Who? Bibhu? an Interview in The telegraph, Calcutta

Shradha Agarwal

Facebook may not be the boss’s best friend but some good things do come out of it. For instance, an interview with Orissa-born, Manhattan-based fashion designer Bibhu Mohapatra. In less than 24 hours, New York fashion’s hottest Indian face had accepted t2’s friend request and allotted time for an interview!
The 37-year-old Mohapatra is one of those rare, fuss-free members of the fashion frat. On the phone, oceans apart, he sounds like a typical desi boy, talking passionately about mum’s fashion influences, with an accent that sounds more Latino than American. And when we tell him that it’s great to be chatting with him, he bowls us over with the following words: “It is truly an honour to be a part of The Telegraph, a paper I grew up reading daily. The fact that I am on the phone with you means a lot.”
Mohapatra’s label is barely three seasons old at New York Fashion Week. He made his debut with a fall 2009 collection but having been design director at Halston, Mohapatra has been there, dressed her, where the ‘her’ stands for the likes of Cate Blanchett and Sienna Miller.
The designer hasn’t presented an India-inspired collection yet, though he says that the influence is everywhere. He has, however, touched upon Japanese armaments, Italian films and X-rays! A t2 conversation with Bibhu on everything from home to haute couture…
How often do you visit your family in India?
Earlier I used to come back home twice a year but this June I came after a year and half. Ever since I launched my label I haven’t been able to make it so often but I am not going to do that anymore. Coming back home is amazing. The energy is different. It makes me feel alive the minute my plane lands.
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.
You always knew 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.
Your parents always supported 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.
Name: Bibhu Mohapatra
DoB: 7.6.1973
Place of birth: Rourkela, Orissa, India
Education: Patha Vidyalaya School and Municipal College in Rourkela, Masters in Economics at Utah State University and then Fashion Institute of Technology, New York
CV highlights: Internship at Halston, design director of J. Mendel, now the Bibhu Mohapatra label
Claim to fame: Recently acquired Council of Fashion Designers of America membership
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…
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?
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.
What don’t you miss?
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?
(Long pause) 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!
What did you do right to get so far?
I can’t answer that! I never thought of it like that….
There has to be something you can think of…
Hmm. Maybe I wasn’t afraid to work hard, non-stop. I started working in Halston while I was studying, I worked nights after spending the day at school, sitting like a sponge and absorbing it all. It’s about making the right choices.
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.
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.
Who would you rather dress — Michelle Obama or Lady Gaga:Michelle Obama
Paper or Photoshop:It’s all pencil and paper. I am also a hands-on drape guy
Fall-winter or spring-summer:Fall-winter. It’s a bigger canvas, a lot more can be done
Black or red:Red. It implies lots of things. It’s the colour I grew up with
Favourite Halston dress from SATC 2:The pleated orange dress Carrie wears when she is upset
iPhone or BlackBerry:iPhone
Hollywood or Bollywood:Bollywood
Favourite Bollywood actors:
Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Rekha, Dimple, Suchitra Sen and Aamir Khan
Ultimate style icon:US Vogue contributing editor Lauren Santo Domingo, Cate Blanchett and Julia Roberts
Favourite red carpet walkers:Cate Blanchett. She lights up any red carpet. Also Charlize Theron and Marion Cotillard


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