Bibhu Mohapatra Curated
Fashion and Costume Designer
CURATED BY :
You a story teller, what’s the process of your story telling?
My career trajectory are influenced by a sheer admiration for a strong, thought-provoking female lead character that surpasses frontiers from a traditional household in the East Coast of India to dressing First Lady Michelle Obama, women have been at the center of my life. My mother loved sewing and taught me how to, a new development of the collection of knitwear and separates was born last year dedicated to her. Empowering women with what they wear by inspiring them to be leaders? Most of the times from an image, a documentary, a trip, comes the woman that will be the inspiration for the next collection. She is not necessarily a fashionista, she is not always living but she is always a woman defined by her mission, image and sense of style. My intent, mission and message are clear, I wants to “empower women with authenticity.”
TO EMERGE YOU HAVE TO LEAD – What was the moment or the event that made you choose to move out on your own?
I knew I had to work if I wanted to keep a roof over my head”, his honest and authentic way of being is the force that motivates him, and always did, from the moment he left his town for America, the land where “You can make your dreams come true, if you work hard.
BALANCING ACT precious materials, vibrant colors and articulate garment construction is your heritage which you respect and honor in you collections. How do you balance heritage with cutting edge technology?
Cutting edge doesn’t exist without heritage.
LUXURY IS A STATE OF MIND: you went from furs to evening wear to dressing our former First Lady to diamonds. Is the road to luxury a “sky is the limit” for you?
I never worked with diamonds, but my mother always had a satchel with heirloom jewelry, those that are passed generation after generation. One day I asked to show it to me and many of the pieces that belonged to my grandmother and great grandmother have been now reproduced in this new collaboration. I am interested in the process, whether it’s embroidery or diamonds and casting precious stones. I don't deny that there will be a shoe line in the future, but if there will be, it will be based on exquisite craftsmanship. New fresh crop of designers, take note: keep a constant curiosity for craft, learn the art, and when the moment of the collaboration comes, you’ll be ready.
MENTORING you have been nominated a SUPIMA mentor, beside empowering women with your designs, you give back to young and emerging students. What makes you do so?
I enjoy supporting young talents, give them a hand and I definitely have much experience and suggestions to give, but I take more from them, I learn as well. And that is the best part of what I do. I was told that the school visit in the morning was a wealth of information.
Do you like Calcutta?
Calcutta is the biggest city nearest to Rourkela. It is one of my favourite cities in the world. There are few cities that have such strong cultures. People in Calcutta have a strong passion for their culture. They believe in their culture, fight for their culture and live for their culture. They might also complain about the excessive heat and rain but one thing that binds them all together is their culture.
Did you always know that design was your destiny?
Oh yes! I remember an old Singer sewing machine at home that belonged to my grandmother. It had a pedal. My mom taught me how to use it when I was 12 years old. I used to find it so intriguing, how a flat piece of material could be made into an object that had so many uses. My sister was very supportive, the atrocities she had to bear when I used to wake her up in the middle of the night to try on clothes! Since I had no formal training, I remember being on the floor, cutting, sewing…. It helped keep my curiosity alive and I knew that this was the best way to express my creativity. Some express through words, some on canvas and some write poetry, this is it for me. I came abroad to study economics after I got a scholarship. In India there weren’t many places to study fashion so I knew I had to leave the country. I finished my masters and then joined FIT, New York.
Did your parents always support your decision?
Yes. Thanks to my mom for teaching me, supporting me and encouraging me. My engineer dad is where my technical acumen comes from. I remember him taking me to the factories to see how what works. Often he used to open up his motorbike to fix things and I saw how the wheels worked. His car used to be open for dissection very regularly. All this taught me and inspired me to look beyond what I could see on the skin. In Paris, I looked at the Pompidou Center for hours. It fascinated me to see the structure inside out! That comes from my dad. My mom has given me my sense of style. She has taught me how individual style is so beautiful, what you appreciate on someone else might not be good for you. For her, style is all about being comfortable and she has an innate sense of sophisticated style. She might like a choker on someone else but she knows her own style is more bangles — red, green, gold ones… The day I was boarding that first flight from Calcutta to New York 13-14 years ago, my father told me in my hotel room to never forget the people who have contributed to making me the person I am. He said the day you forget your first steps, that is the end of it. My mother was not happy about him lecturing me, but my dad felt it was only right!
