When Bibhu Mohapatra first met Michelle Obama at a White House event a couple of years ago, he humbly joined his hands and thanked her for helping him fulfill his American dream. The US First Lady had then just begun wearing the Indian fashion designer’s creations, and he had become a celebrity in the long shadow of her grace. Mohapatra’s gratitude was justified: such is Obama’s fashion influence that she even inspired a 2010 study by Finance Professor David Yermack at New York University’s Stern School of Business, who calculated that an apparel brand’s stock prices increased by an average of $14 million every time she appeared in public dressed in its clothes. In one case, after she wore a J Crew dress on a TV show, the group’s stock rose 25 per cent by the end of the week, and 175 per cent in the next 14 months, a gain of about $1.8 billion in market capitalisation.
Michelle Obama responded by telling Mohapatra, “Bibhu, you and I are going to do big things together.” She was true to her word. She not only wore his design on TV—leading it to sell out within days—but also at official events. Then, in 2015, in a triumphant homecoming for the Odisha-born designer, she exited Air Force One in a dress designed by him on her first visit to India with US President Barack Obama. The blue printed floral crepe dress with a cut-way silk and wool jacket was splashed across the front page of Indian newspapers as the Obamas shook hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was there on the tarmac to welcome them. Mohapatra doesn’t know much about the rise in his stock value, but the pictures doing the rounds on social media sure left him pretty high. “She’s humble, funny and grounded—she’s just the role model who can teach you how to work hard and become successful and still be a nice person,” says the 44-year-old designer of his most important client.
For a boy from small-town India with New York Fashion Week far from his wildest dreams, Mohapatra has traversed an unlikely journey. His mother, Sashikala, was the youngest of three children whose mother died when she was a child. Raised in Kolha, a picturesque coastal village in the Balasore district of Odisha on India’s east coast, she was married in the early 1960s to Chittaranjan, an engineering student and the son of her father’s close friend. She practically grew up in her marital home, learning lessons in life from her gregarious mother-in-law whose philosophy was “to be an instrument of giving”, even if she had to borrow food from the neighbours to feed the beggar at her doorstep. With her young husband away at work at the Rourkela Steel Plant, Sashikala took on the responsibilities of the home and family, caring for his younger siblings as their ‘deputy mother’. “It was a modest upbringing,” recalls Mohapatra. “We didn’t have a car or a fridge, only books. My mum had only two ‘good’ saris, so she avoided going to weddings. And yet my father absolutely adored her and our family was the most revered in the village—there would always be warm food if you showed up.” Sashikala taught Bibhu how to sew—his first ‘couture’ dress was one he made for his sister, which won several compliments at a family wedding. “I think my earliest image of womanhood is equated with the committed, hard-working, affectionate and giving personality of my mother,” Mohapatra says.
Decades later, Mohapatra would celebrate a similar undaunted womanhood in his designs. The muses for his collections were strong, defiant women with interesting lives at the turn of the 20th century, from China’s controversial power-hungry Empress Dowager Cixi to Swiss photo-journalist Annemarie Schwarzenbach who inspired him as much with her writing as with her androgynous personal style. “It’s important to give women their due,” says Mohapatra, narrating the story of writer-activist Nancy Cunard whose biography he read while on a transatlantic cruise from New York to Southampton. “Nancy believed in women’s equality at a time when women had no rights, she inspired legions of writers, belonged to an aristocratic family and yet travelled to France and raised funds for a refugee camp. And she was incredibly dressed. Oh, that’s magic to me! I collect stories of people, and stories like this inspire me—not so much the fashion but the strength, the drive, the confidence, the compassion.”
Mohapatra’s father too played a pivotal role in shaping his personality. Having set up his own engineering business in Rourkela in the 1980s, Chittaranjan was famously generous in both spirit and deed. Mohapatra recalls him lugging home bags of fresh vegetables only to give them away to his employees: “He did that all the time; it was his joy.” The young Bibhu and his brother could not fathom how their father could be so unselfish when they themselves struggled with a meagre income. “My father once paid the staff with my brother’s pocket money; it was a huge lesson in the sacrifice and responsibility required to run an enterprise,” says Mohapatra.
An incident stands out in Mohapatra’s memories of his father. During the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, the Mohapatras lived in Rourkela in a single-storey home that shared a wall with a Muslim family next door. When communal riots broke out in eastern India, the Muslim family began to pack up their few belongings and rush back to their hometown Lucknow with their little children. The neighbour begged Chittaranjan to take care of his eldest son, promising to come back for him later. A short while later, a mob charged in to burn down all Muslim homes in the vicinity, and an informer led them to the Mohapatras’ home, pointing out the young boy in their refuge. Armed with sticks and knives, the mob demanded that Bibhu’s father send the boy out. But Chittaranjan stood firm and said, unfazed, “You will have to kill five of us Hindus first before you can kill this one Muslim boy.” The mob left them alone.
Decades later, the Mohapatras crossed paths with an old man with a long grey beard in an elevator in modern Rourkela with a younger man by his side. The older gentleman recognised Bibhu’s parents instantly: “Do you remember me? I was your neighbour years ago, and this here, my son, is the young boy whose life you saved,” he said with tears in his eyes.
