When Prabal Gurung debuted his first namesake collection at New York Fashion Week in February 2009, the fashion establishment who packed Chelsea’s Flag Art Foundation was blown away by his freshman effort.
“Everyone walked out [of the presentation] with a knowing glance that they had discovered a secret,” says Elle’s fashion news director Anne Slowey. “When someone is that good, they don’t remain undiscovered for too long. That night everyone was talking about him.”
The designer — who was born in Singapore and raised in Nepal — graduated from Parsons, toiled for two years under Cynthia Rowley and spent another five as the design director of classic American fashion house Bill Blass before he stepped out on his own in the tumultuous economy.
It was a gamble that paid great dividends for Gurung whose red-carpet ready pieces are now sold by elite retailers such as Net-A-Porter and Saks Fifth Avenue, where a maxi starts at $900 and a carpet sweeping crimson gown goes for $3,500.
The 30-something designer, who along with his brother was raised by his divorced politician mother in Kathmandu, had a precocious interest in fashion.
He attended an all boy’s Catholic high school where he was teased for his style acumen and stacks of sketchbooks. After graduation, he decamped to India to study design and worked in Australia and London before landing in the Big Apple.
“Very rarely do you see a designer come out of the starting gate so fully formed,” says Slowey, adding that his presentation of tailored pants and flowered applique dresses aesthetically echoed the great Valentino or Giambattista Valli.
“He came onto the scene in a unique way,” says Saks Fifth Avenue’s senior fashion director Colleen Sherin, who picked up his line immediately. “He wasn’t a derivative of someone else. He certainly got our attention.”
Celebrities also took quick notice. Shortly after he launched, notorious twitterbug Demi Moore took a photo of herself in one of his cocktail dresses and tweeted it with a quip to look out for fashion’s rising star. Even First Lady Michelle Obama is a devotee, having worn a stunning red ruched number to the White House Correspondent’s dinner last May, a hot pink sheath on “Oprah” in January and most recently a one-shouldered yellow gown to last month’s Governor’s Dinner.
What’s more, Gurung just earned a second nomination for a Council of Fashion Designers of America Swavorski Award for Womenswear along with the Olsen twins’ The Row and Joseph Altuzarra.
Gurung was in Nepal when he got the news that he was up for the prestigious award, which is like the Oscars of fashion and will be presented on June 6.
“I could not have been more thrilled,” gushes the notoriously humble East Villager. “There really is nothing like receiving news of such recognition from an organization as influential and esteemed as the CFDA. I’m not sure it gets much better than that.”
Finicky New York fashionistas love Gurung because, as Sherin says, “he appeals to the downtown girl and the uptown lady” — a versatility that may stem from his Alphabet City neighbors — the Hells Angels, whose clubhouse is down the street from his apartment.
“He’s the whole package,” says Sherin. “A talented designer and a lovely personality, too. He’s not the type of designer who relies on a formula.”
Slowey says his body-conscious silhouettes ooze intelligence and maturity, which sets him apart from his contemporaries.
“His designs are not without wit,” she says. “He understands the cool quotient. His focus is about quality and construction and not trying to feed the fashion machine.”
If the celebrated designer isn’t feeding the machine, he’s definitely driving the cravings.
“He’s here to stay,” concludes Slowey.