Prabal Gurung by Prabal Gurung

Singapore-born Nepali American designer Prabal Gurung has brought out a pictorial autobiography of his life and career in a hefty coffee table book that lets us understand his passion.

Because it is a book by and of Prabal Gurung, the volume is itself a work of art. Beautifully printed, elegantly designed, and with sparse text that allows us to understand his approach to life: tolerance, compassion, style, originality, activism, and a kinship to the land of his forebears.

The very first two-page spread of fold upon fold of Himalayan ridges fading into lighter and lighter shades of blue right up to the horizon has a dedication: ‘To my mother, Durga Rana, who always made sure I had the correct shade of lipstick.’

Gurung expresses his innate feminism and feminity with a fresh style that combines the exotic east with the practical couture of the west. It is this iconic blend that has made Prabal Gurung a much sought after luxury brand in the United States. Indeed, Gurung describes his designs as ‘feminity with a bite ... she wants to look feminine but doesn’t want to look over girly’.

Many celebrities have donned Prabal Gurung, including Michelle Obama when she was First Lady, Oprah Winfrey who Prabal says has always been his personal hero, the actress Jennifer Lawrence, and many others.

Prabal Gurung’s activism goes beyond feminism. He has spoken against social injustice and exclusion, and has been a campaigner against bullying. He talks about this in a conversation with Hanya Yanagihara, the editor of T Magazine at the beginning of the book.

‘In Nepal ... I went to an all-boys’ Catholic school, and that’s where I realised how different I was – because I was constantly told I was different. I was bullied constantly. Sketching became a way to find some peace.’

Gurung remembers his American teacher in Kathmandu who wore a beautiful cotton dress. ‘I remember I was completely transfixed, transformed,’ he says.

In his twenties, Prabal Gurung went to New York and the freedoms there made him come out about being gay for the first time. He used to go to gay bars, and felt like a misfit because he did not fit into the perception of a muscular white gay. Gurung remembers telling himself: ‘The world hasn’t caught up to my worth ... damn I’m beautiful.’

Gurung has set up a foundation that is now helping more than 300 Nepali children, and helping female prisoners. Asked about his future plans, he says he wants to open an art museum in which Nepali artists will get global exposure.

In Spring 2015, inspired by a trek in Nepal Prabal Gurung showcased new designed that used Nepali motifs with androgynous American sportswear that was a hit. But then tragedy struck, Nepal was hit by an earthquake that killed 9,000 people. Feeling helpless so far away, Gurung organised a fundraiser show in New York dedicated to the land of his mother. He writes about that show: 'My heritage is my identity, and I want to share a piece of myself with our community... the devastating experience was a rebirth, a shedding of a layer to step into anew role, pacing the way for even greater advocacy, social responsibility and activism.'

The book starts with the designs from his 2009 show at the FLAG Art Foundation in New York which launched Prabal Gurung’s career and his ‘real American dream’. Soon, he was being noticed by the fashion industry and designed the contoured red dress that Michelle Obama wore to the White House Correspondents’ dinner.

The book has a close up of the floral prints on the fabric of the dress that the duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton wore in Singapore in 2012. We have blown up images of Kirsten Stewart, Deepika Padukone, Gigi Hadid and many other beautiful people.

Gurung designed Kate Perry’s gown at the last Hillary Clinton rally during the 2016 presidential election with sequined letters down the back that read ‘I’m with Madam President’. The designer admits feeling ‘devastated’ following the elections, and adds in the caption: ‘Looking back, I try to believe that it has only made some of us stronger, and more courageous, more active citizens.’

One of Prabal Gurung’s avid admirers is the actress Sarah Jessica Parker. She writes in her foreword: ‘Prabal is a social activist. He has used his voice for good in the world – speaking out on diversity, women’s rights, and body positivity—and embedded meaning into each of his pieces. He has created not just any brand, but a luxury brand with a soul.’

Kunda Dixit

Prabal Gurung

by Prabal Gurung

Abrams, New York 2019

$75      272 pages

Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).

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