Even though his designs hang in the closets of celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Lupita Nyong’o, Kareena Kapoor Khan, and even Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the US, Rourkela-born-New York-based designer Bibhu Mohapatra still retains his small town-boy humility. When we met him on his recent trip to the city, the 42-year-old looked dapper in a black jacket paired with dark blue jeans, and spoke candidly about his eternal inspiration — India, and also about his respect for Kangana Ranaut, and more.
Michelle Obama wears your designs very often. How was it meeting her?
She is one of the most generous, kind and inspiring people ever. I was invited to the White House in October 2014. It was unreal. I told her, “Thank you for making my American dream come true.” But she said, “No, thank you. You’re making your dream come true. We’re going to do something big together.” Then, in January 2015, she landed in India wearing a blue dress designed by me. I’m really fortunate to have met her, and got a chance to talk to her.
Several celebrities sport your designs. Who is that one person in Bollywood who you would like to dress?
I get drawn to people who are open to experimentation. It’s not an easy thing to do, and it requires a certain amount of confidence. I like people who have an eye for trying out new things and making those their own, and Kangana is one such person. To me, she is like a chameleon. She morphs into whatever she wears. She owns her look — whether it is traditional or something western. She is sort of an equivalent of Cate Blanchett in the west, who I have a similar kind of respect for.
Most of your collections have Indian elements. Is this your way of staying connected to the country you were born in?
Yes, I’m lucky to have been born and raised in a culture, where you are bombarded with this unique series of impulses every moment — be it the colour or the food or the culture itself. When I was growing up in Odisha, I had so many different sources of inspiration — whether it was the ikat fabric or the silver filigree work [of the state]. But, at that time, I just took everything for granted. Only when I was removed from the very source of it all was when they became vivid to me. So, every time I design, my heritage comes out in many different forms. I enjoy the challenge of taking those inspirations and tailoring them to make them appropriate for global consumers.
How difficult was it for you to make a place for yourself in a country like USA?
Fashion is a very challenging business. While creating something new every season is important, you also have to focus on your target audience. I didn’t go to the US to study fashion. I got a scholarship to study Economics, and I spent two-and-a-half years at the Utah State University doing that. I then applied to New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. I only had enough money to pay my fees. I didn’t even have the money to buy myself enough food. But it worked out. The one thing I have to say about the US is that if you really work hard, people pay attention. So, that’s what I did. I worked with a luxury brand as the design director for nine years, honed my skills and learnt a lot. Then I started my own label in the most difficult time, when the world economy was in a recession. At that time, I felt that if I could survive that moment, then I’d be fine. I wanted to do my groundwork when everything was a little dull, and then pick it up by the time the economy turns around. My focus was always on the fact that I had left my friends and family back home, so I needed to go that extra mile to justify doing that.
You collaborated with the Odisha government a few years ago to promote Sambalpuri ikat. How important is it for designers to associate themselves with such causes?
I cannot stress enough on how important it is, not only for designers, but for everyone. These are the crafts that define our culture. I was approached by the Odisha government to create something in collaboration with the weavers community there. I wanted to see how these people — who carry the burden of keeping these centuries-old traditions alive — live. When I went there, I saw that their living conditions were dismal. There was no single young person. It was discouraging. I designed 40 different things with that fabric, and they became quite popular. And I wanted to see how these weavers were benefitting from this initiative. But, I still don’t know [if they did]. Several government babus were involved in that project, and their focus was somewhere else. But the products were successful, and there is a lot of demand now for them. If I’m going to do a second phase, it won’t be for the middlemen to make money. I want to figure out other ways of working on this, where I am assured that the weavers will be taken care of. I want them to regain their faith in their craft, so that they can inspire the younger generation to take it up.
Do you think the fashion industry in India is on the right track?
There are some amazing designers in India, who I grew up looking up to, and who have now established themselves as power houses. But fashion, as a business, is still evolving in India. The trousseau collections here are beautiful, but I also think that the younger designers are creating an important statement with sportswear. I feel some infrastructural shifts need to happen so that the world audience can see more clearly what sort of work is being done here. Every luxury economy is competing with fast fashion, and that is only going to grow. And that is why crafts like ours should be kept alive. Indian designers are doing a great job on that front. But, to compete in the global market, one needs a little more exposure. Still, I would say that the fashion industry in India has come a long way.
In the international fashion world too, several issues like diversity and models of colour, etc, are being addressed. Is the change becoming evident now?
Yes, it is, and it’s a good thing. It’s got a lot to do with this generation. The way you think is always going to be different from the way your parents see things. The next generation always brings new energy and a new outlook.
You recently designed your first jewellery collection…
This is my first time, but the thought was always there, somewhere in my mind. I grew up in India, and one of my earliest memories of jewellery is of it being a family heirloom, a sort of heritage object. As I built my brand, jewellery became a natural progression as far as the brand extension is concerned. Different thoughts and proposals came my way over the years. But you have to look at the most opportune time to embark on every journey. So, two years ago, I was visiting Mumbai, and I had a meeting with a few friends from Forevermark India. I wanted to come up with a collection that people can fall in love with and can afford. So, we did a show in collaboration.
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