How Prabal Gurung Became the Hottest New Name in Fashion
"Three and a half years ago, I was on unemployment," says the designer, whose clients include Zoe Saldana and Elizabeth Stewart.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On Sept. 8, red-hot a-list model Joan Smalls was getting made up by M.A.C.'s Charlotte Tilbury backstage at Chelsea’s Pier 57 to be the open- ing walker for Prabal Gurung’s spring 2013 show. Meanwhile, in the front row, fashionista-actress Kate Bosworth -- flanked by Bravo’s Andy Cohen, Girls’ Allison Williams and Hailee Steinfeld -- declared to reporters that Gurung is one of her favorite designers. In the week that followed the showing of Gurung’s 10th collection, Kate Middleton wore a year-old white-and-purple print dress of his for an event in Singapore, and Lady Gaga donned a black tulle Gurung gown with filigree cutwork, jet beads and onyx crystal to her perfume launch at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
Considering that "three and a half years ago, I was on unemployment," he says, Gurung's ascension to the ranks of America's red-carpet royalty has been swift by anyone's definition.
But his unemployment was many WWD covers, Barneys orders and stars-in-dresses ago, before Anne Hathaway stepped out in a breathtaking resort 2013 white Grecian gown to the July premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, nearly eclipsing the public debut of her waif haircut. Before Oprah wore him on the cover of December 2009's O. Before Steinfeld wore a white spring 2011 Prabal Gurung to the 2011 Golden Globes. And before Sarah Jessica Parker, Michelle Obama and Zoe Saldana -- who memorably wore his black cutout gown to this year's CFDA Awards -- discovered him. "He is a true artist," says Saldana, now a good friend. "I see his art, and I just believe in it. It really touches me." Now, Gurung will likely branch out to the Emmys and Oscars.
Gurung, who declines to give his age, is clearly one of New York's most creative designers of evening wear, known for his singular bold abstract prints on equally dramatic but always flattering shapes that bridge the divide between feminine and strong. He's big in New York -- possibly bigger in Hollywood -- but in Nepal, where he was raised, Gurung is gargantuan. When the designer goes home to Kathmandu, "Women cry when they meet me; they tell me, 'I'm your mother and you're my son,' " he explains with great pride.
Arriving in New York in 1999 after studying at New Delhi's National Institute of Fashion Technology and working as a freelance stylist, Gurung interned for Donna Karan. He attended Parsons, joined the team at Cynthia Rowley and became design director at Bill Blass in 2004. He launched his namesake collection in February 2009 (Gurung now also designs the Japanese line ICB). "Experts told me not to do it. But I simply had to," he says. "I thought, 'In case it doesn't work out, I can blame it on the recession!' "
It was a small collection, frugally produced in a free space with modeling agencies and hair and makeup people working for no pay. It was "guerrilla-style," says Gurung with a laugh. "We watched RuPaul's Drag Race to learn makeup tips." The way he tells it, the first hour, only assistant editors who couldn't pronounce his name (which rhymes with "trouble") came. "Then they started texting," he recalls. "The last hour, Bridget Foley of WWD and Cathy Horyn from The New York Times showed up. Two days later, my red dress with a Valentine bow on the shoulder was on the cover of WWD. That changed everything; everyone started calling. Then Zoe Saldana wore it to the Star Trek premiere in Germany."
Indeed, Gurung was on the backs of celebrities almost before the line hit stores -- one of the first times Hollywood stylists and actresses created a star even before New York got around to it. "Rachel Zoe and Brad Goreski saw the collection," explains Gurung, "and they pulled stuff for Demi Moore. Then Demi tweeted a photo, saying, 'This is a new designer to look out for -- Prabal Gurung.' " Rachel Weisz wore a dress from his first collection, creating a rare phenomenon where two major actresses wore a new designer's dresses right out of the gate.
After the stars, the stores came clamoring. Now Gurung's clothes are carried in Saks, Bergdorf's, Barneys and Neiman Marcus; at Brown's, Harvey Nicks and Dover Street in London; and in Paris, China, Korea and the Middle East. After Gurung's second collection, "They said, 'Make this for us,' " he says, "and I didn't have the money! So they forked it over, they believed in me so much." Sally Singer, then a top Vogue editor, recommended a dress to the first lady, and Mrs. Obama wore his red gown to the 2010 White House Correspondents' Dinner.
Outside of the fashion industry, Gurung's biggest supporters have been Hollywood stylists: Petra Flannery (Saldana's), Elizabeth Stewart and Zoe. Notes Stewart: "I have loved and supported Prabal's vision from the very beginning. It's selfish, really. I want my clients to have first dibs! There is a uniqueness and strength to his designs."
Another quick taker was fashion-savvy Parker. "She's a great supporter," recalls Gurung. "With actresses, I'm competing with Dior, Gucci, Chanel -- they offer advertising deals and other perks. I can't offer anything but clothes. So whenever they choose to wear me -- well, it is still a shock."
Ask the currently single designer who his CEO is, and he gets a little embarrassed. "One of these days, I'll hire one," he sighs. "I do almost everything myself. My work is my utmost relaxation. I just savor it every minute because it could be gone tomorrow. My time to rest will come."