Meet the Indian designer behind Michelle Obama's dress

In 2012, US First Lady Michelle Obama wore a certain yellow print dress on Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show. It not only marked a milestone in a designer’s career, but also made everyone sit up and take notice. That dress sold out instantly, and the creator of that dress, Bibhu Mohapatra is now a rising star in the New York fashion scene.

Bibhu Mohapatra has designed outfits for the likes of Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hillary Swank, Salma Hayek and Cate Blanchett

Originally from Odisha, Mohapatra came to the US to pursue a Master’s degree in economics in Utah after which he relocated to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), New York to pursue his dream. Mohapatra has dressed the likes of Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hillary Swank, Salma Hayek, Cate Blanchett and his clothes can be seen at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. He also designed the costumes for the opera Aida at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2012.

Last year, US First Lady Michelle Obama wore a yellow print dress designed by Bibhu Mohapatra on Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show

One of the endeavours particularly close to his heart is the Odisha state government’s mission of collaborating with artisan weavers and designers to revive the tradition and open new markets. It culminated in a festival in Bhubaneswar in March this year, showcasing the new designs created by the weavers, which generated tremendous response. Excerpts from the interview:

From Rourkela to New York, via Utah - that’s an unusual career trajectory for the fashion industry. How has the journey been?
It was my dream to pursue fashion. I landed up in New York with a few dollars in my pocket. When I was at FIT, I barely had enough money to buy two meals
a day. Initially, I had to go to the showrooms here, asking them for jobs. In a way, I’m glad I went through the process of working for another company where I had to do all sorts of work. My focus was on the craft and what I ultimately wanted to do, which was to be involved in the creative process. That happened when I started working at Halston. After class, I worked from 5 pm to 11 pm every night and weekends. I was running on just four hours of sleep a night that year! But I would not trade those experiences for anything - they made me understand the hard work that goes into this business.

Can you tell us about your project which aims to revive the Odisha handloom traditions of the weavers?
The Odisha textiles, handlooms, the beautiful saris my mother wore these were the first things that inspired me and have stayed with me, though I didn’t quite realise it at that time. After moving to the States, I recognised the beauty of the designs I grew up with. Those textiles, colours and fabrics shaped my aesthetic. I visited the villages and got to observe and learn about their craft and how they have nurtured it
for generations.

Your designs are not bound by ethnicity and there aren’t any overt Indian references in your designs. Is that also a way of breaking stereotypes and expectations?
My clientele is global and not bound by any geographic boundaries, so why should my clothes be? Having said that, a lot of my aesthetic sensibilities come from my Indian heritage. I love the challenge of taking those early inspirations and morphing them into something modern and universal. I always try to have a modern sensibility with a few traditional elements in my clothes. I don’t follow trends. For me, designing is an organic process where I take inspiration from everywhere from art, architecture and from my travels. My Resort 2014 collection has nuances of the French colonial architecture that you see in Pondicherry. I found old prints of colonial buildings and developed prints and color schemes, so it’s not a literal translation, but a nuance that I express. The minute it becomes literal, I lose interest.

The recent tragedy at the Bangladesh garment factory showed the grim realities behind the low-cost ‘fast fashion’ of mass market brands. Can we expect to see sustainable fashion, given the rise in global consumption of affordable fashion?
I understand why easily disposable ‘fast fashion’ attracts people but at what cost, is the question. I think we should expect the new generation to try and understand where these low-cost clothes come from, and what goes into it. One can buy a $15 pair of jeans but someone, somewhere, is paying the price for it; in this case hundreds of lives lost in Bangladesh I think affordable, disposable fashion has its place but it’s not everything. If you purchase something, use it more than one season, mix and match it with others to give it a new life, then it has some value.¬†All my clothes are made in New York, mostly in my atelier here where I can see how they’re made and priced accordingly. I don’t send my clothes to places I don’t know or those fraught with violations.

What are your thoughts on the Indian fashion scene?
The quality of work that is coming from India now is amazing. Young designers have come out with clothes that are very global, with a hint of their heritage. I’ve seen the work of Rahul Mishra and Nachiket Barve and I think they are very talented. And then we have the trailblazers like Rohit Bal and Suneet Verma. It’s a very exciting time for Indian fashion. They just need to get the retail system in place so that the work of these amazing designers gets the exposure it deserves.

Is there anyone in Indian showbiz that you would like to dress?
I think a brand ambassador should also bring something to the table. They have to stand for something on their own, whether they are artistes, actors or social activists. I have to be inspired by their work as well. In Bollywood, I’ve loved Kajol and her work. Sonam Kapoor also has a great sense of style. Deepika Padukone, too, I think, would look good in my clothes.

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