Interviews | Society | South Asia

Prabal Gurung on Fashion, Nepal, and Influence

The world-famous fashion designer reflects on his life and work.

By Arun Budhathoki for
Prabal Gurung on Fashion, Nepal, and Influence
Credit: Prabal Gurung

Prabal Gurung is a world-famous Nepalese-American fashion designer who is known for his designs and personal brand. The Diplomat’s Arun Budathoki spoke to Gurung about his personal and professional journey and what he expects in the global fashion industry.

The Diplomat: How did your upbringing in Kathmandu play a role in your journey as a global icon?

Prabal Gurung: I always say that if you haven’t been to Nepal, or India too, there is a part of your brain that isn’t working. You just don’t see color, or natural beauty in the same way. Growing up in Nepal instilled in me a reverence for color, which has since been applied literally to my designs, but also metaphorically it has influenced my worldview that we are “stronger in color,” meaning the world is a more beautiful place when it is diverse. Living in Nepal and India, where poverty was in such close proximity yet so was grace and gratitude amongst a majority of the people there, it teaches you humility and appreciation.

You often talk about how your mother singlehandedly raised you and your siblings and it really had a major impact on you getting interested in fashion. Can you tell us about it?

Being raised by a single mother taught me so many important lessons. It was important to her to raise us to read, to be curious and ask important questions, to be ambitious but kind, and to not be a burden on this earth, meaning to do something positive to impact the planet. Yes, she also played a pivotal role in my interest in fashion as a child. I would watch her get ready to go out, and was so fascinated watching her transformation. I always wanted to dress empowered women like her, and make them feel beautiful in that intimate moment.

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What was the journey to America like? Not many achieve the American dream — how difficult or easy was it for you?

I came to America not knowing anyone, driven by passion and quite frankly, inspired by Oprah Winfrey, who I had seen on the television back home talking about living your dreams. I arrived in New York City and immediately felt like I was home. Of course, there have been many challenges, such as adjusting to the culture, and learning to get used to my race. That said, anything worthy of achieving takes hard work and grit and my American Dream was well worth it!

What is fashion to you? How do you analyze the fashion industry of Nepal? 

Fashion is an art form that allows you to express yourself in a deeply personal way. It can also transform you and uplift you. I have always been inspired in designs by the fashion of Nepal: the colors, draping, and the sarees. My signature cutout dress is an evolution of a saree, as is the cascade draping you may find in some of our most popular styles.

After the 2015 earthquake, you raised $1 million to help people of Nepal and also set up Shikshya Foundation Nepal in 2011 along with your siblings and friends — what pushed you to help others?

I truly feel that there is no point to all my successes if I am not able to use my platform to help others. I have so many friends and family who live in Nepal and that community means so much to me as it shaped such a big part of my identity. There was no other option but to help. Through my foundation I have been able to set up education opportunities for children, orphans, and now female prisoners. We have been able to touch so many lives through that work. It brings me immense pride.

Gloria Steinem had a major influence in you. Who else influenced you and in what ways?

My mother will always be my greatest inspiration. I am also influenced by women like Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Patti Smith, and Greta Thunberg. The commonality between them all I supposed is that I am inspired by empowered and fiercely intelligent women.

Can you tell us about your coffee table book? How do you view the current and future status of the fashion industry? You often talk about the lack of inclusivity in the fashion industry. What should be changed? 

My first coffee table book launched in November 2019 and is a chronicle of my first 10 years in business, essentially my American Dream come true. Since the inception of my brand, I have always made inclusivity and diversity an integral part of our ethos. I felt it was important to use my platform in this way, even when it was unpopular to speak out on these topics. Recently, fashion has begun to find its voice on these important social issues and make some very important strides. That said, there is still a long way for us all to go and I believe the next five years will be crucial in moving this conversation over the line for good. I plan to continue to be a part of driving this important global narrative in the fashion industry.

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You have designed clothes, dresses for famous people like Katy Perry, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and so on. How did you feel designing for such global icons? Can you tell us about your design collection, Americana? 

Still to this day, it feels surreal and like it happened to someone else. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to dress so many incredible women. My Spring 2020 collection entitled “Who gets to be American?” was an exploration of the American identity and who gets to claim that in today’s turbulent political climate. I created a collection that turned classic Americana style on its head, imbuing it with couture ideals and a global world view. As an immigrant, the message of this collection was very personal to me.

What is fashion designing to you as a designer and a human being? What message do you want to pass to your followers?

It was important for me since day one to create a luxury brand with a soul, which to me meant validating someone’s existence through your work. Showing them that they matter, that their existence matters. I want my work to allow my followers to feel seen, and to feel heard.

This interview has been edited and condensed.