Prabal Gurung Talks "Sad" Ulyana Sergeenko N-Word Scandal

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The designer, who partnered with MasterCard on its "Start Something Priceless" campaign, opened up at the company's pre-Grammys retail experience.

Since the 2016 election, the fashion industry has turned its political activism dial from about 10 percent all the way to 100 — making powerful statements about race and size diversity, as well as immigrants' and women's rights. Among those leading the charge is Prabal Gurung, a Nepalese immigrant whose message is as resonant as his impeccably crafted, unapologetically feminine collections. (Issa Rae, Jennifer Lopez and Tracee Ellis Ross are fans, to name a few.)

Given Gurung's philanthropic ethos, his ongoing collaboration with MasterCard and the brand's new "Start Something Priceless" movement, which encourages customers to take action in a meaningful way, is one that makes sense. On Friday afternoon, the designer took up residence at the MasterCard House — the company's pre-Grammys experiential retail space, which doubles as a haven for music and vinyl lovers — where he helped customers fill in the blank on T-shirts inspired by his uber-popular feminist tees from his fall 2017 collection, which read, "I am the future, I will ___." 

Ahead of both the Grammys as well as his New York Fashion Week presentation, which will take place on Feb. 11, we chatted with Gurung about his musical inspirations and his upcoming collection as well as his reaction to the scandal involving couture designer Ulyana Sergeenko that rocked the fashion world this week, and what the industry can do better.

The Grammys are around the corner — who are some of your music icons?

It ranges from people like Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Michael Jackson, Prince, Stevie Nicks — whom I love — to Beyonce, Rihanna, Madonna, Cher, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson …

OK, what is the one thing that all of these artists have in common? The unifying factor?

I’m more drawn to female vocalists and their story-telling. The only male artist that I find really provocative and beautiful and everything is Bob Dylan. But the unifying factor is — I just love female artists. Ever since I was a kid, their songs were very open about being vulnerable. Oftentimes for men, when they’re writing, it’s not about that vulnerability. In hip-hop and rap it’s all about "my girl, my car, my money," and country — it’s about getting a beer, strumming my guitar, getting a girl. But with women, even if it’s about love, there’s an empowering message. I love that. I’ve always been drawn to that.

 

“Perhaps the fact that I came from a single mother, who brought us up with strong female role models in my life, I saw pretty early on the power of women, the power of dressing up, the power of choices. I was so inspired by last year’s Women’s March. I saw all of the people there. They set an example for the rest of us that by peaceful resistance, we can make some changes.” This weekend, I am proud to march to support and advocate for these ideals, for a more equitable, more just, more fair society. xPG The #PGTShirtSeries is restocked on prabalgurung.com in time for the Women’s March this Saturday. Place your order now at the link in our bio to receive before the weekend. A portion of all proceeds will benefit the @aclu_nationwide , @plannedparenthood, and our foundation, @sfnepal .  @kailasmichael Art Direction @drivercreative #pgworld #femininitywithabite #beautywithsubstance #womensmarch

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Who is on your playlist as you prepare your upcoming fall collection?

It starts like this. When I wake up in the morning I listen to NPR; that’s the first thing I do while I’m getting ready. But when I’m in the car to get to work I like it silent because I’m emailing, or I like watching the city go by and getting lost in my thoughts. Once I get to work, from morning to lunch it’s all classical, just to calm everyone down. After lunch it’s more contemporary because everyone is tired and slacking. Anything new — from Cardi B to Beyonce to Madonna. It ranges. Then toward the evening, we’ll get to really familiar blast from the past music, whether that’s ‘70s or ‘80s or ‘90s — we’ll have a new theme. I’m in control of the music, so that’s how I always do it.

Tell me a little bit about this project that brings you to the MasterCard House today.

MasterCard has this campaign called “Start Something Priceless.” You know, you always want to align yourself with a partner that has a similar vision or a vision that you want to be a part of, and provokes you to think differently. A partner that is very much aligned with your ethos — and they are.

 

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This particular series, Start Something Priceless, really resonates for this time we are living in now, where apathy and complacency are no longer acceptable — where you and I, we all have an audience. With social media, you have an audience, and it becomes our responsibility to take action. Do you have the option of not doing anything? Yes. But it is so out of touch and careless to not be speaking out, especially now. This moment is not going to end anytime soon.

With the platform that I have created through my work, I have been able to build an audience — not just here, but internationally as well. So when you align yourself with these empowering, powerful messages, it resonates, it goes to other people, and that’s how I’ve always operated. I’ve always thought that if my one action can impact even one person, that’s a job well done. Every day there’s new breaking news, in politics and in fashion. Racism, bigotry — they're happening in fashion. There’s a lot going on. So I always look at the immediate issue. Let’s say there’s a scandal that happened. I ask, "What happened? Who’s involved? What’s the history behind it? Why?" I’m most interested in why it happened. If you see a pattern, we need to start questioning ourselves as an industry, as a culture. What is our involvement? Is our silence allowing it to happen continuously?

Speaking of scandals in fashion, this week it came to light that Ulyana Sergeenko and Miroslava Duma were using the N-word and their seemingly insincere apologies created a huge backlash. Do you see this as a pattern in the industry? And what is our job to make sure this changes?

What we have to understand is that as the world gets smaller, through digital access, we all have power to educate ourselves about what could be offensive and what could not be. We need to learn the history behind everyone’s word. When you’re chasing the "cool," whether that’s in fashion or whatever, that’s the biggest problem. Not just in terms of racism or bigotry, but overall, you have to be so careful about that. For me, with this particular issue, I look at it as a complete lack of awareness. I’m also interested in how we are checking ourselves, educating ourselves.

I think it’s sad. These are world-traveled, educated girls with means — and you know, nowadays you don’t have to go out of your way or anything; you just have to Google it.

Right, my reaction was that there’s no excuse for ignorance anymore. Everyone has the internet.

I always look at it from the perspective of the industry — what are we condoning and what are we condemning? I believe in the power of forgiveness, but I also believe in someone taking the time to really understand and be remorseful. There is a mourning period for the loss of the goodness in you, and for that particular moment. But you need to really repair that if that’s what you want to do. And not everybody wants to. The truth about it is there’s an ugliness in people supporting it — people are divided by it. To see the horrific nature of people now doing blackface and posting stuff like that, it opens your eyes to the fact that we’re living in a world where that is happening. I personally like to look at the person who did it, the history behind it. Is it a regular pattern or is it not? And how do we, as an industry, effect change? I don’t believe in the vitriol reaction like, "Oh, stone her!" I don’t believe in that because that doesn’t solve any problems. In this day and age, you can educate yourself. This is where it comes down to expanding your circle and group of friends. It’s important to have representation, a seat at the table, not just politically not just culturally, not just business-wise, but I think socially as well.

On a lighter note, you’ve spoken in the past about how Oprah really motivated you when you were starting out as a young designer. What was your reaction to the "Oprah 2020" rumors?

When I came to America, I started watching her. So the minute that show went off the air I had to start seeing a therapist (laughs). She was my savior. I truly believe this: Watching her show and reading about her has made me a better person, the person that I am today. So when I heard about it, I thought it was exciting. But I don’t think she wants to do it. What it tells us though is what we want overall is love and hope — that’s what she represents. And [Oprah 2020] brought us all together, even if it was for a brief second. Even in the bleakest time, there’s something right and hopeful.

If you could pick one song that represents the mood for your upcoming show that describes what we’re going to be in for, what would that be?

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” by Aretha Franklin. That’s it.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The MasterCard House is open to the public through Jan. 27 and located at 60 10th Avenue, New York, N.Y. 

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