Designer Prabal Gurung on plus-size fashion: 'We need to change the status quo'

Prabal Gurung at his fashion show during New York Fashion Week, Sept. 10, 2017, in New York. (Photo: Getty Images)

Prabal Gurung is on a mission to change the fashion industry. More specifically, he is devoting his design talents to changing how we view plus-size women and their place in fashion — both on and off the catwalk.

Yahoo Lifestyle sat down with Gurung to learn more about his latest collaboration with the plus-size clothing chain Lane Bryant, in their second season of partnering together. The new collection is modeled by Candice Huffine and uses a soft, neutral color palette. Standout pieces feature an on-trend pair of split-leg trousers, a Parisian-style tie-neck blouse, and a patchwork midi-skirt — all the makings of a perfect fall wardrobe. The collection is priced between $38 and $278 and is available in sizes 14-28 on lanebryant.com and in stores beginning Sept. 25.

Gurung spoke with Yahoo Lifestyle about Lane Bryant, plus-size fashion, and political activism. All topics he cares deeply about, and all areas where he is devoting his time and undeniable talent.

Candice Huffine wears a tie-neck blouse and dark brown split-leg trousers from the new Prabal Gurung x Lane Bryant collection. (Photo: Courtesy of Lane Bryant)

Yahoo Lifestyle: So this is your second season with Lane Bryant. Can you tell me a little bit about how this collection is both similar to and different from your first one? What was the creative process like?

Prabal Gurung: Its inspiration is still Paris. So I’m still taking her there. When I was in Paris last fall, I want to say around 6 or 6:30 in the evening, the whole city turned pink. I loved that feeling that I got. It was magical.

Paris is a city of light, love, fascination, and a place where you can dream. It’s so beautiful, and I wanted to be able to capture that. I wanted to be able to bring [the Lane Bryant customer] that. But as much as I love it, Paris is also a city that is very intimidating. It is a city that lacks diversity and inclusion and where people openly call out others who are not size 0.

I wanted to take [the Lane Bryant woman there] and be like, “No you deserve to be here.” I also wanted the Parisians to see that any woman who is not a size 0 — does not mean that she is not fashionable; she is still fashionable. She still looks good. I wanted to change their point of view and idea about beauty.

Candice Huffine wears a pastel pink blouse and patchwork skirt from the new Prabal Gurung x Lane Bryant collection. (Photo: Courtesy of Lane Bryant)

What made you want to work with a brand like Lane Bryant?

I was sitting in a car on West Fourth and Sixth Avenue, and while I was waiting, there was a red light and a bus came by that read, “#IAmNoAngel.” I saw the campaign and I was very impressed by it. Here lies a brand that is truly speaking what I would like to say and who also has a massive reach. A brand that can have the conversation that I want to have.

So we had a conversation. I sat down with them and said, “You have the reach, you have the people, you have the audience, but what I want to bring to this woman is a seat at the table. The pages of Vogue, Ashley Graham, and Inez and Vinoodh. I want her to know that she matters. That’s what I want to bring.”

Candice Huffine wears a cream blouse and pleated black skirt from the new Prabal Gurung x Lane Bryant collection. (Photo: Courtesy of Lane Bryant)

You’ve been a big champion in incorporating plus-size fashion into high fashion. How long do you think it will take before other designers follow suit? I know that there’s been some progress in the fashion industry…

But very little. Very little.

I would like to sit back with you and say, “Oh my God, can you see how much the industry’s changed?” But I’m not ready to open a bottle of champagne yet. There’s been a shift in the needle, but only the slightest, tiniest shift. It is embarrassing that in 2017 we are still having this conversation. But our industry is notoriously behind. It is shocking to me that my peers haven’t been able to embrace it. It saddens me because I love all these designers. My peers. Whether it’s Proenza [Schouler], Jason Wu, Altuzarra, Calvin Klein with Raf Simons now, or Narciso [Rodriguez] — these are all designers that I grew up loving and admiring. I love their work, but imagine if the world had them and also Céline, Prada, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, Dior, Gucci, and Miu Miu staging runway shows with all of their beautiful creations in different sizes and on different models? My God, I would probably cry.

