Celebrating his 10th anniversary this season, Prabal Gurung put forth an essential and timely question: ‘Who gets to be an American?’
A Nepalese immigrant, Gurung is one of those few established designers who has bravely made his political position known from the beginning, more ardently since President Trump’s election. For this collection, the designer found his drive and inspiration in American fashion history, exploring what garments define it and how, in turn, it has defined the global market.
On the runway, this translated to a progression through eras (and his own take on it all) moving from casual wear – most notably dresses and denim – to more formal eveningwear. For the finale, the evening’s showstopper and quintessentially ‘Instagramable’ moment, all the models, like pageant contestants, emerged wearing silk sashes printed with the same question: Who gets to be an American?
Photo by Alessandro Garofalo for NOWFASHION
We caught up with Gurung after the show, and he kindly took some time to speak to us about what inspired the collection, why he continues to be optimistic despite the times we live in, and why America can still be great.
This collection feels like a succinct trip through time, moving through American fashion, but also maybe your progression as a designer. Tell us a bit about what this collection means to you.
I came to America 20 years ago as an immigrant. I’d travelled all over the world but I had never come here, and I decided to come because I had heard of the “American Dream,” about the possibilities and the opportunities. While a kid back in Nepal, all I wanted to do was to find a job; my own dream was to work in fashion. So I came to America and moved here. I then started my brand after a decade of being here and eventually became an American citizen. That happened just a few years ago. From having a dream to having a chance to fulfill it, and now here I stand telling you my story.
Was there a specific moment when the idea for this collection came to you?
Yes, it’s an idea that came to me after a business meeting. During this meeting we were discussing what it meant to be American, what America is. To me, it is a collage and a sum of all things, ideas, and people. It’s about diversity and a richness of cultures. That’s what I’ve always believed; that is the reason I came here. A person at this meeting then asked me, “How can you define America? You don’t look American.” All of us in that room knew what he meant….
That must have been an intense moment. How did it go?
I focused on not getting angry, and this person and I had a deeper conversation about it. The thing is, there are many others who think and feel like this person did. If you don’t look a certain way, everyone is an outsider. In the end, the bottom line of the conversation basically led to the question: “Who gets to be an American?” I’ve been here for decades; I contributed a business; I pay my taxes; I produce the majority of my pieces in New York; and still it feels like it’s not enough. So with this collection, I wanted to basically express the hope and optimism that I came for.
Does the optimism that drove you to migrate to America feel the same today?
Look, in these current divisive times we all know what the reality and the facts are, you know? I speak about it. We need to speak about it! At the same time, I have to remind myself that what is happening socio-politically in this country right now doesn’t necessarily represent it; it doesn’t truly represent the majority of America…
You spend a lot of time traveling. Does your time around the US confirm this sentiment?
I do travel a lot. I meet people from different parts of the country, and the truth is that there are plenty of them who are optimistic. What is happening seems to represent just a small section of America, which unfortunately is grossly misinformed. The truth is, we immigrants are not dangerous people, we contribute to the culture, we celebrate this culture, and we pay our dues. We are American citizens, and I wish to continue seeing that through an optimistic lens.
Is this ultimately what the collection embodies and stands for then?
Yes, the collection represents that feeling. It’s an homage to who we are and what America is. So, for instance, the show opened up with denim, an American classic. The flowers, too, were there as a classic nod, especially the roses which are the national flower of the United States. And then there was the tie-dye, which as a Nepalese kid I used to notice on American hippies who used to come during that time.
So, this is not just a collage about America, but also what you imagined it was like before you came?
Absolutely, the collection is an expression of both. It’s the sum of memories of my childhood, of what I associated with America, of my experience, and then my living it. America as an idea, for immigrants, is generally a collage of what we imagined it to be, and how we then live it. The dresses and gowns, for example, are an American institution and I learned that once I got here. The charities, the galas… I kind of wanted to take that and express it through my work. Most of the collection is American pragmatism and sportswear mixed with these fantasies that I formed while looking at the work from Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. At the end of the show as well, when you see the various sashes for instance, it’s referencing beauty pageants, which to me is such an American institution. But as someone who has another point of view, who grew up somewhere else, I also wanted to question that as a tradition because these pageants are about a specific type of woman, who looks a certain way. I feel like that’s a bad idea and wanted to make the statement that this sash can belong to every woman, and everyone. In a way, that was meant to symbolize the question, ‘who gets to be American?’
So, who gets to be American?
Honestly, it’s not for me to say. I make clothes to express myself, and my intention is to start a dialog. It’s not for me to tell someone else who gets to be American, it’s about opening the conversation.