Each season New York-based Indian fashion designer Bibhu Mohapatra’s collections play out a new “olde world story” on the runway – a historical throwback to some of the most fascinating men and women that ever lived. And this year is no different.
While Annemarie Schwarzenbach — a journalist and photographer in Europe during the 1930s — fuelled his Bauhaus inspired Spring-Summer 2016 line, the audacious empress dowager Cixi — a concubine of emperor Xianfeng who went on to become a ruler of the Chinese Qing dynasty — dominated his Fall Ready To Wear 2016 collection at New York Fashion Week (NYFW) in February this year.
Mohapatra couldn’t be more paradoxical in his design approach, elegantly consummating the past with the contemporary, with the visual flourish of an artist. He says that his clothes inspired by her “are meant to empower women”.
“Courage and confidence are the two qualities that I admire the most in people. My muses always have these qualities in common and Empress Cixi was a dreamer,” Mohapatra told tabloid! about his current muse. “With her focus and perseverance, she went from being a young concubine to a ruler of the Chinese empire for half a century. Inspired by her, my clothes are meant to bring out those qualities in women”.
Mohapatra is not the biggest name in the fashion business yet or the go-to designer for the coveted Met Gala or the Cannes red carpet photo-ops. But his designs are worn by some of the most influential and ingenious women in the world — from the First Lady of the US Michelle Obama, Jennifer Lopez, Eva Longoria, Priyanka Chopra to NYFW creator Fern Mallis and the stunning model du jour Kendall Jenner — it is an incredible triumph for his young eponymous fashion label that launched its first collection in Fall 2009.
From dreaming up fashion runways in his hometown Rourkela in Odisha to designing for Halston and J Mendel — his economics degree from Utah turning fashionably expendable in the interim — to settling down in New York with his own atelier in the Garment District, Mohapatra’s heart is “most humbled and gratified” with the distinguished set wearing his designs.
Interestingly, it was fashion connoisseur Mallis and author of Fashion Lives – Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis, who suggested his name to Obama’s stylist when they were exploring young new designers, making the initial connection for Mohapatra. And that’s how the most famous woman in the free world came to wearing and loving his designs.
“I love Fern! She is one of my closest friends and a huge supporter,” says Mohapatra, who launched his first jewellery line, Artemis, in collaboration with Forevermark India in Mumbai last month.
Mohapatra is ecstatic about this new creative dimension his design sense is roused by. He finds designing for both couture and carats “very different, with the only similarity designing for both being the ultimate target consumer who wants the same finesse, style and quality in the fine jewellery that is intrinsic to the garments I design”.
“I have always dreamt of working with diamonds and designing fine jewellery and this collaboration came about from a casual meet and greet with the Forevermark team in India about two years ago,” he said. “So, before I actually got around to discussing this opportunity with Forevermark, I was reassured by the brand about the responsible sourcing of its diamonds which was one of the most important and key deciding factors of our collaboration. It took more than a year to put the Artemis collection together and we have about 35 pieces in all, and the collection is growing.”
Mohapatra says Artemis is an extension of his brand as a lifestyle brand.
“When I had my first meeting with Forevermark, it became apparent to me that not only will I get to work with the finest of diamonds to create some unique pieces but I will also get the opportunity to create something that will be available to a broader clientele than just a select few. For over 5,000 years, Vedic Astrology has provided a method of understanding the compatibility of couples. I have combined the forms and phases of the sun, moon and the stars to create a sensual, romantic line that brilliantly comes to life in the Artemis collection. The different shades of gold represent the sun, the moon and the stars, and the Forevermark diamond at the heart of this collection embodies all the closely held secrets of the universe. The muse of this collection is someone who is well exposed to the world and appreciates the craft of fine jewellery and believes that these pieces are not merely for decoration but that they represent a state of lives together.”
There is almost always a celebratory female power, barring the odd male, in the characters Mohapatra picks out from historical archives for his mood board that resonate in his arresting, structured designs that stems from a deeply personal, feminine chord.
“I have been shaped by women in my life, namely my late mother and my sister. My mother gave me everything I have today. She not only taught me how to sew but she instilled the design sensibility in me. My sister indulged me by wearing my hand-stitched designs at home but it was a gold jacquard top with a pale yellow chiffon skirt that she wore [to an event] that got people talking and gave me the feeling that I was doing something right. I was so proud of my tailoring in that outfit. My sister has refined taste and she only wears select pieces of mine that suit her lifestyle. I am always inspired by women, not only professionally and creatively, but also personally,” said Mohapatra who likes to describe himself as an “emotional” designer.
“I see clothes as tools to improve and empower the lives of the wearers by providing them confidence. I am inspired by real people and deeply moved by their stories. These stories that shape the character of a person become my key sources wherein I draw my references from whilst working. Sketching and designing are both emotional processes for me.”
If you had no creative or financial restraints and were asked to run free with your imagination to create a spectacular dress, whom would you make it for and how expensive would it be?
“Well, it would have to be for someone really special and the value would be priceless.”
Mohapatra is the only Indian designer based in the US with an atelier in the Garment District, an enviable international clientele and stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, Neiman Marcus and Lane Crawford in China retailing his designs. Yet, he does not have flagship stores in India or anywhere around the world.
“It’s in the pipeline. It’s my dream to open my first store in New York. All good things take time,” says Mohapatra, who desires “to be present in many parts of the world, touching as many lives as I can with my clothes, jewellery and other products.” Given that he loves cooking and travelling, his “two passions after designing”, he could very well expand his brand into a home and living line soon.
The designer finds the fashion sensibility of the Middle East “incredibly refined and interesting”.
Will the Artemis line retail in Dubai soon?
“We just launched in India and our focus will be the Indian market for now. Dubai is a great city and the women there have such a definitive style. We will definitely look at launching Artemis in the Middle East in the future.”