Photo Kathmandu 2018, the 3rd edition of the marquee photography festival, took place in and around Patan Durbar Square from October 12 to November 16. This year, the festival endeavoured to present a spotlight on issues pertaining to gender, power, identity, patriarchy, and sexuality. The event was organised in association with Sikshya Foundation Nepal, the brainchild of Prabal Gurung, the pre-eminent Nepali-American fashion designer. Established in 2011 with the aim of providing education to young girls,the foundation has flourished over the last seven years. Gurung started the foundation as an instrument of channelling his fame and recognition into a cause he believed in - education. The idea behind collaborating with Photo Kathmandu was based on the necessity to highlight the relevance of art education. Sarthak Raj Baral and Tamish Giri of New Business Age caught up with the New York-based fashion designer to talk about his career, heritage, inspiration and his standing as one of the beacons of diversity in the fashion industry. Excerpts:
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, you said: “In order to be a creative person you have to be insecure.” How do you maintain the balance between confidence and insecurity?
I wouldn’t necessarily use the word insecurity; the word I was probably looking for was curiosity. One needs to be curious because I think the only faith and confidence you can have is in yourself and who you are as a person. Confidence and security come from not only what you know but also from being aware of what you don’t know. Curiosity and a little bit of insecurity; the fear of the unknown keeps you on your toes. It allows you to do bigger and better things.
You are one of Nepal’s most successful exports, and are idolised by many in the country. Do you feel the pressure of being a role model to so many impressionable minds and the pressure of representing your country on the world stage?
I really don’t feel the pressure and I have never felt it. However, I am extremely aware how privileged I am to occupy a space wherein I am able to hold the attention of hundreds of thousands of people and the fact that I’m able to touch their lives through my work. The only pressure that I have, if any, is to make sure that my integrity and my intentions are very much aligned with my vision and my authentic self. I have never pretended to be anything else other than my authentic self. That is perhaps why I don’t feel the pressure. Having said that, I’m aware that my work, my success and my actions are not just about me; they are representative of the entire country and its citizens. My thoughts are of extreme privilege and gratitude rather than pressure.
Many of your designs draw from the Nepali culture. Has that been a deliberate decision on your part, in order to promote the Nepali culture? Alternatively, is it something that occurs naturally?
It’s both. I never do anything that I am forced to do. My roots and my identity come from Nepal; I can’t escape it. I realised early on that if I am to stand out in a crowd of designers from different parts of the world, all the while competing with established luxury brands, my identity had to be my own. When I am designing, the inspiration comes from Nepal, the books I have read, the movies I have seen or the music I have listened to. When I am thinking, designing or sketching, my childhood memories are a part of that process and much of my childhood comprised of my time in Nepal. Thus, the idea of representing my country comes across in my designs but I am never led by that thought, it happens organically. I’m aware of it but when it comes to creating something, I go where my mind takes me.
You are recognised for championing diversity in the fashion industry. Have you noticed any tangible improvements that have taken effect in the recent past? In addition, have you faced any resistance from within the industry?
The New York Times recently did a survey which showed that there has been a drastic improvement in terms of diversity on the runway and I know that I am one of the leading forces in New York. Out of Paris, London, New York, Milan; New York happens to be the leading force of diversity. This is a constant conversation I have with the media over there as well. For me, however, there are two aspects here -diversity and inclusion.
Diversity is powered by the idea of showing the world that you are ticking every box, so to speak. Inclusion is the belief in the fact that the world should have more diverse people in every sphere, including your own life. There is certainly a difference there. I consider myself a believer of diversity as well as inclusivity. There have certainly been changes, there are efforts being made and people are conscious of diversity. There is an effort made by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), where I am one of the board members. We passed a mandate that we won’t use models below 16 years. I am also one of the designers who use plus-size models because these are the things that are important to me; I believe in a colourful, diverse and inclusive world. It has also led to other designers joining the conversation. So, improvements have certainly been made but we still have a long way to go.
What are your thoughts on the Nepali fashion industry? What potential does it have and what are the challenges it is facing?
What I really like about the fashion industry here is the enthusiasm and the excitement. Although I haven’t seen many of the products up close, I see them on social media and the enthusiasm is infectious. It’s exciting to see that. However, I do think that you need to be discerning about the quality you put out into the world through your product. A good design is one where the quality and price have a good relationship. If you are charging ‘x’ amount of rupees, you need to make sure that your product justifies the price tag. However, it’s not only limited to that. It could be an inexpensive product but it needs to be of high quality.
The Nepali fashion industry should ensure that the quality is exceptional; it should not settle for mediocrity. It’s also important for Nepali fashion designers to realise that inspiration doesn’t come just from the neighbourhood; it comes from around the world. One has to have the courage to be one’s own self.
I know people look at my success and think ‘Oh, I can become a designer and become famous’ but it doesn’t work like that. Whenever a designer asks me, ‘How do I become a famous designer?’ I always say that’s the wrong question to ask. I ask them why they want to become designers. Does it consume their every waking hour? Is it the only thing they can think about? If that is the case, then you should pursue this profession. If your goal is to become famous, then you shouldn’t be a designer.
You are an immensely successful individual in an exceptionally competitive field and have countless fans here in Nepal and the world over. How do you keep that success from going to your head? How do you keep yourself grounded?
My family keeps me grounded as do my like-minded friends. Coming to Nepal keeps me grounded. The work we do with Sikshya Foundation keeps me grounded. Also, I realise that fame, money, success are very fleeting. I am very privileged and really lucky that I found something I love doing. I enjoy the process; the rest of it is just a by-product of my hard work.