder dress; lean pants; a zippered, cropped gray-fox-and-nutria coat; and tight-fitted sheath dresses.
Inspired by Miss Havisham, a heroine of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, Mr. Gurung’s Fall 2011 collection, his fifth, held hints of emotion and touches of imperfection, something the previous season’s dry and flawlessly technical clothes did not. Having proven his skills, Mr. Gurung is now opening up his sensibilities to convey the human side of fashion. Booth Moore, the fashion critic at the Los Angeles Times, told me on a break between shows this past September, “His collections have always been pretty, but somewhat restrained. It’s as if he spent all of his time proving how precise his technique could be, and forgot that a beautiful fabric, color, or embroidery can do a lot of the work. That changed with the Fall 2011 collection. The clothes had a new passion to them, a new kind of imperfect, unbridled glamour and romance. That first look, the red faille dress modeled by Karlie Kloss, will be seared in my memory forever. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever seen—the way it falls off the shoulder.”
When she is asked the same question, Robin Givhan, Special Correspondent of Style and Culture for Newsweek’s The Daily Beast, agrees: “When I think of the 2009 collection, the word ‘heavy’ comes to mind. I remember thinking that it showed a lot of technical expertise and maturity, but I thought the pieces themselves looked rather heavy and a bit unwieldy. Since then, I think a lightness has become more apparent. I think his clothes have more movement, finesse, and a pleasant balance between sophistication and sexiness. I still recall that red dress—the first look, I believe—from Fall 2011. It was a short dress with a full skirt and cinched waist and looked like it was in the midst of tumbling off the shoulders. It was seductive, but reserved. And the technical skill required to create the illusion of déshabillé is considerable.”
Was the preeminence of embroidery and embellishment in this fall collection necessary? “I think all designers,” Ms. Givhan notes, “if they are smart, were looking for a way to assure the customer that their clothes were worth the money. Prabal is not a big brand name. So I do think that he had to rely on good, old-fashioned skill and creativity. I’ll go back to that red dress. The expertise required making that dress is not something that could be easily duplicated. It was a signature dress without being a cliché. But it could also become a classic in a woman’s wardrobe.”
Ms. Moore harmonizes: “It was necessary for him to up the ornamentation—to compete with the more established European designers that luxury customers already turn to for evening clothes.”
Back in Gurung’s studio, we shift into interview mode, and speak about his young, but prosperous, career.
What was it like to start a collection in the midst of a deep recession?
I can say that starting any business is not easy, particularly a fashion business where you have to have a lot of resources to buy fabrics, to produce the clothes, and ship to stores before any money is coming in. But I think that you have to have a very precise vision and products that consumers will want. I was very lucky to have so many people helping when I started. And, without a doubt, being here at the CFDA Incubator program for the past year-and-a-half has had tremendous effect on financing the business. [The CFDA Incubator program is a partnership between the CFDA and various related industries to provide low-cost design studio space, mentoring programs, and networking opportunities for 12 designers nominated by a select committee for a two-year period.]
How have your experiences working at Cynthia Rowley contributed to your work now?
While working at Cynthia, in design, the production manager position became available. I knew it would be a big undertaking, but I really wanted to expose myself to that side of the business, so I asked Cynthia if I could take on that role. She gave me the job and I cannot tell you how influential my time spent in production was. I threw myself into it all entirely and I am indebted to Cynthia for allowing me to do that.
And the time you spent at Bill Blass?
When I went in for my interview at Blass, I saw the workroom and knew that was where I needed to be. It was the closest there was to a Parisian atelier in New York. I saw the craft of the seamstresses who had been there for decades and the way they approached each garment and respected every minute detail of the clothing. That was the most beautiful thing to see. For me, it was a new level of appreciation for design. My hand will forever be influenced by my time at Blass.
You have started a few collaborations?
Yes, we worked with Nicholas Kirkwood for our shoes two seasons ago. And for the launch of the first resort collection, I worked on a music video with the rap artist Rye Rye who is from Baltimore. She has a large club following and was releasing a new single called ‘New Thing.’ The name of the song was perfect since it was the first resort collection. We worked together to make the video.
How did the collaboration come about?
