Bibhu In Indian Express, Sunday edition

What they don’t teach you at Sambalpur University

Indian Express
Posted online: Saturday , Mar 06, 2010 at 1108 hrs

Rourkela, Amritsar and Kathmandu. Demi Moore, Sienna Miller and Cate Blanchett. What could possibly link the two sets? Three young men, two from India and one from Nepal, whose high fashion/accessory designs, competing in the world’s toughest and richest markets, have Hollywood A-listers gushing. They add another beautifully-cut dimension to the subcontinent's mufossil-to-Manhattan narrative
Anna Wintour. Rachel Weisz. Zoe Saldana. That’s a power-packed front row for any fashion week. And if they turn up at a show by a new name in global fashion, you better take notice. And that explains the frenzy over the work of 30-something Prabal Gurung from Kathmandu, Nepal. His runway show at Bryant Park at the New York Fashion Week a fortnight ago was attended by the crème of the industry. The clothes— colour-blocked jackets, cocktail dresses with pouff shoulders, gowns with low-slung backs and architectural silhouettes—spoke of a decadent attitude to fashion, refreshing at a time when the economic meltdown had made opulence a bad word. It won him rave reviews from the international media and adoring followers: Demi Moore tweeted about the “wonderful young designer to look out for”, while Weisz and Saldana have been spotted in his designs. Gurung, with his Keanu Reaves-like good looks and classic ensembles reminiscent of YSL, is getting used to the accolades coming his way since his debut in February last year.So is Bibhu Mohapatra, another young man in his 30s, whose journey from Rourkela in Orissa to Manhattan in New York is as interesting as his ensembles. Sienna Miller and Angelina Jolie are among his regular clients. In the one year since he launched his independent label, he has been selected for the CFDA (The Council of Fashion Designers of America) Fashion Incubator project aimed at grooming talented debutants, put out two collections that have won great reviews, and started retailing from stores like Dighton Rhode. Mohapatra, who did an almost decade-long stint at acclaimed design house J. Mendel, will have you know that the identity of his designs is not just in who wears them, but on their stylistic ingenuity. “My designs are always a study in opposites: masculine and feminine, tailored and drapey, hard and soft, and modern shapes made with traditional couture dress-making techniques,” he says.
The subcontinent has never had it this good since Naeem Khan moved out of his posh south Mumbai family business to the US and became a red-carpet favourite with Hollywood stars. Now, a handful of boys from the region, some from small towns in India, are living out their dreams as global citizens, dressing up celebrities and taking their native craftsmanship to a different pitch.
If Gurung and Mohapatra are fashion's newest pin-up boys, there’s also 35-year-old Amritsar-born-Brooklyn-raised actor-jeweller Waris Ahluwalia with his brand, House of Waris, which caters to the likes of Cate Blanchett. The production houses are spread over Jaipur, Rome, New York, even in places in Thailand and Turkey, and the products are available at swanky stores like Barney's in New York and Colette in Paris. “I have no formal training in design. Jewellery was one among the many creative projects I dabbled in, in my twenties. It was the one that stayed on with me,” he says.
The beginning for all three was far from conventional. Mohapatra’s first exercise in design was to make dresses for his sisters. “My father, an engineer, worked in a steel plant, before starting his own manufacturing unit. I was 13 when my mother taught me how to sew. I developed a strong flair for fashion, but it was not a career option at that point of time, since there were so few opportunities," he says. After graduating from Sambalpur University, he did his Masters in Economics in Utah. “During those two years, I started to prepare for my application to the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. In 1998, I moved to New York,” he says. Even before he finished his course, Mohapatra had won an internship with the design house of Halston. “Two weeks in to the internship, I was offered a position of an assistant designer. Since I was in class all day, I worked from 5 pm-11 pm and on weekends. It was a steep learning curve. I was exposed to every facet of fashion, including design, construction and business,” he says.
