midst the hell that is Manhattan’s Garment District — littered streets, fast-walking pedestrians, and cab drivers communicating with each other via honking morse code — is an oasis that is Prabal Gurung’s office.
Shortly after walking in, Gurung’s receptionist enthusiastically assures me that my arrival is expected, but that “the interview has been pushed back 15 minutes because he [Prabal] is on a call with Michelle Obama’s team.”
I, of course, abide.
About 20 minutes after our previous appointment, Gurung bursts into the main showroom donning an ensemble he acquired from a flea market in Mumbai — a memento of the time he lived there. A white, lightly embroidered jacket paired with a plain white t-shirt and white denim pants.
Although I’ve set up on the conference table, the designer insists to his press manager that he needs to be comfortable and that our conversation should take place on the showroom couch.
“Are you comfortable? You don’t look comfortable. Get comfortable,” Prabal says to me as I awkwardly place an arm over a couch cushion. This small insistence is an honest testament to his nurturing character.
The Nepalese designer and I met on a cold, rainy evening in New York City earlier this spring while I was a senior at Fordham University. His brand's placement in Bloomingdale's newly renovated Madison Avenue space would mark my first story for Vogue.com, where I'd document the fleeting moments of the celebratory dinner. During our initial encounter, we spoke of his excitement, the importance of Bloomingdale's, and the night’s chic crowd all while indulging in hemp-infused steak sauce. Aside from all the glamour of the night, we broached the issue of Asian representation in both the fashion industry and the gay community — a topic that runs deep for both of us.
The fashion industry and the gay community share an epidemic: the inability to fully grasp diversity without exploiting it.
This isn’t new. In early October, the fashion world witnessed Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean-Raymond take to social media to call out Business of Fashion’s Editor-in-Chief, Imran Amed, for his disingenuous statements about diversity. According to a report on Fashionista, Amed had consulted Jean-Raymond on insight with influential figures in the industry contributing to diversity. His contribution would ultimately be omitted during Amed’s credits.
Within the LGBTQ+ community, the issue of exploitation of PoC and diversity was exemplified in the all-white production team behind RuPaul when accepting an award for his reality show, Drag Race. The night after his 6th Emmy win, RuPaul was questioned by Essence reporter Danielle Young on the lack of diversity of the team sharing the stage with him. In response to the elephant in the room, RuPaul went on to awkwardly (and very painfully) dodge the question while instead attempting comedic relief by referring to the LGBTQ+ community as a "Lettuce, bacon, and tomato" sandwich.
But alongside Kerby Jean-Raymond, Prabal Gurung is one of the few designers to authentically stand up to moments that go against his moral compass. The keyword here is authentically. He is neither motivated by trends nor by industry relevance.
For his latest call-to-action, the designer's Spring 2020 show was originally destined to take place in New York’s latest landmark installation: The Hudson Yards. However, the pro-Bernie Sanders designer withdrew immediately after learning that the property developer, Stephen Ross, was hosting a fundraising lunch in the Hamptons for Donald Trump.
Gurung's monumental decision ultimately implied a mentality many of his colleagues may want to consider adopting. For him, being a part of history isn’t enough. It’s about which side of history he’s on that dictates his decisions and motives. Furthermore, the show was birthed from a similar America-in-despair sentiment. Switching venues to the forever-reliant Spring Studios, Gurung redeveloped the classic American image into something more diverse. Something more modern. Something more accurate.
Lina Zhang opened Gurung’s 10th-anniversary show, walking out to “Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cook. The song’s lyrics — But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will — vividly allude to the sole purpose of the show.
“I already knew I wanted to do something Americana,” he began. “But it started after someone posed this question during a business meeting: ‘How are you going to do that Prabal? You don’t look American.’”
“He meant I don’t ‘look white.’”
The feeling of being seen as unamerican because the color of his skin is one that Gurung has faced many times. Its frequency has allowed him to become a master at navigating these conversations and directly addressing those that are deserving of a little resentment.
However, Gurung insists that he isn’t alone in this affair, noting that this is a social skill many people of color have had to adopt, especially in business settings, due to the microaggressions white people largely fail to acknowledge or understand.
“You know, I just don’t get it. I’ve been here for twenty years. I have a business. I employ people. I pay my taxes. The majority of my clothes are made in America. And it’s still not enough?”
This attitude, further fueled by the incident with the Hudson Yards, launched the theme of his 10th-anniversary show. It asks, Who is American? What makes you American?
