Mid-workday, a pincushion on his wrist, Bibhu Mohapatra wears black Converse sneakers, slim-fit Marc Jacobs jeans and a T-shirt that reads OBEY NATURE. A sturdy 6-foot-1, the designer hails from Orissa, India, born to an engineer father and a mother who collected silks and saris. “My mother taught me how to look at beautiful things,” says Mohapatra, “and my dad helped me to take them apart.”

Mohapatra’s mother taught him to use his grandmother’s sewing machine at age 12. He’d cut up old saris and tablecloths to dress his sister. After Mohapatra received a master’s degree in economics from Utah State University, a professor noticed his sketchbook and insisted he apply to FIT. While studying there he was hired by Halston, and when he graduated his draping teacher recommended him to J. Mendel. Mohapatra began as Gilles Mendel’s assistant and was design director for the last six of his 10 years at the label. “I started with one pattern maker and two sewers,” he says. “And when I left, we had 150 employees.”

A birthday fête in Chantilly, France, the day after he left Mendel would change his trajectory. “I met Daphne Guinness, my muse,” he says of the socialite who collects armor. “One of her arms was diamondencrusted from fi ngertip to elbow. She had on an antique Vionnet gown and a fox boa.”

Mohapatra’s fi rst show was inspired by Japanese warrior costumes of the 15th and 16th centuries (there had been an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum). “Guinness knew every piece,” he says. X-rays and inner beauty inspired his second collection. “I’m fascinated by the structures that give us shape,” he says. “I had a radiologist X-ray snakes, sea urchins and flowers.” Styled by Lauren Santo Domingo, Mohapatra’s Fall 2010 show paid homage to the fi lm The Conformist, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Authoritative military elements were imbued with dreamy European elegance. “She listens to me,” he says of Santo Domingo. “She herself wears beautiful clothes, but she also has a realistic view of fashion, a good sense of what critics and retailers like. ‘You designed it like this,’ she tells me, ‘but there are five ways we can show it to the world.’” Bergdorf Goodman, 754 Fifth Ave.; bibhu.com

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