From the moment American First Lady Michelle Obama stepped off Air Force One in Delhi two weeks ago, the Indian media tripped over her knee-length dress and matching jacket. The outfit graced the front page of every newspaper, was splashed on TV screens over and over again, has been compared with other ensembles, praised and criticised.
Deeply rooted: Bibhu Mohapatra still exudes the attitude of a small-town boy.
Much ado over nothing, you’d say? Not quite. Because somewhere in all that frenzy, the real star of the show shone through: Indian-born, New York-based designer Bibhu Mohapatra is suddenly hot news.
I tell him so over the phone. He chuckles appreciatively and says, “It’s heavenly! I feel like my entire family is cheering for me.” His voice is still heavily inflected with Indian tones, his attitude is still that of a small town boy, but his etiquette, aspirations and energy are very first world.
“All these years, I never made a conscious effort to speak like an American. In fact, I still wobble my head when I talk,” says the 42-year old fashion designer and chuckles again.
Hailing from Rourkela in Odisha, Bibhu grew up in a modest, middle-class household, with parents who were traditional, yet progressive in their thinking. “I was surrounded by things my mother sewed and I was curious about them. When I was about 12, my mother taught me how to sew on her old machine. In most households, a boy wanting to learn how to sew would be met with criticism, but not in mine.”
Bibhu, however, followed a conventional educational path with a Bachelor in Economics from Municipal College, Rourkela. All along though, he remained fascinated by the technicalities of taking something flat, cutting it up and using a sewing machine to make something that one could wear.
And all along, he honed his skills by making ‘things’ from old sarees and table cloths for his older sister, who, he claims “wore them out of the sheer kindness of her heart”. “Poor girl, she was so patient!” he says.“I’m so glad that some of those things I made do not exist anymore because those were real atrocities (laughs). My sister who didn’t want to discourage me ever would be like, ‘Is it okay if I wear these at home?’”
Following his graduation, Bibhu enrolled in a Masters programme in Economics at the Utah State University on a partial scholarship and enough money from his father to last him a quarter. "It was my ticket to America. I set off for the US with a suitcase full of clothes and Indian spices, and a heart full of dreams," he says, melodramatically almost.
He had promised himself not to take any more money from his father, and so he set off to find a job on campus. "One day, I saw a posting for a 20 hours-a-week job at the university inn for the post of something called a janitor. I didn’t know what it meant but I applied anyway. During the interview, I kept thinking that maybe I’ll get that computer to sit at. And then my supervisor took me to the janitor’s closet – it was full of brooms and mops," he laughs.
"For the first two weeks, I would lock myself in a room in the middle of all the cleaning, think of my mother and cry. But then I got over it and did it for nine months for the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour. It made me appreciate the saying that no job is small."
During this time, he also took fashion merchandising classes and on a professor’s insistence, applied to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York for a compressed course. New York was a different ball game altogether. After paying for tuition and housing, his student loan left him with $1.75 for food.
"I had to have a job or I would have been on the streets." He printed 20 copies of his resume, walked across 7th Avenue where all the major design houses are based, and dropped them at the offices of Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and other such names – amidst take-away food menus!
"Out of those 20, I got two calls. One was for an internship with the house of Halston. I was working non-stop: classes, homework, job, running to factories carrying bolts of fabrics on my shoulders, doing embroidery layouts, cutting, being in the fittings. I was like a kid in a candy shop; I was living my dream."
Next big leap
On graduating, he joined the design house J Mendel and for the next nine years helped build it from a four-member team to over 20 in the design department alone. Then in the fall of 2009 during the recession, Bibhu decided to launch his eponymous label Bibhu Mohapatra.
“When you start something new, you have to do the groundwork for a few years to establish yourself before it takes off. I thought I might as well do that when the economy was slumping, so by the time it turned around, and I survived, I would be right up there. It worked for me; at a time when no one was launching even a little chai shop, forget a luxury brand, I got a lot of attention.”
He has since designed gorgeous couture evening gowns, glamorous cocktail dresses and furs for a clientele he had cultivated while at J Mendel, including Hillary Swank, Jennifer Lopez, Glenn Close, Eva Longoria and more. And of course, Michelle Obama.
“The first time she wore one of my creations (to the Jay Leno Show), I showed a photo to my dad. He had seen movie stars and musicians wearing my designs, but for him this was the ultimate moment.”
India and the wild West
Bibhu’s creations are edgy, classy, modern and sexy. His techniques are a play of opposites – tailoring with draping, organic versus geometric, florals set off with architectural lines. He draws his inspiration from people and travels, and from his heritage.
“Growing up, I took all those beautiful fabrics, the amazing handicrafts and the dazzling combination of colours in jewellery and clothes, for granted. After I left India, all those things became very vivid. Now they make their way into all my collections.”
He remembers seeing a flower in the spring time while travelling through Odisha as a kid. “It’s called palash and it’s bright orange-red with a velvety black base. It’s like the whole tree is on fire.” Two seasons ago, he used his memory of that flower and mixed it with water colour to create a stunning garment.
Bibhu says it’d be a dream come true to bring his creations to India. “I really miss being in India with my people, whether my family or my friends, and also the food.” For now, in his free time, he’s content with cooking for his friends (including Odiya food), when he’s not watching Bollywood movies or documentaries on India.
“During the weekend, I go to my country house in upstate New York, which is this tiny, wooden farmer’s house built in the 1840s.” He goes there not only to process and absorb all the inspirations and ideas he’s had through the week, but also to look after his chickens.
“I started with 17 of them, all named after supermodels. Then we had a fox attack, and Naomi Campbell and a few others perished. But Christie (Brinkley), Heidi (Klum), and others are still living and laying eggs,” he says, with the chuckle I’m familiar with now.
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From HT Brunch, February 8
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