The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Prabal Gurung the most woke man in fashion?

Designer Prabal Gurung in the sample room of his New York studio. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Prabal Gurung regularly speaks up about current events, politics and social justice. He offers unvarnished, impassioned thoughts on Twitter and Instagram. And he will hold a mirror up to his own failings, including the laziness of relying on social media as a form of constructive protest. Gurung uses fashion, particularly his runway shows, the way a musician might deploy particularly pointed lyrics or an artist might unveil a provocative canvas. He is not calling fashion a high art, but he does consider it a powerful form of communication.

Besides, it's the only bullhorn he has.

Fashion "gives one a platform, a way for me to speak to issues that are important to me," Gurung says.

The general public may not recognize Gurung's name, but his work has been widely seen — worn by Michelle Obama, Helen Mirren, Kerry Washington and Issa Rae. He became the face of philanthropic relief efforts after the 2015 earthquake that killed 9,000 in his childhood home, Nepal. Gurung, the brown-skinned guy with high cheekbones and the vaguely British accent, kept turning up on TV to focus attention on the disaster.

Most recently, Gurung has been adding his voice to the conversation about sexual harassment and how to shift the balance of power in the workplace. He dressed both Rae and Washington for the Golden Globes and then offered versions of their gowns for sale to raise money for the Time's Up gender-equality initiative. He recently joined a televised panel of men from various industries to talk about male culpability in perpetuating sexism — with Gurung arguing that men should really be doing more listening than talking right now.

He has publicly agonized over his failure to speak up about the alleged bad behavior of photographer Terry Richardson, which many people in the industry knew about yet remained silent. And he has made plain his uneasiness at the notion of dressing Melania Trump, since he disagrees with the administration on pretty much everything.

‘I, too, am part of the problem’: A designer scolds fashion for its silence on Terry Richardson

But before he began raising his voice on highly charged subjects, Gurung was putting plus-size models on his runway and T-shirts rallying for feminism and diversity into his collections. After the Nepal earthquake, Gurung invited monks to open his show with a prayer and launched a fundraiser that brought in more than $1 million to aid survivors.

Gurung is not so much a provocateur as he is a public conscience — which can be a kind of provocation in itself. He is not preaching right and wrong to Seventh Avenue, but he is encouraging it to find its moral center. He has often been told that he is overreaching: He's just a dressmaker, after all, creating frocks, not a cure for cancer.

But being invested in fashion, Gurung argues, "doesn't make us less concerned about what's happening in the world. . . . Fashion is not the land of the stupids."

Gurung, 38, was born in Singapore and grew up in Nepal with his two siblings and single mother, who owned clothing factories and was politically engaged. He moved to Manhattan at 20, settling on the Lower East Side and then in the East Village and working for Bill Blass. Like many designers of his generation, he started his collection with personal savings — $20,000 — and launched it with help from friends, who worked backstage for free.

It debuted in 2009, in an economic downturn. "Everyone was like, 'wrong time,' but I thought if it doesn't work, I'll blame it on the recession," Gurung says with a chuckle.

His tiny budget was enough for a two-hour presentation, a tableau vivant of posing models. The first hour attracted Gurung's friends in the industry: junior editors and assistants. Then the big guns showed up for the second hour — after being alerted by their aides that it was something worth seeing. A year later, he was a runner-up for the career-building CFDA-Vogue Fashion Fund.

"He's always been strongly opinionated and willing to share his ideas," says Steven Kolb, CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

It's hard to sum up Gurung's signature style. It isn't minimalist but it isn't extravagant. It's not gender-neutral or athleisure. None of the industry buzzwords apply. His work is unabashedly feminine in the traditional sense. He favors joyful colors, lighthearted prints, a ruffle or two, an hourglass shape. As the French say, his work has flou — a romantic, fluid, floating quality. He cuts trousers and sweaters, too, but he is mostly known for his dresses.

"When I came to America, there were two kinds of women: women who looked serious and who didn't wear color and print, and women who looked girly and feminine and like second wives. My idea started with feminism and femininity," he says. "Nothing scares a straight man more than a woman in her full glory."

