After a decade of what he calls too tight, too hard looks and women wearing clothes "five sizes too small", fashion's classiest 'it' designer is spearheading a vision of well-made craftsmanship with a softer, ethereal touch in the new year.
"2011 will be the year of women being women in a man's world, and leading it!" Prabal Gurung tells me with excited optimism.
Few designers know how to bring out the power of a woman's intellectualism and integrity, traits Gurung sees as the essence of beauty, like the compassionate 2010 Ecco Domini Fashion Foundation winner. Rejecting short hemlines and overly done looks, his spring line features supple cashmere knits proudly made in his native Nepal, edgy power suits for the next generation CEO or Congresswoman, and a stunning evening gown the color of candied ginger with a frisson of silks coming down the skirt like fireworks. Burnt oranges, bright canary yellows and cerulean blues evoke a euphoria and passion -- a cross between the insouciant nature of St. Tropez and the glowing exoticism of Central Asia's Silk Road.
Instead of showcasing breasts and behinds, Gurung tries to get at a woman's core by leaving some things to the imagination. His clothes ooze global sophistication and humble reserve, just like the man himself. In an earlier life, he would be dressing sharp, self-possessed leading ladies like Marlene Dietrich or Katherine Hepburn. He's not doing too shabbily in this one either, having outfitted First Lady Michelle Obama in a red stunner for the White House Correspondent's Dinner last year as well as attracting some of the most promising and put together young starlets in Hollywood--the ones that are fiercely independent and take on challenging roles, not the ones that flash their unmentionables as they drunkenly fall out of L.A. club bathrooms.
From Carey Mulligan and Blake Lively, to Demi Moore and Oprah, Gurung dresses women who are intelligent and passionate about causes beyond themselves, and he does it by choice.
Natalia Brzezinski: You've dressed so many inspiring women, is there anyone you'd like to dress that you haven't had the chance to yet?
Prabal Gurung: I've really been watching Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. She's intriguing and clever. I love how she manages to out-maneuver the men around her and take strong stands on issues like same-sex marriage and 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'. I'd love to meet her!
What look or trend that's popular now do you hope dissipates in 2011?
I'm hoping the notion of bad behavior being rewarded in pop culture goes away. We're pummeled with images on reality TV of women in their 40s and 50s dressing and acting like they're in high school. It's a no-no! And I think fashion and the younger generation interested in fashion is beginning to quietly react against this phenomenon. In 2009, when I was starting out with my first collection everyone said, 'no no the trends are tight and short clothing, you're designs won't catch on', but I stayed true to what I felt was right and people were really attracted to a more refined and feminine look.
In the December 2010 issue of In Style magazine, Karl Lagerfeld described America as now part of "the Old World", and India and China as the "New World". Do you see Asia as the new frontier for fashion?
There's no denying that Asia is a growing economy and very engaged with the fashion marketplace today. Americans are certainly not fading into the background, but when it comes to couture they're beginning to mix things up a bit more like pairing a luxury item with a less expensive piece. While in China and India, there's an infusion of new money and a desire and power to spend, and they want to make a bold and confident statement with fashion and couture
It seems like the notion of beauty has changed drastically since the 80s and 90s; from Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista to the new it-model and face of Marc Jacobs, Andrej Pejic, who has a very androgynous look. What do you think of the new 'gender-bending' models and their impact on the traditional notion of beauty?
I think it's amazing and exciting! We live in an inspiringly tolerant world. But in an ideal world tolerance would be replaced with celebration and empathy. Fashion plays a progressive role because it poses questions without being too serious. The decisions fashion designers or editors like Carine Roitfeld, former editor-in-Chief of French Vogue who put one of the first transgender models in the magazine, cause people to question themselves and society, just like you have by asking me this question. I welcome this intellectual curiosity whole-heartedly! I also think there's enough real estate for everyone in the fashion world; curvy women, thin women, men who look like women and women who look like men. As long as you do something with passion, conviction and integrity there will be a place for you.
How do you try to set an example for designers of the next generation?
I just try to be the best of who I am as much as I can. Any success or attention that I'm getting now doesn't end here. I need to pass it on and impact someone else's life. You've heard this mantra so many times, but I believe you need to treat others like you want to be treated. At the end of the day, we want to feel like our opinion matters and feel validated, and it's important to make others feel that way in return and act responsibly.
You're obviously someone who has achieved his life dream, what advice do you have for others trying to do the same?
Dream big and don't be afraid to fail. I come from a third world country where people don't even have the hope to dream at all. But dreaming and failing is life. J.K. Rowling said it best in her commencement speech at Harvard in 2008: "It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all- in which case, you fail by default."