The Man with Grit

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  • Prabal Gurung

  • Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge during her trip to Singapore

  • Emily Ratajkowski at the Met Gala

  • Michelle Obama at the 2010 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner

His shows are one of our favourite stops at New York Fashion Week. His clients are Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton, to name a few. Singapore-born, Nepal- raised, Prabal Gurung has the same drive and heart he had as when he came to New York 16 years ago. Shweta Bhatia speaks to the designer as he displays his passion and supreme clarity of vision

Your journey began when you arrived in Delhi and did a brief hotel management course, after which you pivoted into fashion. Did you ever know then that you would become this designer extraordinaire?

I knew very early on in my life that I wanted to do something in design but I didn’t really know that it could lead to a career. Fortunately, I come from a family that supports the creative mind and encouraged me. I used to see the work of great designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel and many more. I absolutely loved their creativity, but living so far away in Nepal, this dream seemed so far fetched. When I went to India and came across designers like Rohit Bal and Manish Arora, it was then that I realised my dream could be a possibility. Who I am today has a lot to do with growing up in India. When I worked with Manish Arora, that’s when I felt that I should truly give myself the opportunity to go to the fashion capital of the world. In hindsight, when I look back, did I know that this is where I will be? No. But I knew that I had to give myself the opportunity to at least try.

How has the journey been so far?

It’s been nothing short of exciting! It has been the most enthralling, unnerving and challenging journey. When I landed in New York, I finally felt alive. It’s been 16 years living here now and that feeling has not changed. It’s had its highs and lows, of epic proportions, but that’s what has made it a great experience.

How has that experience over the years changed your working process? Anything you do differently now?

When I was working with other designers, I was just another professional employee who’d clock in, finish my work and clock out. But when you start on your own, your whole perception of work changes.When you have your own business to run, you don’t have the luxury to say, ‘Oh I’m tired. I’ll just take care of it tomorrow’. Everything has to be addressed immediately. Over the years, I think, I’ve become very precise and certain about what I want. What has changed is that I have learnt to manage time extremely efficiently and also, I’ve learnt to now leave work with compassion rather than arrogance, which has been one of the most important lessons. Also, being more focused and disciplined has taught me to lead a simpler life.

What was the turning point in your career?

The turning point in my career, when I started out, had to be when I dressed the First Lady, Michelle Obama and then the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton. I had worked with some fabulous celebrities before that, but dressing these two put me on the world map. I went from ‘one of the designers’ to ‘who is that designer?’. Professionally, it was a turning point but personally I realised that my success was not mine alone. I remember calling my mother and telling her about my big moment and she told me, ‘Prabal, you’re no longer just a designer. You’re going to represent the people of Nepal and the world around you.” That made me realise that along with my compassion for my work, I was now in a place where I could take additional responsibility for the society. So, in 2011, I started my foundation, ‘Shiksha’, which focuses on education for the underprivileged in Nepal.

You’re very active on social media. Tell us something about that.

At the end of the day, I’m an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance.I truly believed in my passion and my dream and it all came true. But, at the end of the day, I’m just human. I speak to my mother every morning before I leave for work. I followed my dreams and I ended up here and the fact that I’m able to live my dream is something I want to be able to share with people. Often people think that dreams are farfetched. The message I want to give is that people make their own destiny. I want to display the joy that I experience when I make clothes, when I go for fittings, fabric selection, meet exciting people and so much more. In Nepal and India, you will see these prayer flags put up everywhere. It is believed that every time the wind blows, the prayers spread around. That’s what I want to do with my social media. With my journey, I show that every dream is possible with hard work and perseverance. Anyone who knows my history will see how one can really have the life one has hoped for. It also gives me full control with the message I want to put across, which is that you need to aim for the stars but keep your feet firmly on the ground.

So you’re sitting on your drawing board planning for the next season. What is the first thing you think about?

It could be anything. My recent travels, a book that I read, a recent event that took place in the world, a song or a movie. But it is always an emotion that is triggered in me. I design as per my emotion at that particular time. It is a little bit of challenge as I’m bringing out what I feel instinctively. Fashion is not only about the clothes. It is a conversation starter. Every piece has a story and the story needs to be told properly.

Now that you work with such a big team to help interpret your emotion, do you ever face any differences professionally?

Yes, absolutely! I’m a person who is not afraid of constant confrontation. I truly believe that I’ve created an office environment that is very democratic. I welcome challenging ideas, which could probably be the need of the hour. The idea is that you’re allowed to agree or disagree if there is a reason for it. If anything, I have a problem if everyone says yes to me for everything.

You said that every outfit has a history. Is there any particular era that inspires you with your stories?

I do look at the previous eras and think about how beautiful they were. But that doesn’t carry me away. I feel that the era I’m in right now is the one I’m most excited about. What I love is that, today, a woman walking a red carpet can wear a suit, a dress or even shorts. How wonderful is that!

Tell us about your Fall collection.

My latest collection has been inspired by Lord Byron’s poem, ‘She Walks in Beauty’. It’s about how she takes that journey while surrounded by natures best.

Any plans to open your stand alone store in Dubai?

I would love to. If I get the right partner who could take my vision forward, I would really consider it.

What advice do you have for budding designers who aim to be like you?

This job does come with its perks of being famous and meeting people. But if being famous is the only thing you want, then it will never work. You need to work hard, have grit and believe strongly in your dream. Have the right vision and the right clarity and it will take you where you want to be.