Fashion in 2020: Prabal Gurung on What This Year Will—and Won’t—Change


High fashion fell out of fashion in 2020.

With more people working from home and less occasion or desire to get dressed up to go to dinner or cocktail parties, sweatpants and other comfort clothing are the new black. Even

Anna Wintour

wore track pants while working from home, as Vogue magazine showed on its Instagram account in April.

The market for personal luxury goods contracted this year for the first time since 2009, according to the 19th edition of the Bain & Co. Luxury Study, released last month in collaboration with Fondazione Altagamma, the Italian luxury-goods manufacturers’ industry foundation. The report estimates that retail sales in the sector will total $256 billion for the year, down 23% from 2019—the largest drop recorded since Bain started tracking the industry. And Bain doesn’t expect the market to return to 2019 sales levels until late 2022 or early 2023.

Like many fashion designers,

Prabal Gurung

is trying to figure out how to navigate the altered landscape. The New York-based couturier, whose line is carried by such retailers as Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue, launched his label in 2009 during the grips of a recession, which means he has witnessed fashion recover from a crisis before and evolve. Mr. Gurung’s colorful and embroidered ensembles have been worn by pop star Halsey, actress Mindy Kaling, the Duchess of Cambridge, Michelle Obama, Sarah Jessica Parker and Oprah Winfrey, among many others.

Mr. Gurung, in his early 40s, is part of a generation of designers who launched during the aughts and were expected to succeed the likes of

Ralph Lauren,

Donna Karan

and Calvin Klein but haven’t yet broken through. He is charismatic, photogenic and outspoken on diversity and other social and political issues. He was born in Singapore, raised in Nepal and has more than 750,000 followers on his label’s Instagram account. In late September, he launched an affordable lifestyle brand, Impower, with a philanthropic mission. It kicked off with $14 face masks, adorned with the kind of vivid prints that are among his signatures, at Walmart.com. A percentage of the sale proceeds goes to charitable organizations, a representative says.

In a recent phone interview, The Wall Street Journal spoke to Mr. Gurung about what lies ahead for the fashion industry. Edited excerpts follow.

WSJ:What impact will the events of 2020 have on luxury fashion in the next few years?

MR. GURUNG: How we do business is something we need to look into. It [2020] has made fashion change the way it sees consumption, from how much we produce and what is our carbon footprint to how the events we’re producing are creating waste. There’s a conversation about sustainability. It has been going on for a while, but it’s at a high pitch right now. There is a big conversation around a return to luxury with a focus on craftsmanship and quality over quantity. All these much-needed conversations are being pushed to the forefront.

Prabal Gurung launched his label in 2009 during the recession, so he has seen fashion recover from a crisis before.



Photo:

Joanna Totolici/Prabal Gurung

WSJ:With working from home expected to continue, and limits on socializing, some would say there won’t soon be a big appetite for fashion.

MR. GURUNG: There’s still an appetite for hope, idealism and beauty that persists even during these times. There are people planning for their lives after the pandemic. There are places in the world that have handled the pandemic better than others, and therefore have resumed their activities and gatherings in one manner or another. There are people who want sweatpants, but not everyone does. When you’re at home you wear sweatpants, but not everyone walks around in sweatpants. There’s no place for big gowns, yes. But I don’t see New Yorkers dressing down. And then you have a certain sector of the industry where everyone’s dressed up for a Zoom party. We continue to provide for these segments of the market and have offerings for people stuck at home or socializing in pods to enjoy this time.

WSJ: What effect has this moment had on your designs? On your website, for example, you’re offering silk pajamas and matching sleep masks.

MR. GURUNG: Pajamas and things have always been a part of our repertoire. But right now it has been a big focus. It’s still the same fabrics I use to make beautiful dresses and it’s made in New York, so, we don’t compromise on the quality. At the end of the day, even pajamas, even sweatpants, I don’t want it to be just a throwaway. (The Prabal Gurung label also recently added a $250 stem-floral embroidered hoodie and a $150 stem-floral embroidered logo sweatshirt to its website.)

We have a wider range in terms of prices and in terms of styles and offerings. For the spring collection, it’s a lot more pragmatic.

WSJ:Some designers are putting on virtual presentations instead of runway shows, or they put on shows with socially distanced audiences. What will fashion weeks and shows look like for the foreseeable future?

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MR. GURUNG: There’s nothing more magical than a runway show. The perfect moment where the first look walks out. The music. The atmosphere. How people are reacting. I think the traditional runway-show format will always be around. But I believe that designers will feel more free to do what feels right for them, to present when and how they feel it will speak most truly to their collection. I don’t know if everyone’s going to show twice a year or four times a year anymore. I think the calendar will be more mixed in terms of types of events, with digital and in-person shows.

I also hope brands try to reduce waste associated with big events. Many production companies have taken this time to proactively think about how they can create more eco-friendly shows.

WSJ:You launched your label during a recession and witnessed the economy and fashion rebound. Can fashion bounce back this time?

MR. GURUNG: In challenging times like this, this is where creativity, invention, new ideas and new cultural moments happen. I’m not just romanticizing this idea, and I know how challenging it is for the majority of us. But I’ve always been a glass-half-full, or three-quarters-full, kind of guy. I think with this positive news about the vaccines, there’s a renewed sense of hope and optimism for the market. As things open back up, there will be increased spending and desire for beautiful items. It is just a matter of time.

WSJ:How confident are you that issues like inclusion and sustainability will be more than just temporary, trending topics for the fashion industry?

MR. GURUNG: I always operate from a place of hope, so my hope is that it is a movement that continues so that we can have a real, long-lasting change, and not a moment. As history has shown often, if the marginalized communities, if all of us, are not active in the conversation and do not hold people accountable, the movement dies down. We have a long way to go, but I’m hopeful.

Mr. Smith is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in New York. He can be reached at ray.smith@wsj.com.

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