The First Lady’s Tailor
A small-town boy from Rourkela stitched his way into the wardrobes and hearts of some of the most famous women in America. This is his story
Michelle Obama and JLo flaunt his creations. What makes this small-town Indian designer from Odisha the toast of international fashion?
A At the door, his half grin can be mistaken as cocky. But as he enters the wood-panelled room, his eyes light up with boyish wonder. The large bay windows catch his fancy; he looks out at the Mumbai skyline and exclaims excitedly, “What a view! What a view!”
You’d think that for a New Yorker with an Upper West Side address, the panorama of a sprawling city would hold little surprise. But for this 43-year-old man, just as for the thousands of hopefuls from small towns, Mumbai is still “so special, so mysterious”.
He may be the toast of A-list fashion circles now, he may have dressed some of the most influential women in the US – including First Lady Michelle Obama, and Hollywood stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Hillary Swank – but, at heart, Bibhu Mohapatra is still a humble boy from a small town in Odisha.
A year ago, during a previous interview with Brunch, his heavily inflected American accent with its slow Indian drawl had been the cause of much amusement. “Oh, I never made a conscious effort to speak like an American,” he had said then. “Hell, I still wobble my head when I talk.” Last week in Mumbai, for the launch of his jewellery collection for Forevermark, the internationally renowned designer was still all humility and desi-accent. Even during this interview, slivers of his simple past often take over his acquired American mannerisms. Often, he looks back fondly at the people and instances that helped shape Bibhu, the man, and Bibhu, the designer label, as they are today.
From Rourkela, With Love
Rourkela in Odisha is a nondescript place. It has a population of a mere five lakh. Its landmarks include a steel plant around which the town was built. On rare occasions, Rourkela makes it to the
I left [for America] in ’96, with a suitcase full of Indian spices and a heart full of dreams!
news, riding mostly on the success of one of its former residents: Mira Nair, maker of films such as Monsoon Wedding and The
Namesake. Or Amish Tripathi, writer of the Shiva trilogy. And more recently, Bibhu Mohapatra, ‘creator of the dress that Michelle Obama wore to India’ last year.
Mohapatra had a typically small-town upbringing – climbing trees, playing gilli-danda, “scraping your knees while learning to ride a bicycle and coming home to more thrashing”. On most weekends, he watched bewitched as his engineer father took apart a bike or car part by part. “We didn’t have video games back then or even a TV. We got our first TV in 1988. Newspapers never carried anything on fashion. Sunday supplements would sometimes profile one of those early designers, such as Rohit Bal or Suneet [Varma] or Tarun [Tahiliani]. That was all the fashion I had access to.”
Though the exposure came much later, the interest developed early. He was always curious about things his mother sewed. And his affair with the needle and thread began when he was about 12. Old saris, tablecloths and later, cheap fabric bought with pocket money, would be cut and sewn up into dresses for his sister. “That poor girl was so patient!” he laughs. “She never discouraged me, but would kindly ask, ‘Is it okay if I wear these at home?’ When I finally made a proper dress for her, she wore it to some function and got a lot of compliments. That kind of solidified something within me, it made me believe that I could perhaps, do this.”
In a conservative Indian family, he says, a boy wanting to learn to sew would be criticised. “Not in mine though.” With an engineer dad and a mom who “had the full-time job of raising the four of us”, the Mohapatras were modest in wealth but rich in outlook. “My parents were traditional, but progressive at the same time. And so each of us had breathing room.”
Now, with both his parents gone, he “sometimes feels like I don’t have a roof over my head anymore”. But his siblings continue to be his support system. “They’re all very happy. And proud of me, of whatever they read in the news. But they make sure I get a reality check every now and then,” he says.
New York, New York
Mohapatra studied in an Oriyamedium school till Class 7. He went on to study at the Municipal College in Rourkela and then spent a year in a management course – just to get 16 years of education, a requisite for applying to a Master’s programme in the US. But America was not so much a dream for him as it was a stepping stone into the future, into fashion.
“At that time, in the early ’90s, there was only one fashion school in India – NIFT, Delhi. And it didn’t seem like I could get through it. Honestly, I didn’t even try,” he says. At the insistence of his brother who was studying graphic design in the US then, he applied for and got into the Master’s in economics programme at Utah State University on a partial scholarship. “That was my ticket to America. I left in 1996, with a suitcase full of Indian spices and a heart full of dreams!”
While there, a professor chanced upon his sketchbook one day. “‘You need to go to New York,’ she told me. She was kind enough to call her friends in the art department so that I could sit in during their classes [without paying extra] and do live drawings. I couldn’t have afforded those otherwise.” He started improving his portfolio and by the time he finished his Master’s, he was sure that economics had been just a detour. Fashion designing was what he intended to really pursue.
So, he joined the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. The fast, bustling metropolis was a different ballgame altogether. Back in Utah, he was making ends meet with an on-campus job as a janitor: cleaning, vacuuming and shovelling snow. He says, “Before I took that job, I didn’t even know what a janitor did. I remember going for the interview and looking at one of the computers, thinking I’ll probably get to sit there. Only I was taken to the closet where the brooms and mops were kept.” He earned a measly $4.25 an hour, but learnt that no job is ever too small.
