It was a dreary late Saturday morning in New York, but Prabal Gurung’s garment district studio — where the designer was conducting fittings for the next day’s show — was bursting with vibrant hues and textures. Design assistants buzzed around as models arrived one after another, each to be fitted into their look for Sunday’s show. But Gurung himself was calm and upbeat. “I’d say, it’s never been that frantic. We plan in advance,” he said, noting that the season before was an exception: “Certain things didn’t show up — embroideries from India that didn’t make it into the show at all, so we had to think quickly.”
The following night’s runway presentation showcased a collection largely inspired by the Mosuo, a small matriarchal tribe living in parts of China near Tibet. “What I really found fascinating — especially in today’s time when we’re talking about solidarity and women coming together — is that in parts of the world, it’s been an existing part of life that we don’t even think about,” Gurung said, pointing to a nearby wall scattered with images of Mosuo women swathed in layers of bright fabrics, cinched and secured with thick belts.
Gurung, who grew up in Nepal, had known of the Mosuo for some time. “When I started working on the fall collection, they just spoke to me,” he said. “What I really loved was the absolute celebration of the femininity and empowerment. There is no suppression — it’s full on,” he said, referring to their customary colours and textures.
Gurung’s own collection is full on, too. And a striking contrast to the designer’s all-black gowns worn by Kerry Washington and Issa Rae at the Golden Globes in January, in solidarity with the recently formed Time’s Up movement. “When I see women wearing all black, I respect that solidarity. But I also don’t ever want to forget the power of colour. It can be quite impactful,” he said.
As this week marks the first fashion season in the wake of the #MeToo movement, there’s been much speculation over how designers would address the current climate. But for Gurung, feminism and female empowerment have always been core ideas since before the launch of his brand in 2009.
Raised by a single mother, and surrounded by strong female figures throughout this life, Gurung credits his upbringing and a group of close girlfriends for how he’s always designed with empowered women on his mind. His fall 2013 collection, for example, drew inspiration from Ukraine’s Asgarda, a modern-day tribe of female warriors. On Saturday, he wore a sweatshirt printed with the phrase “Love is the resistance,” similar to the T-shirts bearing feminist slogans worn down the runway for his finale last season. This time around, the models would hold white roses, a gesture to invoke the act of listening as a necessary counterpart to vocal declarations. “Everyone’s been asking if I’m going to do another T-shirt,” Gurung said. “You know, I’ve already done it. Especially this time around, especially as a man, my job is to listen. If any man or men are to learn anything from this, it is to really listen to women. That’s it.”
It is now Sunday evening at Spring Studios in TriBeCa. As frenzied hair and makeup preparations take place upstairs, Gurung is seated in the main gallery where the show will take place, silently watching the sand artist Joe Mangrum, create the show’s only set design: three intricately detailed “sand paintings” sprawled across the runway floor. “It’s about the idea of impermanence, which I’m really fascinated by,” the designer says. “Buddhist monks spend hours and days creating something like this, and once it’s done, they blow it away. It’s this idea of not holding onto anything,” he said, explaining that the models would walk through the sand for the show-ending finale.
Then there are those things one does hold onto. A year from now, Gurung will celebrate his company’s 10-year anniversary. “Not a single day goes by when I’m not grateful for it,” he said. Across the room, a wall of windows revealed a twinkling skyline of the city’s West Side, and in less than an hour the gallery would fill with an audience that included Cardi B, Whoopi Goldberg and #MeToo founder Tarana Burke. “Ten years is going to be an emotional one for me. All this — Gigi opening, Bella closing, Ashley Graham … all the people who are here,” he said, looking around. “All I wanted to become was a designer, and this is all bonus.”
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