Bibhu Mohapatra often mines the history books for inspiration. This season, he came up with Empress Dowager Cixi, a divisive figure in
Chinese history who started out as a concubine in the late Qing dynasty years and wound up ruling the country until her death in 1908. “She was not known to be the nicest of persons,” said Mohapatra. “She is the perfect example of the imperfect. She was hungry for chaos and control. She wanted to rule, and she did—at a time when women had no ground to stand on.”
The Empress Dowager’s influence could be felt in the East Asian flavor of the collection: There were dragonfly embellishments, ginkgo leaf embroideries and plenty of red. Though the influence was obvious, it didn’t hit you over the head; Mohapatra was careful to keep things from getting costumey by streamlining silhouettes and trying out fresh color combinations. The red, for instance, was paired with blush pink, orange, and slate blue; those looks, especially a striped fur coat, were particularly strong. Mohapatra was also interested in what he called Dowager Cixi’s life as a “seductress.” That led to a number of looks styled with harnesses and collars by Zana Bayne, many of which featured leather dragonflies. Mohapatra also mimicked the shape using color-blocked inserts.
But what really interested Mohapatra was the way the Empress Dowager seized—and later embodied—power. “Clothes are a tool to give confidence,” he said. “They can change a person. I’ve seen it happen.” And who wouldn’t feel just a little more powerful in, say, Mohapatra’s red wasp-waist gown embroidered with dragonflies? Incidentally, it seemed tailor-made for a woman of power who exists very much in the here-and-now: Michelle Obama, who has worn his designs on a couple of occasions—and who is known to be a big fan of red.