What was your first feeling on setting foot in New York?
I was totally fascinated. The energy, the people, the creative minds, it was really inspiring, quite like Calcutta actually.
What is your favourite art form from Orissa?
I love the ikkat and the simple Sambalpuri saris. I also love the silver filigree work. Whenever I come back home, I am always on the hunt for some beautiful things. The craftsmanship is so unbelievable, it is all ever so inspiring.
Are we going to see an India-inspired collection soon then?
Yes, soon. I am researching and reading. I click many photographs. Last time, when I was on an overnight train from Bhubaneswar to Rourkela, I took some beautiful images from the window — tribal villagers, so elegant and so beautiful, all dressed in saturated colours with their nose-rings and tattooed foreheads. There is so much in India. It already contributes subtly in all of my collections.
What are your favourite modern shapes?
I like architectural shapes. You can’t put any shape on any body, except on the runway. In reality, it has to look and feel flattering.
Your clothes strike a smooth balance of intelligence and glamour. What’s the secret?
That goes back to the woman I am designing for. She has to have passion, and not necessarily for fashion. She could cook, garden or be a mother doing it all. She has to take time to know herself and understand herself. A woman should know a super sexy dress doesn’t need $500 hair. The make-up should also be kept simple to let the true self come out. The real balance has to be struck between the dress and the persona of the person wearing the dress. If the dress takes over the persona or the persona takes over the dress, it is a failure.
You began with Halston and then were design director of J. Mendel. What do you miss most about being in a large design house? What you don’t miss?
I miss the logistics, the resources, the tools and the team. For instance, in a short span of time I could do much more with the artisans. In the same day, I could be working on a gown with someone and a coat with someone else. Some day, I will also build a team but right now, in the current scenario, the realities are different. I don’t miss that fact that it is not 100 per cent my creativity. Though I was design director, I was still designing for someone else’s customer, not my own. Now I do and that is a challenge. So yes, I don’t miss that lack of challenge.
When did you realise that you had made it big?
I don’t think I am there yet. If you look at the trade off, I am here thousands of miles away with the help of friends, family and well-wishers to pursue first my studies and now my career and it is during instances such as this phone conversation that I feel like I am on the right track. But yes, I am lucky to have had many breaks and many opportunities, especially in the past two years. The biggest honour is to have been recently inducted in the Council of Fashion Designers of America. But does that mean I have made it? No. There is so much more to achieve. And there is so much more to give back. I like the idea of having a challenge ahead of me. When you look at the world of art, fashion, literature, so much great work is being done. It makes me feel that I have only scratched the surface. Hopefully, I will make it well inside!
What is the quality that sets you apart?
I would think it is a combination of a few things. Definitely determination and drive, luck of meeting the right people and of course, some talent has to be there!
Is it easier for an Indian designer to make a mark internationally if they begin in the West?
I think you can make a mark from anywhere, as long as you are ready. You have to know what you want to say. India is an amazing platform today. Bodies like IMG and Lakme are doing so much for the industry, they are supporting young designers. It’s the same thing in the West but it’s a whole different market. I was a student here, then I worked here, so it made sense for me to launch my label here. Many established designers from India come here to show and they have made a mark. Sabyasachi Mukherjee for example. He has something new to say and his clothes make sense. So he is successful. I also like Rajesh Pratap Singh and Nachiket Barve.
Do you think the Indian fashion industry is on the right track? Can you see yourself as a part of it?
It’s completely on track. There is so much creativity and so much talent. I would love to participate there. I had a couple of interesting meetings in India. But the industry has to be more in sync with the West. End-work has to reach the end-customer; it should not just finish with the magazine pages.
How are you so grounded?
I hope to drop dead before the day comes that I have an attitude.
Do you have any non-fashion indulgences?
I am a movie buff. I had a fling with Bollywood a year-and-a-half ago. I was in a party scene of Teen Patti, wedged between Ajay Devgn and Amitabh Bachchan, with lines to say. Needless to say, I messed up. I felt like I was standing naked on Chowringhee! It was a fraction-of-a-second scene but I spent a whole day on the set. I have great respect for the craft.
