Prabal Gurung is an active and vocal voice in the fight for equality and balances dressing the rich and famous (Michelle Obama and Oprah are fans) with a commitment to giving under-privileged children the access to education.
Why did you decide to start the Shikshya Foundation?
I started the Shikshya Foundation Nepal, with my brother, sister and three friends eight years ago. The mission is to provide full education, both inside and outside the classroom, to underserved children in Nepal, with the goal of creating a critical mass of leaders who can be instrumental in turning our society into a just, equitable, secular, accountable, thinking, questioning, progressive society. I started it a couple of years into my business – the incredible former First Lady Michelle Obama had just worn our dress, Oprah Winfrey wore our dress for her magazine cover, the beautiful Zoe Saldana was wearing our clothes on the red carpet, and I realized I was getting attention and growing a platform. I wanted to use it for good and to be able to leave an impact on this world so much greater than designing clothes. And to be honest, I needed something to ground me, keep me humbled so the good press and glamor wouldn’t get to my head. Having a foundation gives me an outlet to direct attention and resources to something so much greater than myself and my business; we are able to mold and nurture our future generation to become the people who can and will make our world a better place.
Can you tell us about how the program works and how that helps underprivileged children have more freedom?
Unlike many programs focused on education, we don’t structure our program by the year. Rather, we want to provide each child with a full education, from start to finish, so they can realize their full potential. We believe in depth and quality of the education, and define education outside of the classroom as well, to include literacy, art, and cultural programming. We give our children the freedom to experiment with who they are and the freedom to define their own path. Since we began, we’ve been able to provide education to over 300 children.
How involved are you?
We run the day to day operations of the foundation in Nepal, led by my sister and her three friends, all fearless and strong women who run our foundation with integrity, compassion and grace. The foundation functions with zero overheads by all women. I try to get back home to Nepal a couple of times a year to visit the foundation, and I work closely with them over email and phone calls regularly. I always want to raise awareness for the work that we do, and take on many special projects to be able to spread this message.
What’s the most rewarding work you’ve done so far as part of the Foundation?
Seeing the children, speaking to them, listening to their experiences and stories is by far the most rewarding part. I remember a young girl who joined us eight years ago; she is now at University studying fine art. As a child of a prison inmate, she would have never had access to education had it not been for the Butterfly Home, one of our partner agencies who provide this opportunity to young girls. It is so rewarding to see the confidence the children gain from education, to see them become their best and real selves.
Why is education so important to you?
I believe education is the only way our world can change. We need to challenge existing beliefs, rethink the status quo, and have an open global dialogue to be able to create the much needed change for our world.
Why is it important for you to also contribute to the world in this way? Where does your sense of responsibility come from?
My mother. My mother is such a humble, strong, fearless and serene woman and leader. She raised my siblings and I to live with purpose and to see no limits to the impact we can make.
How can readers contribute to your efforts?
We always appreciate donations so we can continue to create more opportunity for more children to receive education in Nepal, however this is not the only way to give. You can contribute to our efforts by taking action. It can be grand, or it can be as simple as engaging in a conversation with someone who is different than you; who provides a unique perspective, and educates you on a life different than what you know, and vice versa.
What other provisions do you make as a fashion designer to contribute to the wellbeing of the world?
As a fashion designer, my goal has always been to create a luxury brand with a soul, a brand with the ability to see, hear, and understand all types of people, regardless of age, shape, color, size, religion, gender identity, sexuality, etc. By challenging existing norms of visual representation, I want to redefine beauty in our industry, in a diverse and inclusive manner. Additionally, the issue of sustainability, or lack there of, in our industry has been front of mind. We founded our brand 10 years ago with an ethos of social responsibility and have focused our production locally in New York, to support our economy and to reduce our carbon footprint, and in Nepal, to work with artisans to highlight their craft and construct sustainable futures for the women there. Now, I feel committed to continue to research new fabrics and new manufacturing opportunities. The fashion industry is among the top polluters in the world, and I feel a strong responsibility to do my part to change this. Every step is a step in the right direction, whether it is using less plastic poly bags or incorporating recycled materials into the collection. We are also working with our factory in Nepal to improve their efficiency and reduce water waste. Every day we experience the impacts of climate change. I want to be a part of the movement to reverse and combat this issue.
We I love that your collections always seem to have some kind of socially aware message and are inspired by the need to be more culturally diverse. Where does this motivation come from?
I was born in Singapore and raised in Nepal. I have since lived in Australia, India, the UK, and now New York, and have travelled through Beijing, Seoul, Abu Dhabi, Paris, Dubai, Tokyo, London, and across the US. I feel a responsibility as a global citizen of this world, to do my part to make our culture reflect the diversity of our planet. The world I want to see represented is inclusive, colorful and loving, where those with integrity and compassion reign.
How would you personally define freedom?
Freedom for me is the ability to be my truest self, and let go of the confines society so often places on us. Freedom is not being defined by how others see you, and instead choosing to lead your life as your most honest self.
When have or do you feel at your most ‘free’?
I started feeling my most free when I stopped caring about fitting in to a narrow definition of what is “cool.” This industry is a home to me, it has enabled me to achieve my dreams. However it is also a really tough and small community that doesn’t always accept or embrace people from different backgrounds. When I stopped trying to box myself in to what I thought I should be, or what people wanted me to be, I was able to be my most free.
What’s your favorite sorbet flavor?
I love color, so I want to say something like mango or hibiscus, but really, at the end of the day, I love the flavor of chocolate.
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