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In an elegant salon at Paris’ Ritz Hotel during couture week’s haute jewelry presentations, New York designer Prabal Gurung isn’t about to let anyone forget one of his most high-profile moments of 2018: That’s why the center of the space is dominated by a mannequin wearing a pearl-embellished dress with opulent train and matching headpiece, a look originally seen on Diane Kruger at May’s Met Gala.
“It took months,” Gurung says of creating the custom design, from hand-dyeing the dress and train to achieve the perfect shade of “Virgin Mary blue” (an homage to the Met’s “Heavenly Bodies” theme) to the intricate hand embroidery of pearls and beading.
Kruger ranked among the night’s most talked-about attendees; the moment also created an easy pivot to discussion of the designer’s just-released bespoke collection — dubbed Atelier Prabal Gurung, timed to the 10th anniversary of his label — as well as his role as creative director for Japanese jewelry brand Tasaki, which sponsored his Met Gala table.
“The women who were our guests that night represented every ideal of beauty, in race, size, age — we had Diane Kruger, Ashley Graham, Gabrielle Union, Ming Xi, Hailee Steinfeld — and that’s the world I want to work in,” Gurung says. “I like the idea that, even if you don’t want to be political, you still can be visually active about how you change the perception of beauty. That’s always been the goal for my own brand, and that’s where I’m moving Tasaki as well.”
Gurung signed on as Tasaki’s creative director last September, and he quickly put the pearl-centric jewels on his eponymous runway — Gigi Hadid opened his Spring 2018 show in a blazer, shorts and tank top paired with his Cascade earrings in 18k white gold, diamonds and Akoya and South Sea pearls. “When it comes to fine jewelry, it’s always presented [with] a strapless evening gown,” Gurung reasons. “But with Gigi, I wanted to offer an idea of how girls like to wear jewelry. As creative people, the best thing designers can do is offer options and not dictate.”
He’s also done a deep dive into pearl research, traveling to Kobe and Nagasaki, both home to Tasaki’s pearl farms. “I was completely blown away by it,” Gurung says. “Just to see the level of work that goes into one pearl was so inspiring. In jewelry it’s as close as you can get to a couture house.”
During one of those trips, Gurung spied the ropes integral to the process — they suspend the nets or cages containing the oysters or other bivalves used to produce pearls, allowing them to both gain nutrients and be harvested with equal ease. The sight inspired the twisted, pearl-splashed drops on those Cascade earrings worn by Hadid, as well as a similar two-tone pair in 18k white and rose gold, the latter a warm, proprietary hue that Tasaki calls Sakura gold. “As I was walking around the pearl farm, these ropes were lying on the ground, sort of rotten and moldy, but so beautiful,” Gurung remembers.
There’s an undeniable modernity about Gurung’s initial pieces for Tasaki, and that’s very much by design, he says. “It’s important for a historical brand like Tasaki to be known for excellence in craftsmanship, but also to be talking to the modern girl,” he says. “Pearls come from an idea of historic lineage — your grandmother giving you a strand of pearls, for example. But I wanted to take those references and bring them into a very modern sensibility.”
Gurung has accomplished that idea partly through graphic, surrealist-driven designs: his Aurora necklace is an asymmetrical twist of 18k white gold, accented with diamonds and the ombre effect of light-to-dark sapphires that ends with one hefty South Sea pearl. He’s also populated the collection with pieces that rank high in every stylish woman’s jewelry wardrobe, from ear cuffs and multi-finger rings to the on-trend hand cuff designed to be worn between the fingers and wrist. “My goal is to bring the jewelry to the ready to wear, and the ready to wear to the jewelry,” he says.
Amid the haute-couture and high-jewelry presentations taking place in Paris this week, Gurung also was showcasing his designs in the rarefied world of haute joaillerie, where each house strives to offer the ne plus ultra in handcraft, design and impressively sized stones. “Ritz Paris by Tasaki” is inspired, Gurung says, by the gardens found within and around the legendary hotel. “Floral is a recurring theme in my own collection — there’s nothing more feminine and yet more powerful than a rose,” Gurung says.
High-jewelry pieces include a “Jardin de Rose” necklace designed as a single stem that wraps around the throat, crafted of varying shades of emeralds and alexandrite set in white gold, with the rosebud represented as a large, shimmering black opal. The “Lueur du Jour,” or “Light of Day,” grouping includes an asymmetrical cuff rendered in white gold and diamonds and a lengthy necklace likewise embellished with rosebuds crafted of pear-cut white diamonds. As Gurung hopes, the pieces don’t seem formal or fussy. “I like the idea that a woman would wear any one of these with a white shirt and black pants and feel effortless and chic,” he says.
As he ramps up ideas for increasing Tasaki’s brand awareness in the U.S. and elsewhere — he hints that the fall ad campaign will further his ideas of beauty inclusivity — Gurung says he’s also learning lessons that benefit both his own business and his psyche. “In the fast-paced world of ready-to-wear that we live in, the beauty of designing a fine-jewelry line is simply time,” he says. “With the level of craftsmanship and the meticulous details comes the need for patience. I’ve always know about that aspect — when I worked at Bill Blass, we used to appreciate the time that was needed — but it’s an idea that’s disappearing. In our crazy, sped-up world, the biggest luxury is time.”
So not unlike an oyster and its pearl, don’t expect Gurung to rush his work. “I’ve always believed in slow and steady growth — I’ve grown my brand on my own, without any outside investors,” he says. “I’ve made a conscious decision to pace everything in my own way. And it’s working.”
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Taraji P. Henson