It’s a music video where the fashion becomes part of the music and the visual. It’s not as if I was dressing her music video, but it’s really a collaborative process. The vivid colors of the resort collections work beautifully with the rhythm of the music and the manner of her dance movements.
I really like the video, but do you think it may be a surprising choice for your customers?
I think that idea of luxury today is always changing and we have to embrace new frontiers at every opportunity. It’s not like old world versus new world anymore, but maybe a little of both. It’s also a combination of different media—promoting fashion via music via the internet—and this can have tremendous impact on my collection and eventually sales.
The business of selling clothes is not concentrated with the clothes you see in the runway collections. The bread-and-butter of fashion now is in the pre-collections: resort and pre-fall now account for nearly 70 percent of any designer business. For me, it was a matter of time and financial resources to be able to make a sample collection and finance the production to the stores. I knew I had to be readied before launching resort.
Then you have to also do a pre-fall collection by year’s end?
What are the staples in the collection?
For sure, our perfect sheath, which is the bestseller, and our pencil skirt that can be worn with anything from a T-shirt to a light coat.
What about pants? Are pants one of the more difficult item to wear?
Pants are very tough for many reasons, although I am trying to make it a base of the collection. With a pair of pants, you have to coordinate the rest of the outfit, either with a blouse, a jacket, a sweater, or a coat. So a pair of pants is the most demanding item in anyone’s closet. I think pants also have a range that is specific to certain body types. I mean beyond size 8, pants are surely not the choice garment.
How do you think fashion has changed since you started in 2009?
Fashion’s spreading like wildfire on the internet and with cable shows like Project Runway. Fashion has reached a mass platform on an unprecedented level. It’s getting bigger season after season. So many people now know about the inside workings of the fashion world. There is also the rise of mass-market retailers like H&M and Zara that bring designer fashion to the mass scale. Do you know that even Jessica Simpson has a fashion empire? I mean, a really big fashion business that no one seems to really know about. And that’s what the digital age has been creating: mass fashion and creative fashion can both spread their influences. Phoebe Philo and Céline became massive merely hours after her first show in Paris in October 2009. Imagine that happening without the internet.
Has this digital age helped in the launch of your business?
I am a big fan of social media. It’s new technology that we should all embrace wholeheartedly.
I heard about your large number of Twitter followers!
I do think that, without a doubt, the online craze helped to spread the message with minimum outlay of expenses. In the old days, it was all about the reviews in the daily papers, and then the editorials in the monthly publications. Now, there is another way of reaching an audience and perhaps customers. But the internet is not just about publicity; it’s also great for business. Since Spring 2011, we have sold to Net-A-Porter and the business there has been growing. It’s not all about chatting and networking. It can be a base for selling merchandise as well. I mean, Net-A-Porter.com and Gilt.com are now huge retailers.
I never understood how customers buy designers online. I used to think that one can buy basics like T-shirts and jeans, but for anything expensive, isn’t worth a trip to the store? Do you think it’s because fashion has expanded so much that people in areas without retail access are comfortable enough to buy expensive clothes online?
Maybe these online stores are altering the way people shop and how fashion is consumed now. That’s a plus for the industry as a whole.
A recent search for Mr. Gurung’s clothes on Net-A-Porter.com showed that signature red dress for $3,200, along with other pieces like a ruffle silk-georgette blouse and a draped silk-georgette skirt. Holli Rogers, the Buying Director of Net-A-Porter.com, over the phone just before the start of the New York Fashion Week, says of Mr. Gurung’s talent, “We are always looking to discover the latest flock of emerging designers, and Prabal stood out for his confident use of color and feminine silhouettes, so we were very excited to be bringing this young talent to our customers around the world. We started with his Spring ’11 collection. We always buy what we consider to be our edit of the most relevant looks of the season. Historically, we have been able to help grow the business of young designers globally once we determine the reaction from our customers. Already we are offering more depth and more styles for Fall than we did for Spring.”
