Seamlessly stitching creativity and commerce, Bibhu Mohapatra has designed an inimitable niche for himself.
For little over eight years since he set out on his own, designer Bibhu Mohapatra has not just dressed women, but taken inspiration from them. “It all starts with an image of a strong woman that becomes a driving force for my collections,” Bibhu tells us from New York. So, more often than not, women of calibre, instead of usual suspects (read birds and flowers) find their way to his moodboard, before he puts pencil onto paper to translate them into his designs.
A regular at New York Fashion Week, Bibhu’s spring 2018 collection was a tribute to women explorers, often uncelebrated. “Imagine a woman of grit… she can be an heiresses, socialite, or even a rebel, craving for cultural knowledge, setting out on a courageous journey,” Bibhu says, an avid traveller himself, who confesses that travelling fuels his inspiration. The runway, thus, lit up with designs that reflected adventurous streak of this woman he talks about, who stands out with a unique sense of style. While black and white dominated the line, a clever use of colour, inspired by the garb of Onna-bugeisha or martial artists, was seen on the ramp. Soft feathers peeking from embroidered lacey sleeves moved in perfect rhythm as models walked in dramatic clothes. Structure-meets-fluidity is how we can best describe the creations. Concurrence of starkly different elements has been, in fact, Bibhu’s strength.
“If I have to define my design sensibility, it would be a juxtaposition of opposites… masculine with feminine, hard with soft, organic with geometric,” Bibhu says. His life, too, has been a tale written in different inks, all of which have shaped his life and career.
Today his days in New York is a far cry from his humble beginning in Rourkela, popularly known as Steel City of Odisha. Something that has not changed over the years though, is his love for fashion. “Before it was fashion, the world of creating clothes was my draw. Making dresses for my sister as a young boy, I did not know anything about fashion as a business, but I did understand the value of craft of making beautiful clothes. My mother was my greatest source of inspiration for style, who inculcated in me the appreciation of great craft,” Bibhu recalls. Life was simple back then and his parents instilled a core value system among the siblings, inspiring them to make the best of any situation. He does so… even today. Bibhu shifted to New York from India to study at Utah State University. Even while finishing his Master’s degree in economics, he never let his love for fashion take a back seat. On his father’s advice and encouragement, Bibhu got into the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
The beginning of his American dream was his stint with J. Mendel. “Aspiring designers, I believe, need to work with a brand after finishing school to learn the real tricks of the trade.” This is exactly what he did. During his nine years there, rising to the ranks of design director, Bibhu learnt about the business of fashion and luxury, forming long-lasting industry connections.
The dexterity and confidence with which Bibhu balances creativity and commerce is inspiring, but there was a day he was standing at a crossroad looking for a direction. With nothing to lose, he took the plunge and started his eponymous label. After a few months break, travelling through Europe, Bibhu came back to New York to his tiny, new studio on the upper west side of Manhattan with a fresh vigour. “It was my thinking box.” His maiden collection — showcased at New York Fashion Week for Fall 2009 was inspired by Japanese armour. Life, it seems has come a full circle, with his Spring 2018 collection also taking a cue from the Japanese culture.
While all his clothes are made in New York, he often works closely with artisans from India, who help him tell the real story behind each of his collections. “My biggest takeaway from working with them is that the legacy of craft is invaluable. I am indebted to those craftsmen.” Bibhu’s favourite fabric? Silk ikat. “It is so versatile,” he says.
Marrying tradition and modernity is a challenge that drives him. Modernity, he says, always stands on the legs of tradition. This sense of belonging to roots while flying high is what makes his clothes modern with the right amount of tradition.
If his days at J. Mendel taught him the significance of identifying the ultimate client, starting his own eponymous label drilled in him the importance of commerce. His creations ride high on the beauty of classic elegance, something that never goes out of fashion, or out of business. Clean cuts, flattering silhouettes and fine craftsmanship.
No wonder that former first lady Michelle Obama wore many of his designs — choosing to wear a dress with geometric print and blue floral motifs teaming it with a matching cape coat on her state visit to India in 2015 — leaving him speechless. “At that moment, I recalled what she has whispered in my ear a few months before she wore that dress, saying that we are going to do something big soon,” he says. While people in the Indian fashion fraternity respected his work, Bibhu Mohapatra, became one of the most searched designer, and later a household name in India. If an ever-swelling lineup of celebrities wearing his label — Lupita Nyongo, Jennifer Lopez, Freida Pinto, Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra — is anything to go by, Bibhu is on the right track.
For now, his collaborations — with Forevermark for a jewellery collection called Artemis and with Fox Studios for Murder on the Orient Express — are keeping him busy. The projects come at the right time when the designer is planning to restructure his business.
It is not easy, especially in a fiercely competitive fashion world, but Bibhu has proved that even if someone from a humble background with only talent to fall back on, can make a mark. “All it takes is identifying one’s own unique voice,” Bibhu says, the one who has definitely made his voice clear in the chaos called fashion.