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

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - News - by Satarupa Paul; pho­to­graphs shot ex­clu­sively for HT Brunch by Subi Sa­muel

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.