But who makes these online purchases of Mr. Gurung’s clothes? “His feminine dresses and statement separates have earned him a following from fashion editors to celebrities and our highest-spending clientele,” Ms. Rogers remarks. “His collections are very sophisticated, yet very fresh and flattering. He really reinvents eveningwear in a dramatic, yet wearable, way. We have found his detailed cocktail dresses are flying out the door, so she is someone with an active social calendar and a penchant for dressing to the nines.”
So, people aren’t gearing their online buys towards basics. “We always try to offer more special pieces from each designer,” says Ms. Rogers, “and so far our business with ornate cocktail dresses has been strong. We have ruffled georgette blouse for $800 to $3,200 for the draped silk faille dress. The lace-effect cocktail dress worn by SJP (Sarah Jessica Parker) sold out immediately.”
It’s not just SJP that’s sported the styles of Mr. Gurung, but Demi Moore, Thandie Newton, Oprah Winfrey, Zoe Saldana, and Hailee Steinfeld. And one very special Lady: “I’m always a bit curious about who buys some of these clothes that often seem to be intended for lives that most women do not lead,” says Ms. Robin Givhan. “I know Michelle Obama has bought them. I believe she wore a fuchsia gown of his to the first White House Correspondent’s dinner she attended. But one thing that is to Prabal’s credit is that he’s not designing for a starlet or a 20-something girl. He’s designing for women, and I think that allows him to speak to a breadth of customers, from the 20-something young woman who happens to be blessed with a trust fund to the 40- or 50-something woman with body confidence.”
Building a retail base is perhaps the most crucial to any fledging designers, more so for those who are praised by the fashion press. Barneys, Saks, Neiman Marcus, Ikram, Stanley Korshak, and Savannah are a few of Mr. Gurung’s current American accounts, while internationally, stores include 10 Corso Como, Seoul; Dover Street Market, London; and Harvey Nichols, Hong Kong.
“Fall was one of our absolute favorite shows and the collection really has a certain sensuality to it,” says Daniella Vitale, the Executive VP and Chief Merchant at Barneys New York. “I think the collection has a broad range that embraces all women. He really respects a woman’s body and this makes the collection so empowering. We believe he is on his way to become a fashion leader. Our buy reflects a wonderful start for Prabal at Barneys. We have sold some of the silk tops and dresses. The prices range from around $750 to $6000 for an embellished cocktail dress.”
Robin Givhan thinks that Mr. Gurung fits in nicely with the elites of New York design. “Prabal is definitely in that group of designers, from Oscar de la Renta to Jason Wu, who dress the so-called uptown woman. But he is not as traditional as de la Renta and, I think, he isn’t as precious as Wu. There’s something a bit edgier and sexier about Prabal’s work that helps to distinguish him. But I do think one of his biggest challenges is to stand out from that pack. He doesn’t have the distinctive architectural style of Narciso Rodriguez or Proenza Schouler. And he’s not a mix-master of popular culture like Marc Jacobs. He’s still looking for his niche. But for me, he’s a New York-based designer whose career I want to watch unfold. His skill is undeniable even if his point-of-view remains a bit fuzzy.”
Booth Moore agrees. “He has the potential to be the next Oscar de la Renta,” she says, “as long as he continues to make pretty, ultra-luxurious evening clothes and sportswear.”
Mr. Gurung takes me to his production office across the hallway. There, four workers are sewing different pieces of dresses. Bins of fabric rolls and various swatches lay on top of each other on a large table. Near the front door is a rack of clothes all wrapped in plastics—production pieces readied for shipment. “At the moment, everything is being made in New York,” Mr. Gurung tells me. “The fabrics come from various places including some from the factories that I used to work with at Bill Blass. I will start to include more knitwear in the future. For the most part [knitwear must be made in Italy], but I have found several places in New Jersey that can make serious quality knits.
“I hope that, years from now, there will be a page or two on me in the fashion compendiums,” Mr. Gurung continues. When he mentions the erotic work of photographer Araki as the spirit of his Spring 2012, it is clear that he understands the need to infuse his collection with a little bit of romance and emotion—finding his own narratives—to evolve his young collection forward and away from the perfectionist clothing he currently crafts. A mounting, dynamic vision, with Mr. Gurung’s deft mindfulness to craft, are surely key ingredients to potentially cement his position in the austere fashion compendiums which he admires.