Thin models from the Fall/Winter 2017 Proenza Schouler show. (Photo: Getty Images)

It would shift the world’s perception of what beauty is. I am not calling them out because of anything else, but I want them to understand the collective power of fashion. If all of these top design houses came together and said, “This is what beauty is going to look like: diverse, different, variant,” that would be the world we should live in.

Now more than ever, especially in a political climate like ours where misogyny and discrimination is happening, it becomes our responsibility — the fashion industry’s responsibility who has millions of eyes on it — to change the conversation, whether that is through words or visually. And we do have the power to change the idea of beauty visually because that’s what we’ve been dictating to the world, that beauty means size 0, blond, and blue-eyed.

I have nieces and nephews growing up who I want to make sure they don’t feel less than because I know what it feels like to turn the pages of magazines and see no one who looks like you. I felt that. I had to go through a lot to get to a point where I felt self-assured, confident, and I don’t want anyone else to go through that. I have this position, I have this platform, and I’m going to talk about it.

Candice Huffine wears a burnt-orange cape, white blouse, and black pleated skirt from the new Prabal Gurung x Lane Bryant collection. (Photo: Courtesy of Lane Bryant)

I think a lot of designers should follow in your footsteps, but a concern is that there are brands or designers who think plus-size fashion and models are only a “trend.” It’s “trendy” now to talk about inclusivity and cast plus-size models in fashion shows, but they are not thinking about it long-term like you are. They are not thinking of the long-term effects of standing up for it, and how their actions can truly enact change. Do you think that’s true?

No. If they are, I think it’s stupid. I think it would be ridiculous because the world we live in is diverse. The world is filled with minorities, different people, and different sizes. I want the runway to represent that. And oftentimes these “tokenisms” are something I have a big issue with. You can’t tick boxes and say that you’ve done it. You can’t. There needs to be a conscious effort to have this conversation. And mine is a commitment until I see an 80 percent shift in the industry.

I do not care if people are going to be offended or if they think I’m being brash. This is the truth. We need to be celebrating diversity more than ever. We need to change the status quo.

Every designer who says, “Oh, this is not my thing” or “Oh, well, it’s not my aesthetic,” that’s what they once said about blacks, about Asians, about every minority.

The fashion industry has this preconceived notion, and the world too, that plus-size means unhealthy. That is a misconception. There is a spectrum. There is anorexia and there is obesity and there lies in between all of these girls that I know who work out and eat healthy, but their body is where they’re supposed to be. When they actively starve themselves, maybe they’ll get to a size 2 or 0, but that’s unhealthy. We need to be able to understand that bodies change and bodies are different.

But then I also hear the excuse that plus-size fashion is “technically challenging” to design. Life is difficult. Everything is difficult. Great design is about problem solving.

Candice Huffine wears a pink pastel dress from the new Prabal Gurung x Lane Bryant collection. (Photo: Courtesy of Lane Bryant)

So here’s my thing: Aside from people calling out and demanding it, it is also up to the reviewers. People who write reviews or who cover shows, they should be mentioning it, they should be talking about it. All these editors, whether it’s Vanessa Friedman, Cathy Horyn, or Sarah Mower, these people should be mentioning that “You know what? We would like to see more different-sized, plus-sized [models].” What are we afraid of?

It’s like an unknown, invisible fear?

It’s simply because the majority of people lack courage. We are followers. How about follow your gut. Follow your instinct. What, maybe you lose a few customers. Everyone needs to come together and do it. It’s not one person’s mission to change it all.

 

Ashley Graham and Prabal Gurung during his Fall/Winter 2017 NYFW show in February. (Photo: Getty Images)

You’re obviously very passionate about this subject matter, but was there a moment for you when you really decided that you wanted to take a stand on plus-size fashion and incorporate plus-size models like Candice Huffine or Ashley Graham in your shows? Was there a moment when you felt triggered to act?

Yes. I thought about it for a while. When I launched my first collection [in 2009], I did something for Oprah. I’m a huge fan of hers. Afterwards, people asked me, “Oh, was it difficult to make that?” I said no. I didn’t even think about it like that.