If Orissa was the outback of Indian fashion, in Nepal, the road map to haute couture is still largely uncharted. Yet one of Gurung’s earliest recollections are of the long hours he spent at his mother’s clothing boutique in Kathmandu, or simply sketching by himself in the 1990s. “Ever since I could remember, I was drawn to fashion. I have the fondest memories of helping my mother out at her boutique in any way that I could. My family has always been supportive, but choosing fashion as a career was foreign to them and to my culture, so they were a bit unclear as to what path I was to take,” says Gurung. Even today, well-heeled fashionistas from Nepali society might baulk at the prices of his ensembles at Bloomingdales, pegged at around $ 400 for a top to $ 4,000 for a dress on an average.
The obvious option was to try his luck in India at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT). “It was in Delhi that my career truly began. My studies at NIFT laid the groundwork for my understanding of fashion and allowed me to explore so many realms of the industry,” he says. His craftsmanship was impressive, so much so that when he applied for internship with maverick designer Manish Arora, the designer offered him a job instead.
But New York was a growing obsession and Gurung decided to try his luck despite the momentum he had gained in India. He joined the prestigious Parson’s in 1999, graduated with honours and followed it up with a stint at Cynthia Rowley’s. The next stop was the equally well-known Bill Blass Design Studio. “I had always been intrigued by NYC, even though I had never been to the United States at that time. I knew that was where I would find opportunities that were in keeping with my long-term goals,” he says. Blass proved to be everything that he had hoped for: “The seamstresses had been there for years, and had an old-school approach to the construction of each garment”. When he launched his own label last year after Bill Blass shut down, Gurung knew he had learnt the ropes well.
Flitting between his workshop in Jaipur and his offices in Rome, New York and in Paris, Ahluwalia says jewellery was meant to happen to him. Just like acting did, when friend Wes Anderson roped him in to act in his first movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. There have been other roles in Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited and Spike Lee’s The Inside Man, and in upcoming productions like Jordan Galland’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead and an Italian movie, I’o Sono L’amore with Tilda Swanton. It was in Rome, where he was shooting for a movie that he came in touch with some master jewellers. He stayed back to learn the craft from them. His next stop was Jaipur—now almost a second home to him because of his workshop there—to hone his skills. “I began with an idea: to find the best artisans in the world and preserve the world of hand craftsmanship, not as museum relics, but as a way of life,” he says. His creations come with price tags that range from $3,000 to $7,000, and some even run up to as much as $ 1,50,000, but the demand has been rising, taking his brand around the globe. “I don’t fit in anywhere. It’s not my purpose in life to fit in. I do what makes me happy, how the world reacts is not in my hands,” he says.
His works, though, have a strong resonance of his roots—rich meenakari work is married to large emeralds, there’s a hint of Mughal grandeur in the kundan work, carved with exquisite stones. “In the last five years, I have sat with my craftsmen in Jaipur for six months a year, surrounding myself with skilled craftsmen. I watched and asked questions,” he says.
It’s difficult to ignore the influences of the sub-continent in the works of all three. “Growing up in India, particularly in Orissa, I was constantly inspired by the colours, the arts and the crafts. My fashion education and career have been in the West, but my eastern heritage has always been with me, and I believe it has always given me an edge,” says Mohapatra, who recently played himself in Leena Yadav’s movie Teen Patti. For Gurung, his association with Arora and experiences in the country have been invaluable. “Studying under the innovative and remarkably talented Manish undoubtedly influenced my design process. His incredible hand-beading and approach to embroidery in particular are techniques that will always be factored in my designs,” he says.
All three say they would like to extend their brand to the country which has nurtured their dreams. Mohapatra is in the process of developing his line into a full collection with accessories and fragrances for the market in Europe and the US. For India, he has more concrete plans up his sleeves. “I am looking for an organization that will help me open a few select retail locations in key cities in India,” he says. “When India is ready for me, she will let me know,” says Ahluwalia.

Hillary Swank in Bibhu Mohapatra

Hillary Swank in Bibhu Mohapatra
on way to Late show in New York


in the studio

Bibhu Mohapatra fall 2009 Presentation