From the White House to Target, Designer Prabal Gurung Hits His Stride

Prabal Gurung
Prabal Gurung: Looks from the current Target collaboration. Courtesy of Target

Four years ago, you might not have heard the name Prabal Gurung, much less known how to pronounce it. But now the Nepalese designer is on the brink of becoming a household name. On February 10, Gurung will be the latest designer in a long line of fashion stars to release a collaboration with Target, putting out more than 80 pieces—ruffled neon dresses, playful printed shorts and blazers, bright wedge sandals—ranging in price from $12.99 to $199.99.

It’s a collection, as he describes it, inspired by a woman’s journey through love. “To me, there’s nothing more beautiful than love,” Gurung says. “Whether you have it, whether you want it, whether you lose it.”

As Fashion Week opens in New York, the young designer (who is in his 30s but doesn’t like to give his exact age) has the schedule of a seasoned industry professional: appearances to promote the Target collection (including a giant carnival-themed party), the show for his own label on February 9, and the debut of his latest collection for ICB, a lower-priced Japanese line that relaunched in the U.S. for fall 2012.

It’s indicative of how Gurung is shifting into the role of an experienced designer and away from his newcomer status. Until now he’s been regarded as a fashion-world darling—a talented young thing buoyed toward stardom with the help of A-list fans such as Oprah Winfrey, Kate Middleton, and Michelle Obama. But the Target collection promises to introduce his clothes to a whole new clientele—and to pave the way for an even bigger business.

Gurung burst onto the scene early in 2009, after five years as the design director at Bill Blass, where he landed after attending Parsons School of Design and stints at Cynthia Rowley and Donna Karan. Working for Blass, he honed his tailoring skills, and he eventually broke off to start his namesake label (with pieces that retail from around $600 to $4,000) at almost the exact moment the global economy was tanking. But the fashion world instantly took notice of his skills: a red silk dress from that first collection wound up on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily—a big coup for any new designer.

At first, money was scarce. Gurung was largely self-funded—and to this day says he hasn’t taken investment money—but he immediately sold pieces from his first collection to four retailers, which gave him the backing he needed to continue. Since then, his coffers have been lined with prize money from the prestigious Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation award in 2010 and as a runner-up in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2011, both of which honor emerging talent. “I started my collection off without any money,” Gurung says. “I’ve been relying on the support of the industry: the editors, the buyers, the people that believed in me.”

Among those people is Fern Mallis—who is credited as one of the creators of New York Fashion Week—who helped Gurung land his first show at the vaunted Bryant Park tents. “I was very impressed by the quality of his workmanship, but I was also very impressed with him,” she says. “He was adorable and so well spoken—and that set him apart from other young designers out there who don’t have that capacity.”

As a finalist for the coveted CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, Gurung was assigned to mentors Carolina Herrera and her company’s president, Caroline Brown, who helped him refine his design process and, as Brown puts it, “understand the balance of a real business.” In 2011 he won the CFDA Swarovski Award for Womenswear.

parabal-gurung-OM01-secondary The designer backstage at his Fall 2012 runway show. Amy Sussman/Getty for FIJI Water

Gurung says he has always dreamed of designing a special collection for Target, calling it a “rite of passage” for a designer. (The store’s past designer collaborations include Jason Wu, Rodarte, and Proenza Schouler.) Gurung’s collection, which features everything from $20 crystal necklaces to bold printed shorts for $26.99, seems like a sharp departure for a designer accustomed to luxury fabrics. But Gurung claims he made few compromises in the design process: “For me to think I had to dumb it down to meet the mass market—well, if I had thought that way, it’d be pretty arrogant of me.” he says. “I’ve always been aware—in designing something or in talking to someone—that it’s just about knowing your audience. I looked at this opportunity to let the world know what I stand for as a brand. And that’s about making beautiful clothes.”

The Target collection will inevitably help Gurung expand awareness of his brand—but its success with everyday Americans will depend on a unique mixture of buzz, price, and really great design. “His collection has been living in a category that’s very luxury, but he has a very democratic perspective as well,” Brown says. “He has a bigger bandwidth than just the one his core collection is living in—he understands how real women dress today.”