Then I was at a diversity panel a couple of years ago. There, we were talking about the lack of models of color on the runway. There was one woman who raised her hand and asked, “You’re talking about models of color, but what about plus-size?” And one panelist responded, “Oh I’ll get to that. We’ll get to you.” That’s what she said. It bothered me that I could not turn around and say to that woman, “I see you, I’m doing something.” So that was one thing.

And then I went to a trunk show in Palm Beach at Neiman Marcus. There was a woman who came in who was looking at the collection with all of her friends. They were all trying things on. I said, “Why don’t you look around — all of these are samples, but we make up to size 22,” but she couldn’t. She said, “Oh, no, it’s OK.” She was not confident. She felt like she was not part of my world.

The third thing was when there was a big Victoria’s Secret fashion show and all of my friends do the show. I’m excited for them! These girls also came with dreams and desires. But while that’s happening, what about the other woman who is not celebrated? That’s when I decided, “OK, I want to do something.” I have nieces and nephews who might change to be a different size or might change to be a different gender. I want to make sure they are protected. I want to make sure that they feel like they belong. I went to an all-boy’s British Catholic school where I was constantly bullied and told I was different. I was not part of their group and clique. And I never belonged. I know how it feels.

You understand.

Yes. And I was strong enough to take that constant “You’re different” and turn it into a powerful thing. I went about things differently, but not everyone is like that. So that’s how I feel.

I want to discuss intermix of fashion and politics. You truly blended the two together through your last politically charged fall collection and especially this season when Gloria Steinem sat front row at your show. How did that happen? How did it all come together? How did you feel when it did?

From left, Gloria Steinem, Cleo Wade, and Huma Abedin sit front row at the Prabal Gurung fashion show during New York Fashion Week, Sept. 10, 2017, in New York. (Photo: Getty Images)

I’m still delirious. When I started my brand, I’ve always talked about style and substance. Feminism with a bite. That’s what I keep on talking about because I saw a lack of it. Why does it have to be like that? All of the women I see in my life, they love to dress up and they’re badass. So that was the thought process that I had. I’m the product of a single mother, and my life has had a very big impact, whether it’s the celebrities that I look up to or the people who’ve worn my clothes, such as Michelle Obama, Kate Middleton, and even Anna [Wintour]. All of these people.

Kate Middleton and Prince William attend the Istana for a state dinner on day 1 of their Diamond Jubilee tour, Sept. 11, 2012, in Singapore. (Photo: Samir Hussein/WireImage)

But Gloria Steinem is someone who represents all of that. I’ve read her book. And ever since I was a child, I’ve heard about her. She’s the most beautiful, stylish, brilliant, and such a badass. In my last collection, I was inspired by her book, and so I sent her a note and told her how impacted I was after reading her book.

Gloria Steinem, left, accompanies then-Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) down a Denver street in 1974. (Photo: Getty Images)

Then this season, she decided to come. Somebody told me backstage while I was giving an interview that “Gloria’s here.” I told the interviewer, “Can you just give me five minutes?” So before the show started, I ran outside (and no designers do that). I went out there and said, “Thank you so much” because of what it meant to me. Then I came backstage, and I told all of my models before they walked out … there was Gigi, Bella, Taylor, Vanessa, a transgender model, plus-size models, and I collected them and I said to them, “Amongst us tonight sitting in the audience is Gloria Steinem, who is a hero.” Some of them knew who she was, some of them didn’t perhaps, and I said, “That is what this brand represents. What I represent. What I want to celebrate. Women of substance. That’s who you all are. You all have millions of followers — how are you going to use it? Let that be a thought when you walk out.” We all have power.

So Gloria Steinem was the absolute exclamation point to my show and to my life that I needed.

Do you think she was making a big statement by attending and supporting a brand and designer like yourself?

It was the first-ever fashion show [for Steinem]. She is 83 years old. I didn’t know that. When I found out, I was like, [Gurung makes a shocked face].

I dreamed about things, but I didn’t dream about someone like her, who I had admired and impacted my life, would show up and say…

Good job?

Yes. You know?

One hundred percent.

I’ve created a lot of narratives in my head and very set goals. But this was just out of reality. It was incredible.

Thank you so much. You are such an inspiration. I’m excited to follow your journey into the future.

Call me out if I make a mistake. I’m serious.

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