“That’s the kind of man my father was,” says Mohapatra, looking back. “His lessons stay with me, especially today when tolerance and kindness are in such scarce supply.” In December 2014, when Mohapatra’s father passed away after a long illness in Odisha, the designer altered his Fall 2015 collection at New York Fashion Week in his dad’s memory, stripping away the original flowers in the digital prints and replacing them with brushstrokes and feathers, the shades of white, black and indigo endowing restraint and seriousness. “I never let the memories blur; I never forget where I come from,” says Mohapatra in his cheery, large, well-lit studio in Manhattan’s bustling Garment District on a rainy fall morning. He is now a wealthy man and lives with his partner Bobby Beard in a swish Upper West Side apartment in the city, taking frequent rejuvenation breaks at his 1820s country house in upstate New York (where he used to keep chickens he called his ‘Supermodels’ before they were killed in a fox attack). His clothes are worn by the likes of Glenn Close, Hillary Swank, Gwyneth Paltrow, Oprah Winfrey, Freida Pinto, Jennifer Lopez, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger, Jane Krakowski, besides Bollywood fashionistas Sonam Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and Kareena Kapoor Khan—but when he faces challenges, Mohapatra still reminds himself of his father and his roots. “He took voluntary retirement to follow his dream of running his own business, cycling to work in winter in a sweater my mum had made for him. He is the man I compare myself to—can I follow my dreams while also fulfilling my responsibilities?” he asks.
It was a dream that led Mohapatra from Odisha to Utah on a scholarship to do his masters in Economics in 1996. “I was very sure I wanted to move to the US, but there were practical challenges, and I could only come here with financial assistance,” he explains of his choice of college and degree. While in college, his professor noticed his sketches and designs, and convinced him he was on the wrong path. With her help, he was able to develop a portfolio and get admitted to the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York for a one-year degree in fashion design. “I was on a student loan and had to budget my daily needs. I calculated that after accounting for rent and other expenses, I had $1.75 to spend on food every day. Which was excellent because it wasn’t a negative figure,” he laughs, adding that he managed to get by on discipline and the sheer thrill of living his dream in Manhattan.
After an internship at American fashion label Halston where he jokes he learnt to lug large rolls of fabric around the streets of New York among other things, Mohapatra set off on a successful nine-year-stint with iconic French fur house J Mendel, right up to the post of design director. “That’s where I learnt to balance creativity and commerce, how to develop a language in luxury, and how to stay focused,” he recalls. In 2009, he launched his own eponymous label, offering his clients daywear and evening glamour in rich prints, colours and patterns on structured silhouettes. “It’s all about keeping in mind the client’s lifestyle and choices, and using social media to stay current. You have to be ‘into’ people to do what I do,” smiles Mohapatra, who has been a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America since 2010. For his spring-summer 2017 show, he was inspired by the Belle Époque, a period of relative prosperity before World War I. “It was an interesting time—we were trying to find ourselves. Norms were being developed and defined, technology and science were evolving, migration became possible, art and music found place in respectable society. I’m a romantic, I value the past,” he avers, the exquisite silks, tulles and pearl-encrusted embroidery of the collection sparkling on the racks behind him.
Mohapatra’s clothes now retail at high-end stores in India, the US, UK, Canada, Middle East, Russia, China, Europe, Latin America and South America. He has a core team who handle his marketing and business aspects, besides a large team of tailors and artisans who work out of his expansive Manhattan studio. He runs his fingers through his latest collection on hangers in his studio, pointing out at the details that excited him—embroidery from India, fabric from Japan, prints from Europe, patterns from Morocco—each one with a story to tell. He has experimented with a line of handbags in the past, and this month, he will also launch in India his first fine-jewellery collection in collaboration with Forevermark. Called Artemis, it is inspired by Vedic astronomy and will retail from six major jewellery stores across the country. “Each piece means something, each one is designed to be a family heirloom,” he states enthusiastically about the line and his upcoming trip to India.
WHILE BUSINESS IS good, Mohapatra is always keen to give forward the way his father did. Having won a spate of awards over the past few years, including the sought-after Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Award, he is proactive about mentoring younger designers and helping them follow their dreams. “Two words of kindness—that’s all it took to help me find my true calling. I am driven to pass it on,” he explains of his work with his young protégés, such as those he worked with as a judge in the Supima Design Competition held annually in New York, where fashion-design students vie for a cash prize and an opportunity to work with the top creative minds in the world. He has also been involved in handloom revival projects in India, such as one with the Odisha government, which took him to five villages a couple of years ago. “My heart was broken,” he says of his experience. “Here are people who have the responsibility of keeping alive a craft that is thousands of years old and yet they are languishing in poverty, encouraging their next of kin to take on other professions instead.” Mohapatra has always been inspired by ikat—his mother’s simple handwoven ikat saris would have something to do with it—and was only too happy to develop textiles and saris that were later retailed from prominent stores across the state. “But I am not sure how much the sales helped the artisans themselves, so now I am seeking to cultivate teams of weavers on my own,” he says. He also worked on a project with the Tata Group, designing Benarasi saris for the staff at Taj Hotels and further giving work to entire artisan communities. “I would be a dead person if I didn’t get involved. This is my calling—I can create beautiful clothes that enrich someone’s life while also helping someone else grow along the journey,” he says in characteristic humility that one guesses is unlikely to change even once he grows twice as successful.
“Fame has helped amplify my voice, people listen to me more. So I must be careful about what I say,” Mohapatra admits, “but at the same time, my work has to come from a place of truthfulness. My voice has to be honest.” His Indianness intact, his American dream fulfilled, Mohapatra can take heart in his beautiful contribution to the world, one gracious design, one gentle touch at a time.