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.
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.