How has your journey been from Odisha to New York?
My journey has been exciting and eventful, with experiences of meeting some of the most amazing people along the way. For the last 22 years, I have not lived in Odisha. However, I feel that my roots have become deeper and stronger in the soil that made me. I am one fortunate man who has had his share of ups and downs, and every experience counts as a great lesson.
Odisha has a variety of indigenous craft forms that are popular across India. Which one is your favourite crafts from the state? Have you incorporated any in your work?
The patchwork, the ikat, the tie-and-dye, all the hand-weaves, the silver filigree work, the temple art… there is so much to draw from this state. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by those. I took it for granted a little bit, but when I left Odisha all those things became alive for me much more. In very subtle and modified ways, I use these crafts, like the embroideries and the patchwork, in my work.
Your favourite Indian weave? Have you been influenced by the ikat weave of Odisha?
Odisha Ikat is something that I was surrounded by while growing up. From my mother’s sarees to the dress materials and homeware fabrics, they all had a strong presence in my childhood life in Odisha. It is definitely one of the fabrics that I am most passionate about.
What are your views on the revival of weaves?
This is the key to preserve the craft and tradition. With the development of technology and the pace of consumption, these heritage crafts have been somehow neglected. But in the past decade, a lot of sincere efforts have been made to develop the weaver communities. I am fortunate that I get to do a small part in the revival process by designing the collection of sarees that are woven by some of the communities around the state.
How popular are Indian weaves in New York and other parts of the world?
They are very well known but they are not easily accessible. If we can make them accessible and establish a proper supply channel, the sky will be the limit.
Is there a demand for Odisha products in foreign countries?
Definitely. There is a demand for Odisha textiles and handloom in foreign countries. There are many countries who have taken Odia crafts and doing Ikat all over and marketing it. For us, not to use Odisha Ikat and put it in the global market is a sin. It’s a 100-year-old heritage. Odia’s sensibility to utilise patterns and colours are the key to nurturing them.
Your ways of transforming a traditional Indian weave into an evening wear.
Traditional Odisha weave is one of the most intricate and uniquely luxurious techniques around. That alone lends it to be very dressy and special.
Tell us about the Make in Odisha Conclave, which has brought you home…. Do you think it was a watershed moment in Odisha’s industrialization journey?
It is Odisha’s time to shine and conquer. I was present at the opening night of the Odisha Conclave 2018. I was moved to tears by the excitement and energy of the programme and the message that was sent, along with our CM, Mr Naveen Patnaik’s words. It is a major watershed moment, not only for Odisha’s Industry sector but also for its creative economy potential and promise.
Do you think you were able to make it big globally because you stayed back in New York? Would it be a lot more difficult for a designer based in India to reach that level?
I would say that a lot of Indian designers are making waves, but of course, if you are in New York you have access to people you want to be associated with. That is one thing that works in favour of designers working out in New York. But India is catching up very fast; there are some incredible designers who are doing their own thing.
You have dressed some of the world’s most influential women. Any favourites?
My personal favourite is Michelle Obama for sure because I am inspired by her, who she is and who she stands for. If we talk about red carpet, I recently dressed Viola Davis and she wore a white embroidered dress and looked stunning! It was a double excitement for me because she is beautiful and she is a brilliant actor. I am inspired by her work. So when this happened, I was over the moon.
Who is a Bibhu Mohapatra woman?
She is bold, confident and a liberated woman, who is well travelled, educated and is passionate about things, not only fashion but passionate about life and she loves beautifully made clothes. She could be 22 or 85 but someone who loves art and loves to travel – a true global woman.
You created a collection of traditional weaves from Orissa, are you planning to include more Indian weaves in your collections in the future?
I do have plans and we are planning to do a revival. The goal was to work with weavers and help them appreciate their own craft, so for me the next phase is to scale it up a bit. I also plan to bring some samples and host them here to global designers and get them orders possibly. That’s the plan and personally I would love to use this fabric in the future in my designs.
What do you miss most about India and does India find its way into your collections?
I miss my people, the food, the colours, the incredible energy and the craft, basically all the things I grew up with. I try to stay connected through my friends, relatives and family and make frequent trips as well and I draw lot of inspiration from India. I try to travel different parts of India as I have not visited many places; I didn’t have the opportunity to travel much when I was living there.
