It’s been a whirlwind sprint to the finish line of 2019 for New York-based designer Prabal Gurung. At New York Fashion Week in September, he presented a conversation-starting 10th-anniversary collection framed around the question, “Who gets to be American?”
In November, Abrams published a 272-page monograph, “Prabal Gurung: Style and Beauty With a Bite,” detailing a decade of his designs, stories and runway shows. The weighty tome is crammed with 300 photos charting his label’s evolution from the first major runway collection in fall 2009 to the spring 2019 collection shown earlier this year.
Along the way, he managed to get jewelry collections for Japanese brand Tasaki Atelier (for which he serves as creative director) in front of Hollywood stylists looking for baubles and bling to accessorize upcoming awards-show looks.
It was the book and jewelry launch that found Gurung alighting in L.A. in late October to host a star-studded, flower-filled dinner at the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood that bordered on the surreal.
During the affair, Laverne Cox spun like Wonder Woman midcostume change, clad in a black sequined dress, with her fluffy blond curls bouncing in the air and a cutout revealing her midriff. “Only for you, Prabal,” said the “Orange Is the New Black” actress to the designer of her flirty dress, as he filmed her on his phone in front of a fern wall bursting with tropical flowers.
In another vignette, actress Olivia Munn, who flew in from Detroit to attend the dinner and show solidarity for a fellow Asian American, chatted amiably with a reporter. “It’s so hard to break through in these places,” she said, dressed in a Gurung-designed bowling shirt and sarong skirt with $216,820 worth of Tasaki Atelier pearls, diamonds, sapphires and white gold sparkling on her wrist and ears.
Then there was Tommy Dorfman, recognized onscreen for Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” and offscreen for their gender-fluid fashion, who tied a satin bow around the neck of an azalea-hued caftan, accentuated by an $8,470 ear cuff with two giant pearls. “It’s really rare that you find a designer who’s willing to dress people who maybe present more masculine in their womenswear,” Dorfman said.
Resembling a Model United Nations in terms of appearances and accomplishments, other guests included singer Kim Petras, models Joan Smalls and Tao Okamoto, beauty guru Cassandra Grey and her DJ-girlfriend Samantha Ronson; Olympic ice dance bronze medalists Alex and Maia Shibutani; and actresses Lana Condor, Adria Arjona and Debby Ryan.
As for their host, a sky-blue suit enhanced Gurung’s compact build. One of his ears was adorned with a pearl and the other with a diamond, both from Tasaki.
“He represents the diversity of America and the beauty in that,” said Micah McDonald, who, along with styling partner Wayman Bannerman, has dressed clients such as Tessa Thompson and Regina King in Gurung’s gowns for various red-carpet appearances.
Born in Singapore, raised in Nepal and educated at New York’s Parsons School of Design, Gurung has a voice inflected with a cosmopolitan accent and Gen X slang. Along with his mother, Gurung’s friends have influenced the way he sees the world and designs clothes.
“I listen to their experience. I listen to their story. I listen to their validation or lack thereof,” he said the day after the party in the hotel’s Tower Bar. “It really makes me want to create a world, with my brand, with my own self, that is inviting, that is welcoming, that is inclusive.”
Gurung said the aim of his self-titled monograph was to give readers a glimpse of his colorful world and to feature “everyone who has touched my life and really helped me move it forward,” he said.
In the book, a collage highlights his Nepalese roots, composed of family portraits and snapshots of children aided by a foundation Gurung cofounded. There are sketches of custom designs, glam shots at the Met Gala and runway images of his major collections. He also shares stories about his muses and heroines, ranging from model Gigi Hadid to Oprah Winfrey, “who inspired me to move to America and live out my dreams after I first saw her on TV in Nepal,” he reveals in the book.
Actress Sarah Jessica Parker writes in the foreword about how Gurung created “a luxury brand with a soul.” As she puts it, “Prabal’s clothes, very simply, help you feel good about yourself, and they also bring joy.”
The $75 book is more than coffee-table decor. “It’s truly a manifestation of an immigrant’s dream,” Gurung said. “It is a story of hope for a lot of people who feel like their current reality may not allow them to dream a better reality for themselves.”
Gurung acknowledged that his outspoken advocacy for immigration, women’s rights, body positivity and other issues have turned off some fashion insiders.
But Arjona said society needs more people like Gurung. “Having different people from different ethnicities and different cultures express themselves artistically and show it to the world, I think, is really important,” she said. “It brings an emphasis of empathy.”
Cox added that clothes serve as political statements. “How is it made? Where is it made? Who makes it? And what are we saying?” she said. “Fashion is about telling stories.”
“I’m interested in storytelling,” Gurung said, “whether it happens through a runway or whether it happens through film or TV, whatever it is, books or anything.” To help him achieve that, his two talent agents from Creative Artists Agency also attended the Sunset Tower party. Gurung said he hopes to spend more time in L.A. When asked if he’d like to direct movies, as designer Tom Ford has, he took a sip of iced tea and paused for five seconds before answering.
“Possibly,” Gurung said. “I want to be able to bring my aesthetic, my point of view, my storytelling into everything that I touch and create the universe where, hopefully in 10 years, people can look at what I’ve created and be like, ‘Oh, he walked the road that was not the most populous.’”
For now, fashion remains his medium of choice. For his first two Tasaki Atelier collections, he was inspired by female Surrealist artists and underwater life. Tasaki Atelier also helped make jewelry for Gurung’s fashion shows. For his spring-summer 2020 collection that pondered “Who gets to be American?” he created $401,910 earrings with diamonds, rubies, green garnets and multicolored sapphires flaring like Fourth of July fireworks from big golden pearls.
Tasaki Atelier is sold in the U.S. through online retailer Farfetch. Tasaki representatives said they’re scouting locations for the brand’s first Stateside store, either in New York or L.A. Tasaki also works with Thai-American designer Thakoon Panichgul on its Collection Line, which is considered more accessible, with prices running between $1,000 and $20,000. In his role as the brand’s creative director, Gurung has oversight of the future boutique’s design.
Certainly, the jewelry is a harbinger of the retail concept. While Gurung was at the Tower Bar, stylist Law Roach inspected the gems in a suite on behalf of clients such as Ariana Grande and Zendaya. He was intrigued by the $58,180 earrings crafted from a cascade of yellow gold and pearls, which could be worn four different ways. “It’s expensive but feels fun [and] not too serious,” Roach said.
Whether it’s a bauble, dinner party or boutique, “I want to create a universe like that, where people feel it is aspirational but it is also inviting,” Gurung said. “It’s no longer saying, ‘You need to look a certain way to be welcomed here.’ All you need to do is you need to have intention, a good soul and a heart. That’s pretty much it from me, and you’re welcome to my world.”