In New York, though his student loan paid for tuition and board, he’d be left with less than two dollars for food. “That city is bloody expensive! I had to find a job before my course ended, or I’d end up on the street. But for a job, I needed some experience, for which I needed an internship.” So armed with 20 printed copies of his resume, he walked into 7th Avenue – the home of all things fashion – and dropped them amidst takeaway menus at top design houses, such as DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.
Mohapatra got two phone calls off that exercise. One was from the house of Halston – named after legendary American designer Roy Halston Frowick, who rose to fame designing hats (Jackie Kennedy wore his pillbox hat at JFK’s presidential inauguration). While at Halston, Mohapatra worked non-stop. “I would be running to factories carrying bolts of fabrics on my shoulders, making embroidery layouts, going to fittings – while attending classes six days a week. I was like a kid in a candy shop; I was living my dream.”
After a year there, Mohapatra moved on to a full-time job at another big design house – J Mendel. He spent nearly a decade there and during that time, he expanded his team from four to 20 people. It was here that he first cultivated contacts with some of the most famous women in America. “At J Mendel, I learnt about the key
People know Manish Malhotra and Sabya for the incredible brands they’ve built. But word of mouth is the biggest tool. Treat people well, and they will talk about you
I do not design for women who are fashionistas or famous. I enjoy designing for ladies with personality, flawed but real
things you need to focus on to build a luxury business. And, how crucial it is to build a cohesive theme. You’re as good as your theme,” he says. He was lucky, he says, to work under a boss who allowed him the trust and opportunity to develop his own aesthetic and a huge budget to hone his skills. Here, he learnt to create luxury.
Next Stop: Someplace Else
When he finally decided to venture out on his own, Mohapatra took a couple of months off “to clear my head and get things out of my system”. The repetition of five collections a year had set in hard, and it was heartbreaking to cut ties with a team he had nurtured. So he went off to Europe, travelling, going completely off-grid.
Chantilly, near Paris, the city famous for its lace, was one of his pit stops. “I went for a friend’s big birthday bash at a palace there. Every living French president was there, celebrities, writers, musicians… it was an eclectic mix,” he says. This was where he met the British-Irish artist, film producer and style icon Daphne Guinness (heir to Arthur Guinness, the inventor of Guinness beer). “I saw her, I met her and I was mesmerised by her,” says Mohapatra. She would become the muse for his first ever individual collection.
Drawing inspiration from women with incredible personalities and stories has been a recurring theme in his creations. “They don’t have to be fashionistas, or anyone famous. They can be flawed, everyone is flawed. But their journey, what they stand for as people, their work – that’s what is important to me.”
Last October, for instance, he went on a tour of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. After four hours, he reached the place where the Dragon Lady – China’s Empress Dowager Cixi – had lived. “She was a concubine but she wanted to rule the empire. A lot of people I spoke to described her as a horrible person, pure evil. But some thought that she was the beginning of modern China, she gave voice to women. She was a trailblazer who ruled the empire, by hook or by crook, for 50 years! Now how’s that story for some inspiration?” Mohapatra pauses, amidst his excited narration, for effect. The Dragon Lady managed to leave a lasting impression on his latest Fall Collection, which is replete with Oriental themes.
Like his muses, his creations too exude a sense of power without being overpowering. “I want my clothes to make women feel more of what they are instead of becoming someone else… they should feel confident, empowered.” Mohapatra is famous for his evening gowns. But he loves doing what he calls date dresses – “sort of in-betweens that you can go to work in and then add or take off a layer and voila! You’re ready for a date night or cocktail party”.
He has an eye on India. He doesn’t look disappointed when I tell him that not many people still know him here. “It’s not about how many people know me or how many times I show up in the tabloids. Even if 10 people know me, I’m happy as long as they know me for the right reasons,” he says. “People here know Manish Malhotra and Sabyasachi [Mukherjee] for the incredible brands they’ve built for themselves. It isn’t just about who they are, but how they interacted with the people… that’s the secret to their success.”
It is the secret to his success too. “Word of mouth is a big tool. But a lot of it has to do with how you treat people. If you treat people well, they talk about you.”
For now though, Mohapatra is content with his latest interest – jewellery. But again it’s the stories behind the shine that draw him. His own story goes: many years ago, his mother showed him family heirloom no one wore anymore. “When I first touched them, I felt like I had met all these women in my family who I never actually knew,” the designer says. “It struck me that jewellery serves a more important purpose: of holding on to stories, generation after generation.”
The collection is luxurious, as a Bibhu Mohapatra gown would be. “To me, luxury is what has been preserved over a long time, what has been kept alive by people’s skills and passed down generations. You can find it in metal work, fabrics, leather… when you have access to that repertoire of craft, that is real luxury.”
And what better place to find such luxury than in India? There is a sadness in his eyes as we talk about his birthplace: he realises that he won’t be able to visit Odisha on this trip. “I’ve been missing home – the memories, the air... There’s a lot to see in this world,” he says. “But, there’s no feeling like coming back home.”
GOING, GOING, GOWN Freida Pinto, Michelle Obama, Lupita Nyong'o, Priyanka Chopra and Jennifer Lopez are among the celebrities Bibhu Mohapatra has dressed; (extreme right) the designer with showstopper Athiya Shetty at the launch of his jewellery collection in Mumbai last week