UR­BAN LEG­END

Once a min­i­mum-wage jan­i­tor, it took Odisha-born BIBHU MO­HA­P­A­TRA only five years to be­come New York’s de­signer du jour. Gay­a­tri R Shah plots his jour­ney.

Harper's Bazaar (India) - - BAZAAR - Pho­to­graph by JOSEPH CHEN

BIBHU MO­HA­P­A­TRA IS CLEARLY HAV­ING a fash­ion mo­ment. When Priyanka Cho­pra donned his dress for a Golden Globe awards party in Los An­ge­les in Jan­uary, she joined a long line of celebri­ties mes­merised with the sump­tu­ous, ul­tra-fem­i­nine looks now closely as­so­ci­ated with his epony­mous brand. A day af­ter the Bol­ly­wood bomb­shell ap­peared in Mo­ha­p­a­tra, Amer­i­can R&B singer Ciara stepped out in NewYork in a cus­tom-made suede coat for an ap­pear­ance on the pop­u­larTV show, TheView. Mo­ha­p­a­tra counts fash­ion mavens such as Michelle Obama and Hollywood A-lis­ters Gwyneth Paltrow, Hil­lary Swank, Glenn Close, Jen­nifer Lopez, and Jen­nifer Lawrence as fans—they have all worn him for events and ap­pear­ances reg­u­larly.

“Bibhu’s mo­ment is no doubt now,” says Roopal Pa­tel, founder of the New York-based fash­ion con­sult­ing firm that bears her name (and for­mer se­nior fash­ion direc­tor at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Mar­cus). “His aes­thetic is in tune with what is hap­pen­ing in fash­ion right now,” she adds. Long a favoured choice for those in the know, Mo­ha­p­a­tra’s height­ened vis­i­bil­ity has ev­ery­thing to do with his de­signs—lux­u­ri­ous, well-cut, strong sil­hou­ettes with fem­i­nine flair. Pa­tel her­self wore a Mo­ha­p­a­tra gown to cel­e­brate her 40th birth­day in Mex­ico re­cently. “It could not have been more per­fect,” she says. “He has a great sense of colour, print, and pat­tern. His vi­sion is very glam­orous and sen­sual, and he knows what his woman wants, to look and feel beau­ti­ful.”

If Mo­ha­p­a­tra were to hear these ob­ser­va­tions, he would likely blush. Un­der­stated and shy, the 41-year-old, who is based in New York, stands apart for his old-world charm and po­lite­ness. He has built tremen­dous good­will amongst fash­ion in­sid­ers be­cause, well, he’s nice. His trade­mark soft-spo­ken man­ner and gen­til­ity harks back to an era when cou­turi­ers and clients were con­fi­dants and friends, like the great part­ner­ships be­tween Au­drey Hep­burn and Hu­bert de Givenchy, Jackie Kennedy and Oleg Cassini, or more re­cently, Sofia Cop­pola and Marc Ja­cobs.

Stylist and creative con­sul­tant Kate Fo­ley, on­line re­tail pow­er­house Moda Operandi co-founder Lau­ren Santo Domingo, and fash­ion and beauty ex­pert Mary Alice Stephen­son read­ily agreed to a photo shoot with Mo­ha­p­a­tra, not just be­cause they love his clothes but also be­cause of their mu­tual af­fec­tion. They per­son­ify the type of women who are drawn to Mo­ha­p­a­tra’s de­signs, and in turn, in­spire him to cre­ate. An­other prin­ci­pal muse is English mu­si­cian Florence Welsh, who was pho­tographed by Karl Lager­feld wear­ing an ivory gown by Mo­ha­p­a­tra for a lim­it­ededi­tion vinyl, Shake it Out, in 2011.

Re­flect­ing on all he’s achieved, Mo­ha­p­a­tra says, sim­ply: “If you work re­ally hard, peo­ple even­tu­ally pay at­ten­tion.” Born and raised in In­dia, he re­calls his jour­ney from the small town of Rourkela in Odisha to the US at the age of 24, where he ini­tially pur­sued a mas­ter’s de­gree in eco­nomics at Utah State Univer­sity. He then moved to New York, when he en­rolled at the Fash­ion In­sti­tute of­Tech­nol­ogy. “I am a very lucky per­son,” he de­clares. “Ever since I left home, I’ve met in­cred­i­bly com­pas­sion­ate peo­ple who helped me along the way.” He rem­i­nisces about his days of strug­gle, in­clud­ing the nine months he spent as a jan­i­tor work­ing at min­i­mum wage, where he cleaned bath­rooms and floors. “At first, I used to cry, but then I re­alised how much that job taught me about my­self.”

