Highland Fling, Not Singapore Sling

Prabal Gurung @ AFF P2

Last night, Prabal Gurung opened this year’s Audi Fashion Festival (AFF) to a 650-strong audience. The collection was met with such rapture you’d have thought they were presenting the retrospective of some long-gone French couture great.  It was, instead, a welcome-home embrace for Mr Gurung, who accepted it with a smile not often seen on the catwalk—these days a display platform on which any sign of mirth is as congruent as shouting in a library. Home is, of course, only figurative since Mr Gurung resides in New York, and any connection to Singapore, where he was born in 1979, weakened when his parents took him and his diapers home to Kathmandu not long after. Yet, the idea of home-coming is so powerful and appealing and newsworthy that The Straits Times could not resist featuring Mr Gurung on the cover of today’s main paper.

Until Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge wore one of his dresses during her visit to Singapore in 2012, few here had heard of Mr Gurung. That off-white, slim-fit silk dress with swashes and swirls of purple that could be abstract representation of Vanda ‘Miss Joaquim’ stood in such contrast to what her co-host at the event she was attending wore that you were inclined to commit the outfit to memory. The Duchess is known to don clothes that acknowledge design talents of the host country: it was no exception during her sojourn here. There was the Raoul dress, but, following that, it seemed there was nothing else she could pick that shone with Singaporean pedigree. For the Duchess, Prabal Gurung was the next best thing. For Singapore, he was the best thing. Suddenly we have an overseas designer we can call our own, underscoring the obsession with foreign talent that has made us the nation we are today. Great, isn’t it? Watch out, Ashley Isham.

Prabal Gurung G1For AFF, Mr Gurung showed his autumn/winter 2014 collection: a look that may be summed up as Hollywood-hottie-goes-to-the-Himalayan-highlands. The wrapping, draping, and twisting—they were a nod to those non-city folks who have a flair for turning swaths of fabric into clothes, and will be alluring to those celebrities who love outfits that appear assembled by artisanal hands. The appeal was in the narrative too, the long and short of it meandering through a mountain-scape, picking up ideas seeded in Mustang, the Nepalese/Tibetan source of Mr Gurung’s declared inspiration. And since this landlocked district aloft ancient kingdoms is mostly alien to the audience, it was amazing how they could buy into his depiction like a child sold on Disneyland.

The collection could have been ponderous under the weight of the exotic and a scene set so far away but it wasn’t. It could have been an expression of something spiritual—Shangri-La discovered—but it wasn’t. Not monastic, not austere; not bucolic, not severe. In Mr Gurung’s landscape of fashion, flat and plain were not discernible. It was, and has been, rolling hills of rich and varied vegetation. This season, he mixed textures—plush pile with wispy drapes—and combined shapes that appeared to be built upon sportswear. And he showed he could tie scarves!

The Prabal Gurung aesthetic wasn’t always like this: his designs tended not to betray his early training with Manish Arora and the later years with Bill Blass. His woman: more Anna Wintour than Audrey Taotou; more Michelle Obama than Michelle Williams, and you’re usually conscious of what she wears, or as he puts it to Vogue.com, “a femininity with a bite”. Let’s chew on that.

Audi Fashion Festival is on at the Tent @ Orchard, Ngee Ann City until 18 May 2014. Prabal Gurung is available at Tribeca, Forum The Shopping Mall. Photos: InSing.com