What do you do to unwind and feel inspired when you are not showcasing at fashion weeks?
I love to cook, read and travel to new places. I also have a house in the countryside which is two hours away from Manhattan; it has farms, cows and animals around. I also have a vegetable garden and chickens. So I play the role of a farmer on weekends. That’s how I unwind. Besides this, travelling inspires me a lot.
What was the theme for your New York fashion week this year?
The theme was inspired by the world of Bahaus design school– German design school from the 20’s and my muse was someone called Annemarie Schwarzenbach – Swiss-German journalist and photographer who travelled a lot and had a unique sense of style. After she passed away she became an icon, she was very spirited and positive, she had a short but energy-filled life.
Do you have any future plans to design jewellery?
Yes, we have something coming up with Forevermark. It is still in process, the announcement will be made soon once we are ready. I am excited and looking forward to this new role.
You have worked around the world in the fashion industry. How does the Canadian market differ from the U.S. and/or global fashion market?
Canadian fashion industry has always been on the radar as one of the main industries, and some of the most amazing works are coming out of the Canadian market. I see Canada having a very strong and important role in the very near future.
As a fashion designer, you are at the pinnacle with the FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) wearing your label. Is this the peak that you strived to achieve?
To quote Frost, “Miles to go before I sleep” Dressing the FLOTUS was definitely a high point of my career, and I greatly appreciate it, but there are still a lot to build on my brand.
Why did you feel the need to take up jewelry designing?
This is something I have always dreamt of as a part of my brand extension. so when the opportunity arose with Forevermark India, it seemed like a natural progression. I really enjoy designing jewelry.
How much were you really involved in the actual designing process, beyond the drawing board?
From the very beginning I was involved in the process. The concept stage to the design of Artemis collection, I had a lot of support from the Forevermark team in all the technical design details
What was your inspiration? And who is your muse?
The inspiration: The sun, moon and the stars play a powerful role in our lives, our loves and all creation. For over 5000 years Vedic Astrology has provided a method of understanding of the compatibility of couples. Inspired by romantic history of Vedic Astrology and the passionate words of E.E. Cummings, I combined the gestures of the Sun, Moon and the stars, to create Artemis, a romantic line of jewelry that brilliantly comes life in Forevermark diamonds. The Muse: The modern global woman who is well exposed, well-travelled and someone who loves beautifully crafted fine jewelry
Were you given a brief before designing the jewelry by Forevermark?
I had a lot of discussion with the Forevermark team about the target audience, price points, marketing strategy and manufacturing details before the design process started.
The choice of the name of a Greek God Artemis – was that name your pick or of the Forever Mark Diamond company’s?
Artemis was one of the five names I had thought of and had suggested. Besides being the Greek goddess of moon, the name has several meanings for the constellation in different cultures.
What were the challenges when designing the Artemis collection?
I learnt a lot about the technical side of making fine jewelry with diamonds.
How important is jewelry for your garments?
Jewelry is very important for anyone to finish any look with any clothes. It is an essential element of dressing.
How important is jewelry for your garments?
Jewelry is very important for anyone to finish any look with any clothes. It is an essential element of dressing.
Will you be designing more collections for the Forevermark brand in future?
I strongly believe this is the first step of a very long beautiful journey with Forevermark. Artemis will evolve.
The jewelry you have designed is very subtle and discreet compared to your garments. Any particular reason?
I believe that the Artemis is for a broader audience so it has a broader aesthetic range and broad price range, making it more approachable to many.
With your roots in Rourkela, do you think you have travelled far, and I don’t mean just the physical distance to New York?
I may have travelled to the other side of the globe, but my roots are still firmly planted in my birthplace.
You keep using Odisha and India as a reference point from time to time for your creative endeavors. Is that deliberate?
I believe my heritage runs in my veins and it is natural.
You have been designing for women, whether clothes or now jewelry. Why only women?
I look forward to changing that very soon, hopefully.
What is you most luxurious possession? And your most luxurious moment?
My memories are my most luxurious possession. They will always be. My most luxurious moment is when my mother knit me a beautiful black sweater. I have very warm and fond memories of that.