Gurung and his contemporaries launched collections when the already fragmented retail environment was evolving into a vast digital and global mall. Finding an audience and distinguishing a brand was no longer a matter of intimate trunk shows and chummy luncheons. It was an algorithmic nightmare — daunting for a brand that lacked a signature silhouette, print or a catchy product like Donna Karan's famous "seven easy pieces."

So Gurung slowly began to define his brand with a particular philosophy: feminine feminism.

Gurung could not realistically serve as the physical embodiment of his aesthetic the way that Victoria Beckham identifies as high-glamour multitasking mother or Diane von Furstenberg epitomizes sexy woman-in-charge. He is inspired by many women, but he has no singular muse. Without a visual, Gurung uses words — and as a result, a man has become the industry's frankest and most public voice of feminism.

"For me, designers are a vehicle for telling a larger story. What happens on the runway, what happens in an ad" are part of a bigger cultural narrative, he says.

Gurung has always been willing to speak his mind. He cajoled the CFDA into helping young designers show their collections abroad with its "Americans in Paris" program. He has made clear his efforts to manufacture his collection in New York as well as Nepal. He is vocal about how being an immigrant influences his mind-set. And after collaborating with Lane Bryant on a plus-size collection, he took up the charge of inclusive sizing along with others in the industry, such as Christian Siriano.

"Once he saw the reach [of his voice], he just went full force," Kolb says. "Women who've worked in the industry longer — Diane [von Furstenberg], Tory Burch — have associated themselves with issues related to women. But of his generation, a woman hasn't taken that mantle."

Certainly, Tracy Reese, Rosie Assoulin, Mara Hoffman, Rebecca Minkoff and others have spoken up, protested, fundraised. Dior's Maria Grazia Chiuri punctuates her collections with feminist ideology. But Gurung's social-media presence insistently agitates on myriad topics. Feminism and its many tentacles have become his brand.

Gurung has highlighted racially diverse models on his runway, along with transgender woman Andreja Pejic, as well as Ashley Graham and Candice Huffine who are both larger than the traditional sample size.

"We tell people, 'Unless you look like this, you're not worthy.' I wanted to reach out to plus-size women and say, 'I see you and hear you,' " Gurung says. In its recent awareness of body diversity, fashion has fetishized round hips and a convex belly. Graham is commonly photographed nearly nude; Nicki Minaj and Kim Kardashian have both had particular body parts lionized.

"We've been socialized to seeing a certain kind of body as beautiful. Sometimes you have to shock people," Gurung says. "But I think it'll get more to a place where it's not" so extreme.

Diversity shouldn't be rare. That's why, in 2008, when a black model appeared on the Prada runway for the first time in some 15 years, Gurung was discomfited by the way people gushed over a casting choice that should have been routine. "When I saw the industry treat it as a second coming of Jesus, it bothered me," he says.

Offline, Gurung is willing to be the guy bringing up third-rail issues of race, white privilege and prejudice. "I know what it's like to turn the page of a magazine and not see anyone like you. It takes a lot, a lot, a lot of talking to yourself to confirm your self-worth," he says.

Inclusiveness on the runway, or the lack of it, is connected to "who you hang out with," Gurung says. "Is it all similar-looking people? Change doesn't come from staying in your safe space. . . . I always say, 'I cannot be the only person of color at your dinner.' "

Kolb recalls Gurung once "calling out white gay people as being part of the problem" in forging a more just society. "Anytime someone says something that makes you uncomfortable, it makes you reevaluate your own actions," says Kolb, who admits to initially being put off but describes Gurung's intentions as sincere.

But with all that earnestness, is Gurung any fun at a cocktail party? "He's very compassionate," Kolb says. "He's a kind, caring guy."

In September, Gurung's "feminine feminism" and outspoken ways drew Gloria Steinem to his spring 2018 show, where she sat in the front row. At age 83, it was the activist's first fashion show. Gurung had written Steinem after reading her book, "My Life on the Road," to say it had inspired him. He wistfully mentioned that perhaps one day she could see his designs. "Never in a million years did I think she'd show up," he says.

The feminist icon posted a photo of herself on Instagram holding her seating card, along with a caption describing Gurung as "a kind man doing great work in fashion and beyond."

For Gurung, who'd rushed out before the lights went down to give her a hug, it was validation — of pretty much everything. "When Gloria Steinem showed up, it showed I was on the right path."