And it wouldn’t be fashion if aesthetics weren’t involved. For design, Gurung turned his attention to a single, very American past-time: Beauty Pageants. From variations of ballgowns and tie-dye menswear to sportswear galore, the designs served to embody the versatility of American identity. For the finale, models emulated any typical Miss America finale by walking a final loop around the runway wearing sashes that asked “WHO GETS TO BE AMERICAN?” in large embroidering.
Nicole Phelps, Vogue Magazine’s Runway Director, wrote in her review: “One look at his gorgeous, diverse cast and it was easy to know where Gurung stands and — putting aside worries about our political and social crises — to cheer him on."
Though winning Phelps’s praise is an ultimate stamp of approval from fashion royalty, there is always honest reasoning behind all Gurung does.
“I just don’t do things for good press. I felt this in my heart,” Gurung said. “What does diversity look like? And what does inclusivity look like?”
If dealing with racial biases in the fashion industry isn't enough, Prabal has been concerned with issues of diversity and inclusivity for much longer than his career in fashion.
When it comes to racial identity, Gurung moves the discussion away from fashion and opens up about his experiences within the gay community — the other important space in his life. Although he has always been aware of how his race is seen by others, Gurung emphasizes that his arrival in America twenty years ago and interactions within the gay community amplified this awareness.
“You know how we are looked at,” he says to me. “I’d get things like, ‘you’re cute for an Asian’ or ‘I’m not usually into Asians, but you’re cute.’”
These two often-used phrases are the kiddie versions of Grindr profile bios that say “No Blacks. No fems. No Asians." These are inherently racist statements masquerading as preference.
Gurung reveals his darker moments by walking me down memory lane highlighting nights filled with verbal arguments, and even a bar fight here and there. These altercations were based on stereotypes about gay Asian men; crude, yet familiar assumptions by which Asian men are frequently represented — in the rare occasions that they are represented at all — as docile, submissive, skinny sex toys.
Representation: the word that it ultimately comes down to. How a group is portrayed in media inevitably becomes the reality of those subjects, even though they may be entirely inaccurate. For gay Asian men, false representation has ultimately been emasculating and dehumanizing. “I’ve always been outspoken. And I realized, nobody’s going to be fighting for me. To wait around for a white person to fight for my cause is foolish,” he says in his defense.
However, it seems that the Asian American community has just begun their very own media renaissance. We now see more depictions that reject preconceived notions of Asian masculinity. For example, what recent group of Asian male characters in a film oozed lust and desire? The men in Crazy, Rich Asians.
According to Gurung, Warner Bros. asked his opinion of the film before the worldwide premiere. “My god, when I saw it, I was so happy. For once we are seeing Asian men being desired. They’re sexy, powerful, and confident. Ways in which, not to sound conceited, I’ve always seen myself.” A physical manifestation that was projected outside of Gurung himself suddenly became a reality.
“I always knew my worth. I just needed the world to catch up,” the designer says with a snarky laugh.
The representative elements were so important to Gurung that he brought together a group of Asian editors and designers for the movie premiere. You may believe all this fierceness could take on the adversity single-handedly, Gurung didn’t want to be the lone wolf. Unity and solidarity from others in his community are just as important to him as his own opinions.
The same sentiment of unity can be found in his group of friends nicknamed the ‘Slaysians’: a power-packed group of Asian American fashion gurus that includes Gurung himself, Phillip Lim, Laura King, Tina Leung, and Ezra Williams. “It’s important for us to be able to change the status quos, ideas, and norms of how people look at us.”
The designer, digging even deeper into the complexity of representation, said the colorism plays a role between light-skinned and dark-skinned Asians. Many of the initial support groups he was introduced to focused on East Asian narratives while brown Asians and Southeast Asians were sidelined.
As a result, Gurung is a strong supporter of programs such as APEX for Youth and Goldhouse NYC because of their recognition of the wide range of Asian narratives. “Not all of us have the same stories. And if you happen to fall under the stereotypes, that’s not a bad thing at all. But always remember that there are different narratives.”
The issues of race and image are factors that play a major role in Prabal Gurung’s experience, not only in the fashion community but in his day-to-day life. To describe his fight for social justice and representation as tiresome would be far too limiting, yet the designer remains passionate; concerns about where his passion could lead him financially or reputationally aren’t going to stop him
“I look at my life, not just for myself, but for the bigger picture. The platform, the notoriety — it can’t be just for me. You’ll get into a club easily and get free things, but it has to be for a bigger picture.”