Nepali Times
Do your homework



By now, most of us will have heard of Prabal Gurung. He stands out as a Nepali who's done real good, and done so from his base at the epicentre of the world of fashion, New York. What's as remarkable as the fact of his success is the timing. While the global recession has seen uber-trendy fashion houses like Christian Lacroix falter and fall, the house of Prabal Gurung is making waves. Certainly Michelle Obama and American Vogue editor Anna Wintour think so.

When Entrepreneurs for Nepal met at Dwarika's Hotel a fortnight ago, a roomful of youth sat rapt as Prabal sketched out the journey that had ushered him into international celebrity. Then the questions rained down, all the way from 'When can I hope to buy a Prabal Gurung handbag in Kathmandu' to 'How do you manage the global positioning of your brand?' In such sore times as these, it was a celebration not only of Prabal, but of what a Nepali success can mean, backed by a desire to find out how to get there.

I've my own set of questions when I meet the 36-year-old designer in Vesper Cafť a few days later, but I quickly realise how clear Prabal is about who he is, and how easily he articulates the substance of what he believes in.
He's keen to point out, first off, that he's no overnight sensation. 'I've paid my dues,' he says, simply. 'Of course it's been a pleasant surprise how quickly all the good things have happened in the last year. But I made sure I invested the time to learn every aspect of my craft, from the designing to the business end. I've spent a decade working in every part of this industry, planning to get where I am. And I'm not done yet," he adds, with emphasis. "This is just the beginning."

But how, I wonder, did you dare to launch your collection in the middle of a recession?

"It felt right, it was instinctive," Prabal replies, and the conviction with which he says it makes it seem absolutely normal that the First Lady of America should fancy a Prabal Gurung dress. "I was ready. Of course," he says, almost as an aside, "If it hadn't gone well I would have blamed it on the recession!"

THAT DRESS: Michelle Obama makes Prabal Gurung's day
Our iced teas arrive, and after a considered sip, Prabal chides the photographer for not having one ("You're missing out, dude"). I ask him how it is to be back this time around.

"Great. I try to come back once a year, to be with family, to recharge. Sitting and waiting for you guys, with the birds chirping, even the noise of the cars, everything moves at a certain pace here," he smiles. "It has been different this time. What I've noticed is how people are genuinely happy for me. Not many people celebrate other people's success in Kathmandu, maybe it makes them feel smaller. But the younger generation is different Öit's very encouraging."

Perhaps they see what's possible for them? He agrees, and I ask him what he'd say to all those Nepalis, home and abroad, who may consider investing in Nepal.

"Do your homework, believe in yourself, and just go for it."

Certain such phrases take on the form of mantras. It seems almost too easy, I think. But they do sum up what Prabal is about, and the passion with which he explains himself ("I'm extremely lucky to be working in a field I love") soon dissipates cynicism.

It's not as if he doesn't know how difficult doing business is in Nepal. His own attempts to enlist garment factories in Nepal for his collection initially ran into difficulties with on-time delivery. "But every city has its challenges."

Doesn't Nepal have more challenges than most?

Looking ever so slightly shamefaced, Prabal confesses he relies on family to keep up with the merry-go-round of Nepali politics. But he is ambiguous about the relevance of democracy in a largely illiterate country. "Democracy isn't freedom at any cost," he says. On the subject of ethnicity, he is very clear. "I see myself as a human being first. The house I grew up in Ė a Gurung father and Rana mother Ė was a melting pot. I know it's not the same for many people here, but I do hope that those minorities seeking a voice don't repeat the patterns of what they are fighting against, and don't limit themselves to expressing themselves through ethnicity."

These seem sound sentiments. But I'm keen to see how Prabal balances the reality of Nepal with the unreality of models earning $10,000 an hour in New York. Isn't fashion frivolous, and irrelevant to Nepal?

"Of course it's frivolous!" he bursts out. "In a sense it's all about surfaces. But fashion and the arts are not irrelevant to Nepal. The arts make you more sensitive, more tolerant to differences. And face it, the fashion industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. If Nepal can't compete with mass market garment producers like China and India, it can produce 100 pieces rather than 1000 pieces and charge 10 times more."

