Prabal Gurung has become a household name in most of the planet, and yet ironically remains fairly unknown in Nepal. After starting his own fashion label titled Prabal Gurung, Prabal is on his dizzying way to dress some of the most famous people in the world. Recently, Michelle Obama was seen wearing his black and white brush painted rose silk twill gazar hand draped off-the-shoulder dress. She had a radiant smile, and looked softer and relaxed than she usually did in her tightly tailored outfits. Demi Moore, actress, has become a big fan and tweeted about Prabal on Twitter, sending the first wave of news about this new designer across the planet. Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour, who was immortalized for her excruciatingly high standards in the movie, ”The Devil Wears Prada,” recently sat front row of Gurung’s show during New York Fashion Week, giving him the kiss of approval.
And yet, Prabal remains yet to be known to his own home country. Partially, its because the fashion industry is fledgling in Nepal, and we have not yet understood the importance of fashion. For example, after Michelle Obama wore Prabal Gurung, the Indian press went crazy, but there was very little press from Nepal. Unfortunately, Nepal is insular when it comes to understanding new things. Nepal has yet to learn how to celebrate our successes.
And Prabal Gurung is surely one of Nepal’s greatest success. Nepal may appear to forget Prabal, but Prabal never forgets Nepal. Not too long ago, Prabal was not yet a household name in the world of celebrities—he was just a student at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Admittedly, Prabal being Prabal, he was never “just” anything—even as a student he had the look of someone marked for greatness. A certain quality made him stand out from the hundreds of other students who attended the same institution.
In 2001, Parsons The New School for Design faculty asked Prabal not to compete for the Best Designer Competition. Instead Prabal was asked to open the show with 15 pieces of his own work. I was one of five other Nepali friends he had invited to come to the show. We were wowed by the incredible dresses he put up during this event.
At the end, hundreds of people swarmed around Prabal. We were about to sneak out, convinced that he was too busy to meet us, as we headed to the door, Prabal came running out to us. “Hey!” he said, “Where are you going without meeting me?” He sounded clearly hurt. I always think about this moment as a reminder that even when Prabal is at his busiest (note that this must have been the moment when Cynthia Rowley offered him a job), he always finds time for his Nepali friends.
Prabal’s confidence and drive comes, I am certain, from his background—an extraordinarily supportive mother and father, and two siblings who form an unseen trio behind this phenomena. Prabal’s mother has always been a pillar of strength, pushing him to new heights. Although Prabal is the youngest and gets all the attention, behind him stand two other extraordinary siblings. The trio has never failed to impress me with how well they are able to articulate their thoughts and feelings, and also their incredible flow with communicating ideas. The three call each other every week on the phone, and talk with each other to support life choices, projects and ideas.
His sister Kumudini tells me she used to protect her brothers from harassment when they went to school—it must have been comforting to have a sister who looked out for you and protected you at that young age. And the calm and super-thoughtful Pravesh Gurung, who now works with director Sanjay Leela Banshali, has surely influenced the gregarious younger Prabal with listening skills that come in handy when dealing with celebrities.
In real life, Prabal is a charming and witty man who loves to have fun. In Nepali lingo, he would be known as a “howday” guy. So how did this man achieve the level of greatness in such a competitive industry? I think behind the informal, fun-loving energy is the serious drive to achieve and excel that was instilled in him at a young age. More fundamentally, even in his darkest days—and I have seen those dark days when windows were closed and there was a lot of cigarette smoke inside the rooms—Prabal never gave up. He also never gave up his ties to his identity. A friend of ours recounts the moment when Prabal, she and I went to see “Kabhi Khusi, Kabhi Gham” at the Eagle Theatre in Queens. She started to cry from the emotional story. Wiping away tears, she looked at me—I was crying. So was Prabal.
Prabal, being a fashion industry celebrity even as a student, rarely put a foot out of Manhattan, the central hub of New York. But one day he got a real craving for noodles he used to eat as a child. He begged me to buy a box for him and bring it over to his house. Seeing the chance to have him come visit my downscaled neighborhood, I refused. So finally after much persuasion Prabal Gurung stepped out of the subway in a maroon outfit, a beret jauntily perched on his head. He made his way straight to the supermarket, bought a giant box of noodles that he used to eat as a child, then made his way immediately back down into the subway again. Prabal had better things to do than hang out in Queens. The ability to be moved by Bollywood, the ability to sing and have fun, and the memory that never forgets childhood noodles—the ability, in short, not to forget one’s history, is what takes people to great heights.
Prabal told me recently he’d been nominated for the 2010 CFDA Swarovski Womenswear Award, the equivalent of the Oscars for the fashion world. The 2010 will take place on June 7th at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. I never doubted Prabal’s word—I have no doubt that time around also he will get it.
Sushma Joshi is a writer who writes the Global and the Local op-ed in the Kathmandu Post.