“I wanted to start a conversation about who gets to be American,” said Nepalese-American designer Prabal Gurung, minutes before his 10-year anniversary show Sunday night.
Against the backdrop of the country’s seething immigration debate, “who gets to be American” is a timely question — and one that a number of designers are grappling with this season as they work to redefine the mostly white, privileged, East Coast identity of American fashion as established by Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and others (both children of Jewish immigrants themselves, it’s worth pointing out, but at a time when assimilation was the name of the game).
Today’s next-gen talents are defining American fashion on their own terms as something more diverse and inclusive.
Consider Brandon Maxwell’s Texas-sized prep, as an example, or Sies Marjan’s glossy downtown-is-the-new-uptown sophistication. Later on Sunday night, Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean-Raymond presented an incredible exploration of the joy and pain of the black experience in America from slavery to mass incarceration to music-filled churches and concert halls.
Gurung has been one of the most political designers of our time — sending out a finale of feminist T-shirts at his fall 2017 runway show held shortly after the Women’s March, hosting Gloria Steinem at his spring 2018 show (it was the author and feminist icon’s first), and making headlines this summer for pulling his show out of Hudson Yards after news broke that developer Stephen Ross was hosting a Hamptons fund-raiser for President Trump.
But for his spring 2020 collection, he wanted to put divisiveness aside and celebrate the American experience as “the sum of many parts,” combining traditional sportswear signifiers with handcraft details from his own Eastern heritage; cotton shirting and shibori-dyed cashmere; seersucker and sarong draping; high society and humble denim, all on a cast of models that represented this country’s global reach, from Brooklyn to South Sudan, as the show notes revealed.
Gurung used the U.S. national flower, the rose, on camo and graffiti floral prints celebrating free speech and expression; showed jewel-tone silk faille cocoon boleros and dreamy ballgowns embroidered with feather “fireworks” in the shape of the Buddhist mandala symbol; men in pearl chokers, women in power suits, and more, for a powerful show of American pragmatism meets fantasy.
And for his finale, he couldn’t resist ribbing the president, sending out models wearing pageant sashes that read, “Who Gets to Be an American.”
(In a rare public defeat, in 2015, Trump was forced to sell the Miss Universe Organization, which included Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, after his racist comments drove away broadcasters.)
In the end, Gurung said he still wouldn’t trade his American experience for anything. “There’s nowhere else in the world I could have achieved what I have here,” said the designer, who is quite a master of the Twitter-verse himself. “And I’m able to challenge and question.”