It won't happen overnight, and neither did Prabal. "I'm extremely patient, and I'm very demanding. As long as people don't strive for excellence, as long as they are happy with mediocrity, it won't happen. People need to put in the work, be original, and look beyond borders, and I think Nepali youth are beginning to do that."

It's only when he tries to convey to me how it's possible that he isn't totally carried away by his success that he struggles, for the first time, to find the right words. "I'm just not," he insists, "I have so much more to do." It may seem hard to believe, but through all the hype, Prabal sees himself as "an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation". Heroine haru le layera ta ho ni! he says self-deprecatingly, and falls back on his family, and his mother. "If you met her, you'd know exactly what I mean. She's always been like, what's next?"†

It's hard to say what's next for Prabal beyond the next collection. He knows better than anyone else how fickle the world of fashion can be. But he is living proof that even in the extraordinary world of fashion, the ordinary virtues of hard work, supplemented by no little talent, can prevail. He's set to be a big fish in a very big pond. And for anyone who has seen Prabal Gurung dance Nepali jhyaure to booming house music, his stars hitched to his own chariot, his success will come as no surprise, and is impossible to resent.

1. FT reader
Rabi, great piece. PG's success is remarkable in that even designers more talented than he is (anywhere in the world) find it virtually impossible to copy his success.

Imitable success can be resented because we can lull ourselves into thinking that we can do better if only we work harder or stay more interested in what we are doing, etc. But inimitable success, like that of PG, can demand only one thing: quiet admiration. 

This kind of success is in the same league as Samrat Upadhyay's success. Ten years after SU's publishing his first collection of stories, there is hardly another Nepal-born writer doing the same or better in the West in the domain of publishing fiction. That's because SU's success, like that of PG, looks and sounds simple, but is incredibly hard to pull off or imitate . . . for another person for a long, long time. Such simple-sounding difficult success is something that makes the success all the more remarkable.

BTW, has NT thought about doing FT-like "lunch with so-and-so" pieces once every month? Should be fun to read. Imitable examples at: 

2. NGS

Cliched as it may sound, the fashion industry is brutal and fame is very illusory. The real hard work now starts for him.     What Prabal must learn to do is, bow his head briefly to the 15 secs of fame, smile and say thanks and get back to the drawing board and the sewing machines as if entire life depended on it and throw all those awards into the drawer..  From the tenor of the interview and what I have read about him, he seems to be very grounded and that is good.   As an Nepali American  I am really proud of his achievements  because I know from first hand experience, what it must have taken him to get to where he is today.  He's paid his dues for sure, the merciless long hours of working in anonymity, drafting and drawing stacks of Freehand CADS in the unglamorous cubicles of 7th Avenue, the intense competition and grueling targets set by head designers et al.   For his sake, I really hope that he is counseled and guided by sound financial managers or a business partner that will take care of the daily nuts and bolts of business- sales, marketing, the strategies, the projections and the cash flows, margins and operating profits etc..  For a creative genius like Prabal, the sooner he realizes the importance of these necessary evils of business ( and I am hoping that he already has ! ), the better his chances will be of success in the long run.  There's a long cemetery list of fashion savants who flashed brightly for a couple of seasons before squibbing away into oblivion, and then there are those who have managed build empires for themselves ( RL, CK, DK, etc..) because they were prescient enough to realize that at the end of the day- it is a business.  I will pray to the Gods of fashion that in the not too distant future, we will see denims, polos and tees with the PG logo !.   Making dresses for first ladies and Hollywood stars are the aspirational pieces that will get the Vogues and Harpers to feature you for the next issue and that in turn will pull the  everyday maryjanes to want to wear Prabal's signature chinos or tees ! And THAT my friend whether you like it or not is where you will find the money to fund your dream...  Go for it Gurung. 

3. R RAI

Thank you Rabi for a positive story.I join you and others who are very happy in Prabal's achievement to congratulate him. We should not shy away from celebrating any Nepali's success anywhere in the world.

Prabal is giving a very powerful message here (especially to young aspiring Nepalis)- do not accept mediocrity,and of course there is no short cut way to success-it is hard and long journey in spite of your talent(99% perspiration).

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)