NEW YORK, United States — Amongst a rapidly rising crop of New York-based Asian American designers, including bold-faced names like Jason Wu, Alexander Wang and Phillip Lim, is a subset of design talents from the South Asian countries of India and Nepal, who, unlike their peers of Chinese and Taiwanese origin, are not the children, or grandchildren, of immigrants, but first generation immigrants themselves.
Prabal Gurung, winner of the 2011 CFDA Swarovski award for womenswear and a favourite of Michelle Obama, was raised in Kathmandu, Nepal. Bibhu Mohapatra, an Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation award-winner, hails from Odisha, a state on the east coast of India. Red carpet favourite Naeem Khan, who dressed Mrs. Obama for her virtual Oscar appearance, was born in Mumbai. And newly anointed CFDA members Sachin and Babi Ahluwalia were raised, respectively, in Mumbai and New Delhi.
Unlike many of their Asian American peers, these designers did not launch their own labels right out of school. Gurung worked as design director at Bill Blass for five years before starting his company in 2009. Mohapatra was J.Mendel’s creative director for nine years before he established his own brand in 2008. And the Ahluwalias waited for nearly a decade after graduating from FIT to launch Sachin + Babi in 2009.
Critically, all of these designers also maintain close ties to South Asia and travel back and forth frequently, something they have each leveraged, in their own way, to build their brands and businesses.
Before launching their own label, the Ahluwalias built a flourishing textile business, grown out of their manufacturing connections in India, and quickly found loyal customers in Oscar de la Renta, Caroline Herrera and Yves Saint Laurent. “We went about it another way,” says Sachin. “We laid the foundation and learned by watching the people we were working with.”
Today, the Ahluwalias employ 220 people in Mumbai who create textiles for some of the world’s most influential designers but also produce the couple’s own fashion and home lines. “[The textile business] pays the bills,” says Sachin, who visits the city every 45 days. “In this way we’ve been able to do it all by ourselves. We’re totally self-funded.”
Much of the elaborate embroidery on Naeem Khan’s glittering gowns is done in India (although the fabric is typically sourced in Europe and the garments are assembled in New York). Mohapatra, too, is working with handloom artisans in India. In 2011, he developed a line of saris and other traditional garb to be sold primarily in India. “It’s gratifying, but heartbreaking at the same time,” he says of producing the collection, which is made in Odisha. “The workmanship is there, but the infrastructure is not.”
Alongside their ability to navigate the local culture and work with factories and craftsman in India, their South Asian origins have also informed Gurung, Khan, Mohapatra and the Ahluwalias’ aesthetic approaches. Indeed, you find embellishment across all their collections, whether it’s a bit of mirror embroidery on a Sachin + Babi jacket, or a waterfall of oversized paillettes on a Prabal Gurung gown.
But they also pay serious attention to keeping the look simple enough for a Western eye. “It’s a balance,” says Babi Ahluwalia. “After living here for almost 20 years, I’ve studied the American palette. And it is now my palette, too. It’s about knowing when embellishment is good, but more importantly when to hold back.” For Mohapatra, that skill was honed assisting Kevin Hall at Halston. “Everything there was about simplicity,” says Mohapatra. “I’m up to my neck in heritage, so it’s important that I design a modern silhouette for a global woman.”
And yet, South Asian heritage is an inextricable part of what these designers do, even if it’s sometimes subtle. “With Prabal, you can see it in his use of colour,” says Sachin, a longtime friend. “After all, fuchsia is the navy of India.”