BY EMMA SLOLEY | March 12, 2013 | People
The designer sits proudly in his New York showroom, showcasing an array of Spring and Resort 2013 collection pieces.
Personal stamp and signature pin cushion are always close by when working.
First Lady Michelle Obama wears a Bibhu Mohapatra– designed frock on The Tonight Show.
Mohapatra drapes with laser-cut leather.
Mood board and inspiration images for the upcoming Fall 2013 collection.
Preliminary runway sketches for the Fall ’13 show.
Bibhu Mohapatra might just be the kindest person in fashion. The 40-year-old designer radiates unbridled enthusiasm even when describing the less glamorous stops along his remarkable career trajectory, from humble beginnings in Orissa, on India’s east coast, to rising star in New York. Carrying heavy bolts of fabric on his shoulders while working as a runner in the Garment District? A great learning experience! Studying by day at the city’s Fashion Institute of Technology, then interning at Halston by night? All part of the rich tapestry of fulfilling his dream.
These days, Mohapatra has plenty to be upbeat about. He has a brandnew 5,000-square-foot showroom space in the Garment District, a handbag line with British accessories brand Bracher Emden landing later this year, and an ever-expanding roster of bold-faced fans, including First Lady Michelle Obama. (Finance professor David Yermack at New York University’s Stern School of Business estimates the First Lady wearing a designer’s dress is worth approximately $14 million to a company.) “Coming to work every day is like a new start,” he enthuses of the showroom. “I’m usually the first person to arrive, and it really makes me feel like the whole day is waiting for me with wide-open arms.” One of his favorite aspects of the new locale is the chance to conduct private meetings: Previously, all the major business decisions of his career were made in the stairwell of his old office.
Like so many other “overnight success” stories, Mohapatra’s was years in the making. After moving to New York in 1999 with an economics master’s degree, he studied fashion design at FIT, where he received the Critic’s Award for Best Evening Wear Designer, a nod he describes as “the first validation that carried me to the next chapter.” An internship at Halston taught the budding designer all the basics of creating luxury clothes, while the following eight years honing his craft as design director at J. Mendel under Creative Director Gilles Mendel were instrumental in flexing his creative muscles. “That defined my own language in luxury,” Mohapatra says, “what would become the DNA of my brand. Taking something luxurious and mixing it with something unexpected.”
“Bibhu has a fresh and modern take to his designs that really make him a standout,” says Elizabeth Hui von der Goltz, a senior vice president at Bergdorf Goodman. “He truly has an eye for mixing fabrications in an exciting way, using color and architectural lines to enhance a woman’s body.”
Showstopping gowns are Mohapatra’s stock in trade, a natural extension of both his luxury fashion house training and his Indian heritage, which still informs so much of his aesthetic. “Now that I’m living so far away from that culture, I realize there are so many things I took for granted,” he says. “The colors, the craft... I come from a very modest family, but my parents encouraged me to pay attention to the finer things.” Case in point: For his first collection, he found a material of hand-woven peacock feathers, an old heritage fabric favored by royalty, crafted in Varanasi.
For his Fall 2013 collection at Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week, expect a lineup inspired by women from the 1930s and ’40s, “who were kind of rebels in their own fields.” The collection features elongated silhouettes, Bauhaus influences, and Mohapatra’s signature use of lavish, sumptuous fabrics like laser-cut leather, embossed velvets, and decadent colored furs. Come fall, Stateside customers will be able to find bags from his latest collaboration with Bracher Emden, an extension of a partnership that yielded covetable pieces inspired by luna moth wings. “It was a fun project,” he enthuses. “The best part is we had complete creative freedom. The bags are a little bit more graphic this time around, with more of an angular, Deco element.”
Mohapatra hasn’t exactly rested on his laurels since his first collection at New York Fashion Week in 2009. He became a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in 2010, and the following year received the Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Award. But as any burgeoning fashion careerist will tell you, it’s the high-profile women choosing to wear their designs who can really catapult the label into another realm. Actresses like Hilary Swank, Glenn Close, and Elisabeth Moss have all stepped out in Mohapatra’s red-carpet-ready gowns. The greatest coup of all: Michelle Obama, who wore one of his citrus print dresses on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno last August. (The s tyle sold out right away.) “She’s the ultimate validation,” says Mohapatra. “It’s good to be on her radar.”
Mohapatra speaks openly about hard work and its rewards, but one idea dominates his philosophy: niceness. “Every time I go to a school to talk to aspiring designers, I say ‘Follow your dream. Believe in yourself. Fight for it,’” he says. “‘But all along you must be nice.’” 270 W. 38th St., 212-579-2095; Bergdorf Goodman, 754 Fifth Ave., 212-753-7300
photography by evan sung; margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images (obama)