NYFW: Prabal Gurung Poses the Question, "Who Gets to Be American?"

Prabal Gurung NYFW Main - Getty - H 2019
Mike Coppola/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows

For the 10-year anniversary show’s finale, models wore beauty pageant-like sashes printed with the statement to symbolize that America “belongs to everyone” rather than “to the woman who looks a certain way,” said Gurung.

"How can you define America? You don’t look American," was a question directed at fashion designer Prabal Gurung. He had heard questions like this before, and he knows he’ll hear them again. But when it was posed during a recent meeting, while he was discussing redefining Americana for his upcoming collection, the designer had a ready answer: “I told this person, ‘I came here as an immigrant 20 years ago, I’m a citizen, I started my brand 10 years ago here in America, I make the majority of my clothes in New York and America, I pay my taxes, and I have spoken for a lot of causes. And that’s not enough?’” 

Later, Gurung was thinking about that exchange when he caught a glimpse of the Nov. 26, 2018, cover of Time magazine, which posed its own question: “Who Gets to Be American?” “That’s when I decided that I wanted to explore that idea,” Gurung told The Hollywood Reporter backstage on Sunday night prior to the debut of his Spring 2020 collection. 

Gurung has never been shy about using his platform to address the range of issues that have come under the spotlight during the Trump administration, notably immigration and women’s rights. In February 2017 he launched a T-shirt series emblazoned with phrases that include “Love is the Resistance” and “Nevertheless She Persisted” (they’re still available, with proceeds benefiting the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and Shikshya Foundation Nepal), while in August he announced he would not show his collection at Hudson Yards as a response to its developer, Related Companies chairman Stephen Ross, hosting a Trump fundraiser at his Hamptons home. (Gurung’s collection instead debuted Sunday night at Spring Studios.) 

But with a spring collection that also would coincide with the 10th anniversary of his brand, Gurung decided to embrace a theme of hope for the America he dreamed of when he was a boy in his native Nepal. “It’s an optimistic collection that celebrates the America I wanted to be a part of,” he explained. In a fashion language, that initially translated to denim, white cotton shirts and seersucker, while tie-dye prints put Gurung in mind of the American hippies he would see backpacking through Nepal when he was young. 

Red rose prints, meanwhile, are a nod to the flower’s designation as the official floral emblem of the U.S., while lace or sequins crafted in a patchwork style have been repurposed in an effort to embrace sustainability. “My responsibility can’t just be visual; it also has to be what’s happening behind the scenes,” Gurung said.

Bright colors likewise were designed to signal optimism. There was a palette of yellows, blues and greens, as well as one stunning tailored pantsuit in lilac with a lush shrug in deep purple to create a tonal effect. Cocktail and evening dresses are embellished with feathers to evoke thoughts of fireworks on the Fourth of July. “I think of the world of evening and cocktail dresses to be a big part of American heritage, and the idea of fireworks is about a celebration of color, a celebration of spirit,” Gurung said. 

Before the show, Gurung said he was saving one surprise, one more nod to Americana, for the show’s finale: All of his models — a pointedly diverse and inclusive cast — wore pageant-like sashes emblazoned with that question on the Time cover, “Who Gets to Be American?” 

“I think of a beauty pageant as a very American institution, but in our society, the sashes always seem to be allocated to the woman who looks a certain way,” Gurung said. “But here we are changing it around and saying it belongs to everyone. America is a sum of all things, a collage of people and ideas, which come together to form a true dream into reality.” 

On a front row that included Arianna Huffington, Caroline Vreeland and Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever, Indya Moore expressed appreciation for Gurung’s approach. “He’s one of the few fashion designers that incorporates reality, as opposed to fantasy, in fashion, and I think that’s really important today,” said the Pose star. “So many of us are distracted by fantasy as opposed to being involved in the reality of today, so I think Prabal does an excellent job of bringing that to the surface. He takes his core values and incorporates them into his art.” 

Ultimately, what may have been most artful about Gurung’s show was its deft balance, his ability to make a political statement through the unabashed joy of his designs, the diversity of his cast, and a simple question he is more than happy to answer — not only for his clients, but also very much for future generations. “When I was a kid, America felt so magical and optimistic,” Gurung said. “Now I think about the kid back home in Nepal, looking at my collection and looking at me, and thinking about the possibilities. I want to make sure the America that kid comes to is the one I’m portraying tonight.”