Name You Need To Know: Fashion Designer Bibhu Mohapatra
New York City has experienced a bit of a fashion renaissance lately. Among the brightest stars: Michelle Obama favorites Prabal Gurung, Sophie Theallet and Jason Wu; industry darlings Alexa Adams and Flora Gill of the label Ohne Titel and Joseph Altuzarra; and Max Osterweis of Suno, who creates dresses out of his collection of Kenyan textiles. Another newcomer is poised to join their ranks, in a very different design niche. His name: Bibhu Mohapatra. His specialty: ball gowns.
Ball gowns? In this economy? No one is more surprised by this than Mohapatra himself, a handsome, exceedingly polite 37-year-old who was born in India and, before starting his own label in 2009, spent eight years as creative director of J. Mendel–a house known for its luxurious furs and, yes, Red Carpet-worthy dresses. “The first two collections, I kind of held back a little bit with the evening pieces,” he says. “But a lot of the stores expressed, ‘You know we really think you could give us more gowns.’ So this past season I had, like, 10 gowns–and as a result we actually picked up a lot more accounts.”
Mohapatra’s had a good year: luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman picked up his Fall 2010 collection (his third under his own name), and Neiman Marcus will carry his Spring 2011 line, which debuted at New York Fashion Week in September and included smart linen separates as well as plenty of gorgeous dresses in saturated greens and blues featuring hand-pleated bodices, laser-cutting and overlapping layers of tulle (all Mohapatra signatures). The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) selected him to participate in its Fashion Incubator program, an initiative to help 12 emerging designers based in New York grow their labels by providing them studio space in the heart of the garment district and business mentorships. And Hollywood has begun to notice his designs: Elisabeth Moss (of TV series Mad Men) wore one of his ethereal chiffon and lace dresses to the Emmys, and Hillary Swank arrived at a taping of The Late Show with David Letterman sporting a translucent silk trench from his latest collection.
“There’s a sense of refinement in Bibhu’s work,” says Lisa Smilor, associate executive director at the CFDA. “It’s modern and mature. He’s really a new voice on the scene.”
What makes Mohapatra’s dresses so special? For one, he has a great sense of color: cinnamon, deep emerald, cerulean, gold–colors, the designer says, inspired by his native India. For two, his creations are often have an element of surprise: He’ll trim an aqua silk column with gold titanium or make a coat out of woven peacock feathers. (The lavish embroidery and beading on his dresses are done in India.) “His dresses are not typical; they’re not for the girly type,” says Elizabeth Hui, a buyer at Bergdorf Goodman. “His gowns are more appealing to someone more fashion-forward, who wants something different.”
Moreover, Hui says his gowns sell. “We carried this orchid gown that sold immediately. … There was another gown, in green velvet–it had no structure, no shape, an amazing color, just beautiful–that also sold right away.” Mohapatra says he has about doubled his sales every season.
Mohapatra says he will continue producing some day wear and coats, but his focus will remain special-occasion dressing. It’s a weirdly smart strategy: His peers have assiduously steered clear of evening wear, focusing on good ol’ American sportswear, chic cocktail dresses or, in the case of Altazurra and Ohne Titel, more avant garde designs. Of course, there is Marchesa–a label of exquisitely wrought dresses designed by Keren Craig and Georgina Chapman, wife of Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein–which is a favorite of Hollywood starlets. But Mohapatra’s dresses, which range from $2200 for a cocktail dress to $15,000 for the priciest gown, are more accessible than Marchesa’s, otherwise fill a void for young women who are looking for a special dress but want something edgier than Oscar de la Renta or J. Mendel. “I could see him in 10 years becoming one of the preeminent evening wear designers,” says Smilor. “I could see him becoming an international brand; bridal wear seems like a natural spin-off down the road.”
But for now, Mohapatra is taking one step at a time. He’s working on his Fall 2012 collection–”It’s sort of a secret, but it will have an urban baroque feeling,” he says–and he’s looking to expand to India. But he’s mainly listening to feedback from buyers and mentors, and continuing to make very beautiful dresses. “I have to be true to how I am being perceived at this moment, and what my business needs,” says Mohapatra. “I am all about really getting this off-ground. Because we can make beautiful things here but if it doesn’t really sell at the end there’s no point. … These products, I would love for them to have a life that’s more than a season. They need to live longer, so that’s my goal.”