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Famous Immigrant Designers Who Pursued The American Dream

american dream, statue of liberty

The Statue of Liberty is the symbol of hope in the American dream

The American dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of their background and nationality, can attain their own version of success. As such, the Statue of Liberty became the beacon of hope for immigrants – often it was the first thing they saw upon entering the United States by boat – it symbolized new life.

For fashion designers Diane Von Furstenberg and Prabal Gurung they are both proud immigrants who took a risk and moved to the States to start a new life and follow their own dreams. Here, they share their personal stories.

Belgian-born Diane Von Fürstenberg moved to the US from Europe as a young bride. Illustration: Danielle Moore

Born in Brussels to a Moldavan father and Greek mother, Diane von Fürstenberg has lived a life immersed in numerous cultures. She studied in Spain and Switzerland, and worked in Paris and Italy before marrying a German prince and moving to the US. Following the White House’s anti-immigration policies, she joined fellow celebrities in a campaign proudly proclaiming, “I am an immigrant.” She is also a board member on the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation and chairperson of the Statue of Liberty Museum campaign, which saw the opening of the Statue of Liberty Museum become a reality.

“I immigrated to New York in 1970. I am not a refugee as I came as the young bride of Prince Eduard Egon von und zu Fürstenberg. I came by ship as I wanted my journey to last as long as possible so I could think and dream about my new life. I was pregnant and in my luggage I carried the first 100 dresses I had designed and was hoping to sell in America. Like many immigrants I arrived in the bay of New York City at dawn, and passed the Statue of Liberty… Little did I know I would become her ‘godmother’ decades later.

Egon and Diane Von Fürstenberg in their Manhattan apartment, 1972. Photo credit: Getty

Egon and Diane Von Fürstenberg in their Manhattan apartment, 1972. Photo credit: Getty

I was born in Brussels, Belgium. My mother was a prisoner during the second world war and was shipped to concentration camps. She was 22 but survived and married my father when he came back from Switzerland, where he had escaped. My mother was born in Greece, my father in Bessarabia, now Moldavia. They both understood the difficulty and the enormous sense of hope of leaving home and settling in another country. My mother taught me that fear is not an option and my father gave unconditional love.

To me, home was Belgium. I loved my school in the center of Brussels and the tramway that took me home by the beautiful forest of Soignes. I discovered the world reading The Adventures of Tintin and could not wait to travel like he did.

Like many, I dreamed of going to America. The US was the land of all dreams and possibilities – the land of the American dream. I was lucky to live the American dream early, at a wonderful time. I lived the American dream because of a little dress – the wrap dress! I only became American 20 years ago but in my heart I am still a little Belgian girl with curly hair and lots of dreams.”

Read: “We Have To Do Better” – Selena Gomez On Donald Trump’s America

Born in Singapore and raised in Nepal, Prabal Gurung decided to pursue his dreams in the US. Illustration: Danielle Moore

For his 10-year anniversary SS20 collection, the designer – who is also the creative director behind Tasaki jewelry – sent models down the runway wearing sashes saying, “Who Gets To Be American?” While he has US citizenship, Gurung is a proud immigrant from Nepal, born in Singapore.

“I consider myself a global citizen; a cultural nomad. I was born in Singapore, raised in Nepal, and have lived in India, Australia, London, and then the US. There exists within me a confluence of all these cultures, which has shaped who I am today. Singapore exposed me to music and art. Nepal taught me humility and spirituality, and India is where I truly came alive in terms of the person I was meant to be. It was there where I felt emboldened to pursue my goal of becoming a renowned fashion designer. ‘Prabal Gurung’ as everyone knows it now began in India. My journey towards achieving my American dream is one of resilience, passion, and tenacity.

Prabal Gurung as a baby with his mother and siblings in Nepal

Growing up in Nepal was such a culturally diverse and rich experience. Landlocked between India and China, under the canopy of Mount Everest’s inspiring magnitude, you find yourself in this isolated country, which brims with traditions and spirituality. Nepal is the land of fables, superstitions, and folklore: enchanting and mind-bending stories that enthrall and transport you. It is these captivating tales that instilled within me a deep desire to tell stories, and drove me to become a designer. My Nepali heritage has deeply informed my design aesthetic. It can be seen in mandala motif embroidery and the use of vibrant colors. Our signature cutout dress is actually a reference to traditional saree dressing. My collections will always bear the marks of my roots, because Nepal is such an important part of who I am.

I moved to the US in the pursuit of making my American dream come true: to become a fashion designer. To me, New York was the only place I could foster and fulfill those desires, and the US was the land of infinite possibilities. The minute I landed in New York, I immediately felt embraced, like I had found my true home. I loved the fast pace, the bright lights, and the people. Everyone was so determined, tenacious, and passionate. I truly felt as though I had found my tribe. Living in a melting pot like New York, there were so many people that looked like me, and I adjusted rather easily. As time wore on, my blissful innocence waned, and I realized that the ‘land of the free’ was not unencumbered by phobias surrounding race, gender, sexuality, and inequality. My disillusionment however, was quickly replaced by activism, and I found my voice, speaking out about issues important to me.

Gurung with his mother

I am proud to be an American. The day I took my oath was very emotional. I had worked so hard for that moment, and I believe so deeply in this country – even in our most difficult times, which I believe we are living through now. The current administration’s divisive and dangerous rhetoric makes it all the more important for communities to support one another. When I see what is going on in our current government, with President Trump, I cannot stay silent. I am an immigrant who is lucky to also be a US citizen, however, some people are not in my position. I feel it’s my responsibility, as their ally, to speak up for immigrants, and all minority groups, when their rights are being questioned or violated. We work a lot with important organizations in the US, like Planned Parenthood, to support their projects and messaging.

Read: Mona Kattan on Having Immigrant Parents and Why Little Girls Shouldn’t Be Entered into Pageants

Not long ago, I was in a meeting, sitting across a group of white, older businessmen. I was emphatically telling them about my brand and how I wanted it to redefine the Americana aesthetic, and turn it on its head in a modern way. One of the men said, ‘Well, you don’t look American, so how can you define what America is?’ It was clear to me what he meant: that because I wasn’t white, I didn’t look American. I live here, I own a business here and employ people, I pay my taxes, but that wasn’t enough for some people. It got me thinking about the American identity and who gets to claim it and why. This was the basis of my SS20 show. I think the answer should be: anyone who wants to.

Prabal Gurung in New York

Prabal Gurung in New York

In Nepal, I started Shikshya Foundation Nepal with my siblings and friends to help create educational opportunities for children within the community in the hopes of creating a critical mass of leaders who will be instrumental in turning our society into a just, equitable, secular, accountable, and progressive one. In just eight years, we have impacted more than 70 000 lives through our schools and scholarships. We’ve also recently begun a program for female prisoners. I am so proud of the brand I have built in the US, but all my success would mean nothing if I couldn’t use that power to help my community in Nepal.

I want all immigrants to know that they are seen, that their voice matters, and that their existence matters. The only absolute truth of this lifetime is the impermanence of it. We all have to go at some time, and at that point all that will matter is the legacy we’ve left behind – whether we were able to impact the lives of many, or change the life of one person.”

Read: “We Had To Start From Scratch As Refugees” – Rita Ora Reveals All About Her Past  

Originally published in the April 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia

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