But don't ask about Dior

Good manners & Michelle Obama are dear to designer Prabal Gurung

Good manners & Michelle Obama are dear to designer Prabal Gurung

Prabal Gurung was born in SIngapore, raised in Nepal and began his design career in India. But he's living the American dream.

Two years ago, the designer started his own line with $2,000 in savings. Everyone told him he was crazy to launch a new business in the middle of a recession. He put together a small staff by telling them, "I don't know how much money I can promise you, but it's going to be quite a ride."

And indeed it has.

During a whirlwind trip to Houston — his first — for the opening of Atrium boutique, the designer marveled at his good fortune. For the second year in a row, he has been nominated for the Council of Fashion Designers Swarovski Award for womenswear — the industry's most prestigious award for a new talent, which will be awarded June 6. His designs have been showcased by the likes of Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Demi Moore and Zoe Saldana.

Yet, during an interview at the new boutique, which shares space with Casa de Novia bridal salon, Gurung seemed determined not to let all the attention go to his head. Instead of embarking on a major department store tour, he came to the small Houston boutique because he is friends in New York with the cousin of owner Luvi Wheelock.

"In Houston this concept is relatively new. When it's a bridal store, there's a little more personalized service and a slightly different approach to traditional retailing. I like the idea of what could be as a new designer and young brand," he said.

During an interview with the thirtysomething designer (he won't divulge his exact age), we also learned:

1. He had tea with Lynn Wyatt

Gurung was late for our interview because he got stuck in traffic after visiting Wyatt at her River Oaks home for afternoon tea.

"I've known her since my Bill Blass days," said Gurung, who was design director at the fabled fashion house when Michael Vollbracht was at the helm. "As a designer, it's very important for me to travel a little bit around the country. Living in New York you're stuck in a bubble. Traveling with Bill Blass, it was wonderful to get to meet the customers."

2. He worships at the feet of Anna Wintour

Gurung credits Vogue editor WIntour for his meteoric rise. "She nurtures young designers, not just mentioning who the new designer is but with business mentorships," said Gurung, who was a runner-up in last year's CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund awards, which included a mentorship with famed designer Carolina Herrera and her business team.

"The minute they got on board, my business totally changed. To have years of experience like that  at my disposal now is amazing," he said.

3. Michelle Obama changed his professional life

The first lady ordered some pieces through Chicago retailer Ikram Goldman, "but until you see the picture (of her in the dress), you don't believe it. My job is to make sure it's beautiful and pray for the best. It's better not to have expectations and not be disappointed."

But he wasn't disappointed after the first lady put him on the map last year when she wore a red one-shoulder sheath designed by him at last year's White House Correspondents Dinner— and won raves. Almost immediately afterwards, the number of stores carrying his designs jumped from five to 30.

Obama has since worn his designs several times, most recently on an episode of Oprah. "That was really the time that I realized my success was no longer mine. More than anything, it represented the dreams for million of people across the world  — that there is possibility."

"The most beautiful thing about it is that she represents a new change in America. She could gone the traditional route and worn the usual suspects, but she decided not to. And it has affected other designers, too. Look at Jason Wu, Derek Lam, Thakoon. She has been a godsend."

4. He won't talk about Dior

Gurung has been mentioned as a possible successor to disgraced designer John Galliano at Christian Dior. But he suddenly clammed up when asked about the speculation. "I'd rather not comment," he said.

But he understands the pressure that major designers face in having to produce up to 12 collections a year and says the secret is to stay grounded.

"People tell you you're fabulous; I don't take it too seriously. I'm gratified by all the comments, but my reality is something else. I started out during the recession in 2009 when everybody told me not to. I instinctively believed it was the right time for me. I have my own standards for success."

5. He believes in good manners

Gurung says he surrounds himself with like-minded friends who are gracious about their success. "In this day and age where everyone is texting, I think a hand-written note is important. Good manners are forever, no matter how the world changes," he said.

"I don't think we live in a vaccum, that what we say, how we behave, and what we do doesn't affect someone else. It does. When we look at the culture and how bad behavior gets the headlines, for me, it's really not something I believe in."

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Prabal Gurung poses with the favorite dress from his fall collection Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchlightGroup.com
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Michelle Obama wore a sheath by Gurung on the Oprah show in January Courtesy of Harpo Productions
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Michelle Obama wowed the White House Correspondents Dinner in May, 2010, in an off the shoulder, red matte jersey Prabal Gurung gown.