In 1998, he moved to New York and en­rolled at FIT, go­ing on to in­tern at Hal­ston be­fore land­ing a gig at J. Men­del. He spent eight years at J. Men­del, where he held the post of de­sign direc­tor, lead­ing a team of 17 and hon­ing his craft un­der the tute­lage of creative direc­tor Giles Men­del. “I had to pro­duce and sell, and learned that you don’t make clothes to be wor­shipped like you do in de­sign school,” he says of that time. “You make clothes with which you can be in­ti­mate.”

To­day, Mo­ha­p­a­tra works out of a 5,000 sq ft space in Man­hat­tan’s gar­ment district where he shep­herds a team of six full-time and four part-time em­ploy­ees. In six years, he has taken his la­bel from a fledg­ling en­ter­prise to fash­ion wun­derkind, re­tail­ing in 35 stores glob­ally, from the US to the Mid­dle East, to Rus­sia and across Europe.

His Spring 2014 col­lec­tion, based on mod­ern dance and in­spired by his friend Wendy Whe­lan, a for­mer prin­ci­pal bal­le­rina with the New York City Bal­let, was the first time he had flow­ers in his col­lec­tion. “Grow­ing up in In­dia, in the spring months, when we would drive to our ances­tral home in coastal Odisha, I would see this flame-coloured flower called palash (flame of the for­est), which looked as though the tree on which it bloomed was on fire. But it sig­ni­fied a curse. This flower could not be of­fered to the Gods, my mother told me. It’s ironic be­cause it’s so beau­ti­ful, but it has this short­com­ing. It made me think about the fact that beauty isn’t ev­ery­thing.The col­lec­tion is all about that free­dom to feel beau­ti­ful.” Mo­ha­p­a­tra used a lot of colours, such as fuch­sia, co­ral, and blush, against strong neu­tral hues. There were laser-cut de­tails in geo­met­ric shapes and cus­tom-wo­ven jacquard or­ganza fab­ric. In fact, he hit all the right notes, em­brac­ing the global trend to­wards fine de­tail­ing and fem­i­nin­ity for to­day’s in­tel­li­gent, on-the-go woman.

In an in­ter­view to Gotham magazine a few years ago, Mo­ha­p­a­tra said that the ex­pe­ri­ence at J. Men­del “de­fined my own lan­guage in lux­ury, what would be­come the DNA of my brand. Tak­ing some­thing lux­u­ri­ous and mix­ing it with some­thing un­ex­pected”. When he walked away from J. Men­del to start some­thing on his own, ev­ery­one dis­suaded him. He was leav­ing a se­cure job and risk­ing ev­ery­thing. It was Lau­ren Santo Domingo, co-founder of Moda Operandi, who spurred him on. “Lau­ren helped me see that I needed a clean break in or­der to be­gin some­thing new.” He says that he would go to his tiny studio on the Up­per West Side to sit, think and sketch. A few pri­vate clients sus­tained him ini­tially, and as he de­buted his first col­lec­tion for Fall 2009, his 16 looks drew im­me­di­ate ap­plause, with ev­ery­one reach­ing out to touch the clothes.

To­day, in an era of fast fash­ion, where clothes are so dis­pens­able, Mo­ha­p­a­tra’s cre­ations stand apart for their am­ple use of lux­u­ri­ous fab­rics: Brightly coloured furs and im­pec­ca­bly cut leather. Slip­ping into a Mo­ha­p­a­tra gown or don­ning an elon­gated sleeve­less leather jacket cinched at the waist makes the wearer feel so­phis­ti­cated yet con­tem­po­rary. That’s a big part of his suc­cess. But in his self-dep­re­cat­ing man­ner, he shrugs it off. “Noth­ing comes eas­ily,” he says. “I work hard and I have won­der­ful peo­ple in my life. I don’t take suc­cess for granted.”

“I am a very lucky per­son,” Mo­ha­p­a­tra de­clares. “Ever since I left home, I’ve met in­cred­i­bly com­pas­sion­ate peo­ple who helped me along the way.”

Bibhu Mo­ha­p­a­tra in his New York studio, with muses and friends Lau­ren Santo Domingo, Kate Fo­ley, and Mary Alice Stephen­son, all wear­ing Bibhu Mo­ha­p­a­tra Spring 2014. Sit­tings ed­i­tor: Sonam Chawla.

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