Prabal Gurung, the Nepalese-American designer, has been a vocal proponent of inclusion and diversity since his first show in 2009. In the wake of the Atlanta shootings and an upswing in anti-Asian violence, he talked to The New York Times about his own experiences and what his work has to do with it.
How do you grapple with what’s going on?
To watch a video of a 65-year-old woman being brutally attacked is triggering and heart-wrenching, not just for me but for my friends and people from my community. We all are so worried for our loved ones. My mother goes on walks every morning and evening. She’s 75-years-old. A couple of weeks ago, I bought a blond wig for her, and I said, “You know, just wear it when you go outside, wear a hat, wear glasses.” She tried it on. But the next day she came over to my place, and she was like: “I’m not going to wear it. Just buy me a big, strong cane.” That is the reality of this.
Is that why you were an organizer of a Black and Asian solidarity march with other designers and activists in March?
We didn’t know how many people were going to show up, but thousands and thousands of people showed up across races and gender: L.G.B.T.Q. friends, Latin friends, Black friends, Asian friends, white friends. What we recognize is that for this particular moment to turn into a movement, we have to have all the marginalized groups and our white counterparts coming together.
You know, when the pandemic started, I had an option of leaving the city. I decided to stay in New York and really participate in all of these protests and marches simply because I knew that, individually, I could create a noise. Collectively, I could be part of a revolution. I knew how it felt to be othered. I knew how it felt to turn the pages of a magazine and never see someone who looked like you.
Have you felt discrimination over the course of your career in fashion?
While I have been really embraced and supported by the industry, we are so tokenized as designers. We are part of like, “Oh, a wave of Asian designers.” Then there’s a wave of Black designers, a wave of women designers. We never say a wave of white designers. We are never considered designers on our own. So that kind of implicit bias, that kind of microaggression, we face it all the time.
Did you experience it when you were trying to get financial backing for your business?
For my 10-year anniversary I was at a potential investors meeting, and one asked, “What does the brand stand for?” I said: “The America that I see is very colorful. The dinner table that I see is very colorful. It’s diverse. That’s the America that was promised to me. That’s why I came here, because I was a misfit back home.” And he says to me, “Well, you don’t look American.” I looked at him, and I was like, “You mean to say I don’t look white?”
“It’s OK,” I said. “I’ve been in business in America for 20 years. I’m a citizen. I make more than 90 percent of my clothes in New York City. I am actively involved in social causes. I’ve contributed to my taxes.”
Needless to say, I didn’t get the investment. I’m still an independent brand. I’ll never forget how little he made me feel.
What about in terms of how people see your work?
Once I did a collection inspired by Mustang, in Nepal. It’s a beautiful place. There were some big gongs. The fashion director from a retail platform came over and said: “If I want to look at that collection, I can look at a History Channel. We don’t want anything cool from you. We want pretty.” I didn’t fight back at that time. I was just like, “I need to save my business.” So I kept quiet.
But we have to really ask ourselves: Things we consider beautiful, things we consider chic, food we like, music we listen to, where is it coming from? It’s a very Eurocentric, colonial point of view, and we have to dismantle it.
Is that part of your responsibility?
I remember right after my first collection, when I was dressing a lot of celebrities, I called my mother back home in Nepal. My mom said, “That’s great.” And then she said: “You know who you should be dressing? Michelle Obama. She stands for something.” A year later, Michelle Obama had worn a dress of mine, and I called my mother. And then she goes: “I’m happy for you. Congratulations. But remember, this is no longer yours. This success is no longer yours. It belongs to everyone who felt marginalized the way you did. So now it’s up to you what you’re going to do with it.”
- A torrent of hate and violence against people of Asian descent around the U.S. began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Community leaders say the bigotry was spurred by the rhetoric of former President Trump, who referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus.”
- In New York, a wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to New York’s Asian-American communities. Many community leaders say racist assaults are being overlooked by the authorities.
- In January, an 84-year-old man from Thailand was violently slammed to the ground in San Francisco, resulting in his death at a hospital two days later. The attack, captured on video, has become a rallying cry.
- Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in the Atlanta massage parlor shootings on March 16. The suspect’s motives are under investigation, but Asian communities across the United States are on alert because of a surge in attacks against Asian-Americans over the past year.
- A man has been arrested and charged with a hate crime in connection with a violent attack on a Filipino woman near Times Square on March 30. The attack sparked further outrage after security footage appeared to show bystanders failing to immediately come to the woman’s aid.
Part of what you are trying to do with your work is educate people about the nuances of different Asian cultures, right?
Asian-Americans are the fastest growing immigrant group in the U.S. electorate, with roots all over the world. We are diverse. I look East Asian, right? But I’m from Southeast Asia. I sit in the center of the brown Asians and the other Asians. The wealth disparity between the richest Asian-Americans and the poorest is insanely high. I think maybe the largest of any ethnic group in this country. In spite of that, there is a myth of the model minority, of crazy rich Asians. That’s why “Parasite” is important, why “Minari” is important. Give us the platform so we can tell our stories.
This stereotyping doesn’t make you angry?
I’m OK with people making mistakes because it can start a dialogue that leads to a solution. I refuse to cancel people unless there’s something really harmful.
Fashion is one of the hardest and most arduous industries, but it’s also an industry that can reward you in the most splendid, incredible way. And it is the only industry where in 10 minutes on a runway we can really change the narrative of what the culture can be. That’s the power of fashion.
I am a living example of it, coming from a country like Nepal where nobody believed I could be a designer. To be able to live that dream and to have this platform. It’s been really incredible.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.