(September 4, 2021) It’s a juxtaposition of opposites – modern and traditional, tailored and draped, masculine and feminine, earthy neutrals and vibrant palette – that makes Bibhu Mohapatra‘s designs stand out. His impeccable and intricate craft which is a beautiful blend of Indian designs and modernity has made him a global name in the international fashion circle.
His love for his roots and the textiles of Odisha have helped him carve a niche for himself in a crowd of international designers. His designs are an eclectic mix of contemporary and tradition that have caught the fancy of the likes of Michelle Obama, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez, making the New York-based Indian designer a torchbearer of Indian fashion.
But it hasn’t been an easy journey for this designer who started off by making dresses for his sister. Here’s the story of this Global Indian who is making India proud on the international circuit.
Inspired by a needle and thread
Born in a humble family of four in Rourkela, Odisha, Mohapatra had a typical small-town upbringing. Most of his childhood went into climbing trees and playing gilli-danda with his friends. With no access to television in his early days, it was his mom’s love for sewing that caught his fancy. At 12, his love affair with the needle and thread began in earnest when he spent hours cutting and sewing up old saris and tablecloths to make dresses for his sister. “She never discouraged me, but would kindly ask, ‘Is it okay if I wear these at home?’ When I finally made a proper dress for her, she wore it to some function and got a lot of compliments. That kind of solidified something within me, it made me believe that I could perhaps, do this,” he told the Brunch.
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While Mohapatra was good at his craft, picking up sewing as a boy was looked down upon in Odisha. However, his parents were progressive enough to let him find his calling and follow his heart. So, after completing his studies at the Municipal College in Rourkela, Mohapatra set his sights on fashion. But with no fashion design school in India in the early 90s apart from NIFT Delhi, his dream was nipped in the bud. Around this time, on his brother’s insistence, who was studying graphic design in the US, Mohapatra applied for a Master’s program at Utah State University on a partial scholarship and moved to the US in 1996.
The American dream
It was here that a professor of his chanced upon his sketchbook and was so blown away by his work that she asked her friends in the art department to let her student attend their live drawing classes. This helped Mohapatra improve his portfolio, and by the end of his Masters in Economics, he was sure that fashion designing was where his heart belonged. His father’s advice sealed the deal for him. In an interview with Business Standard, Mohapatra said, “He told me to close my eyes and picture myself 10 years down the line and see if I was happy with whatever I was doing at that time. That sealed the decision for me.”
He moved to the Big Apple and enrolled himself at Fashion Institute of Technology. But the expensive city was a different ball game for this aspiring designer – he had to act fast to get some work before running broke. So armed with a few printed copies of his resume, he walked to 7th Avenue and dropped them at top design houses like Tommy Hilfiger and DKNY.
Luck was on his side as he got a call for internship from the house of Halston – a leading fashion house that boasts of clients like Jackie Kennedy. Mohapatra dived deep into his work and learnt every trick of the trade from making embroidery layouts to going to fittings. The exposure helped him pick a full-time job with J Mendel where he worked for almost a decade as the Design Director and expanded his team to 20 people. At this label, he cultivated contacts with some of the most famous women in America.
Beginning of a brand – Bibhu Mohapatra
It was in 2009 that Mohapatra decided to branch out and start his eponymous label. But before the big move, he took a few months off to travel to Europe to clear his mind and find the perfect inspiration which came in the form of British-Irish artist and producer Daphne Guinness. She became the muse for his first ever individual collection. Under the Bibhu Mohapatra label, the designer gave life to some of the most beautiful couture gowns and cocktail dresses for high-profile clients across Europe, US and India.
For many years, Mohapatra kept drawing inspiration from women with incredible personalities for his creations. “They don’t have to be fashionistas, or anyone famous. They can be flawed, everyone is flawed. But their journey, what they stand for as people, their work – that’s what is important to me,” he told HT.
Mohapatra’s designs have found their way to the big stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Lane Crawford. It’s a perfect blend of craft and modernity that has made Mohapatra a favorite with Hollywood and Bollywood stars. His client boasts of creme de la creme like Gwyneth Paltrow, Glenn Close, Jennifer Lopez, Rita Ora, Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor and Lupita Nyong’o.
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But it was Michelle Obama‘s midas touch that made Mohapatra’s designs sell like hot cakes. It began in 2013 when Obama graced The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in a yellow printed dress from Mohapatra’s resort collection, and since then, there has been no looking back for the designer who has mastered the balance between sophistication and femme fatale. The clean lines, the impeccable construction and the celebration of femininity is what makes his designs stand out. So when Michelle Obama exited Delta One on her maiden visit to India in a blue floral crepe dress by Mohapatra, no one could stop talking about the dress and in an instant this designer from Rourkela became a hit across the globe.
Coming back to roots
Mohapatra has become a global name in the fashion circles, thanks to the heavy influence of Odisha’s craft during the formative years of his life. “As a child, I was enamored of colors. My mother’s jewellery, her saris, the pipli and ikat work from the region — all this stayed with me. I feel that my heritage gives me that edge in making my clothes more modern,” he added.
Over the years, Mohapatra has used some of the textile traditions of his home state, particularly ikat, to create interesting juxtapositions and introduce the rich textiles of Odisha to the audience in the West. Back home, he collaborates with local weavers for various projects. One such was Make In Odisha Conclave in which he teamed up with state government to create a special collection as part of the Handloom Revival Project.
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“I challenged the artisans to create new shapes, new prints and then mix them with modern elements and interesting colour combinations. We blended textiles such as silk and cotton. The idea was to see how creative economies can help foster pride in our heritage and bring economic prosperity to the artisans,” he told CNBCTV18. The 49-year-old also plans to launch a new project where the narrative of the artisans will reach the customers. “They need to know the people who weave these beautiful textiles. I plan to offer two designs to each weaver household and their job is to work with them in interesting ways. On a sari’s pallu or the corner of the pieces of home furnishing, they will ikat weave their names so that they do not remain nameless, faceless artisans,” he added.
Mohapatra, who started his journey by sewing clothes for his sister to starting his own brand to styling Michelle Obama, has come a long way in this sartorial journey. He is one of those rare Indian designers who has put Indian designs and textiles on the global stage with every new collection.