Prabal Gurung shared his New York story Wednesday morning with 10 Thai accessories designers eager to break into the U.S. market.
More than 50 companies had applied for the incubator program, Thailand Jewelry: 10 Imagineers, according to Napadol Thongmee, consul for Thailand’s Department of International Trade. The participants — Arquetype, Basic Teeory, Caso, Defy, Jittrakarn, Mafia Jewelry, Ornaments & L’or, Pasu It’s Alive, Pilantha, and Sarran — will show at the 58th Bangkok Gems & Jewelry Fair next month. The Thai designers received some funding for the program from the Thai government, but they financed the travel expenses themselves, including the 27-hour flight from Bangkok.
“Prabal is one of the designers at the forefront, in how he has established his ideas and presentations in New York. He also understands Asia and what the Western world is about,” Thongmee said. “Today these companies will see how they relate to him and how they can explore what he did and use that as mentoring.”
Gems and jewelry rank as a leading category for Thailand’s worldwide exports, with last year’s reaching nearly $11 billion. But Thailand “hasn’t exported the talent, designers and name brands,” he said.
While the country’s economy is still OK, there has been a shift in the trade market toward the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-country consortium that includes Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. It was founded in 1986, and in the past 18 months “almost the entire region” has become tax-free. ASEAN represents 600 million people, but the U.S. remains the number-one country for gems and jewelry exports, Thongmee said. Given that, his agency is also figuring out a similar incubator program for Thai fashion designers for this fall.
Gurung was born in Singapore and raised in Nepal, but he has also lived in London and Australia, and he traveled extensively before moving to New York to study at Parsons The New School for Design. He spoke of what brought him to New York more than 16 years ago. “There is a different mind-set than in Paris and London. It’s creative — there’s no doubt about it. But what really appealed to me was the entrepreneurial possibility that happens in America. It doesn’t happen often in Europe. At the risk of sounding cheesy, the whole American dream that you think about and you read about, happens in America, and it happened to me,” he said. “I came here knowing no one. I applied to college and, cut to all these years, I’m here now. I’m not saying it’s impossible [elsewhere] but it happens here. America is a country where they see talent, creativity, grit, hard work — everything comes into play. There’s an opportunity here.”
After a stint as a Donna Karan intern and a two-year run at Cynthia Rowley in design and production management, he joined Bill Blass at a time when the company employed 15 seamstresses from such European houses as Chanel and Christian Lacroix. In fall 2009, despite the economy “being deep in a recession,” Gurung decided to launch his own collection. “Everyone said, ‘Don’t do it.’ But I felt, instinctively, it was the right thing for me. I had a little bit of savings, so I decided to move from my bigger apartment to a tiny little East Village apartment. That’s how I started…”