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All hands on deco
It is estimated that when Michelle Obama makes a public appearance in a designer creation it means $14 million worth of business for the company. Bibhu Mohapatra should know. The 40-year-old fashion designer based in New York was catapulted into the top league after Michelle wore his work on a TV Show. In August 2012, she appeared on Tonight's Show with Jay Leno in a brightly printed sheer dress picked from his resort-wear collection on the sets of. "Her appearance in that dress jumpstarted a lot of things for me. She has amazing visibility and suddenly my brand was getting lot of traction in the industry, " says Mohapatra, who launched an eponymous brand in 2008 after working for eight years with J Mendel. Fashion bloggers and writers were all praise for the First Lady's choice. The layered hems worked beautifully for a sit-down interview as did the belt though, felt many commentators, a thinner patent leather belt would have suited the ensemble better than the metallic one she actually wore. Obama cleverly paired the multi-coloured outfit with shoes that were the colour least visible in the dress. Any fashionista worth her Vogue will tell you this is the right way to coordinate colours. "My clothes have never looked better, " Mohapatra famously commented in the afterglow of this coup. As a youngster in Rourkela he would often design dresses for his elder sister using his mother's old saris. While doing his masters in economics from the Utah State University he took up art classes and worked 20 hours a week as a janitor. In an interview to Time magazine, he said that it was the only job he could get at the time. After completing his course at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York he took 30 copies of his resume and distributed them among the offices of various fashion labels on Seventh Avenue. The effort paid off - he was hired as an intern at one of them. A year later he joined J Mendel.
His first big break came three years ago when he was picked for the prestigious Fashion Incubator programme. After completing it, he leased 5, 000 square feet of space in the heart of Manhattan's garment district to open his studio.
Last week he launched a capsule collection for Rent the Runway, a premium online fashion rental platform. Inspired by Mumbai's art deco architecture which, incidentally, has the second largest number of art deco buildings in the world after Miami, the collection is a confluence of bright colours, geometrical designs and traditional crafts and motifs. Triangular panels at the waist give a masculine touch to the silhouette but that effect is off set by the use of silvery paisley motifs and soft colours like fuchsia and crepe silk fabric.
Mohapatra's designs are a study of opposites. For instance, in his latest collection - autumn/winter 2013 - he has used natural fabrics like silk and wool with leather and fur;bold graphic prints with colour blocking. "The collection is inspired by Man Ray. I have always followed his iconic work but it was only after I happened to see a retrospective on his portraits and muses - Kiki de Montparnasse and Lee Miller - at London's National Gallery that I decided to create a collection around it, " says Mohapatra.
In the collection he makes liberal use of the fence mesh print. It is there on jackets, tops, skirts and cocktail dresses. But the very hard mechanical feel of the print has been softened by its pairing with fur accents and soft jewel-toned silks. Mohapatra, though admittedly not swayed by trends, has used the technique of colour blocking - a global fashion rage at the moment - for evening gowns and cocktail dresses. A particularly fetching piece in the collection is an asymmetrical gown in mustard and navy blue.
"I have always desired longevity for my clothes. . . I don't design for the season, " says Mohapatra about his design philosophy. "They should empower and enhance the woman who is wearing them. " His style has appealed to quite a few celebrities apart from the First Lady. Hilary Swank, Glenn Close, Maggie Grace (Irina in Twilight: Breaking Dawn) and Coby Smoulders (Robin from How I Met Your Mother) have been clicked wearing Mohapatra's creations.
Indian influences are also visible in his work. His 2013 resort-wear collection showcases ikat patterns and temple borders, developed digitally and then printed on silk fabric, on dresses, culottes and gowns. He has worked with the Odisha government on a project to promote Sambalpuri handloom and other Odiya crafts. Late last month Sambalpuri Bastralaya in Bhubaneswar hosted an exhibition of fabric developed by five designers including Mohapatra.
The designer believes that Indian textiles and crafts have the potential to nurture big Indian luxury brands. "But for that, Indian fashion will have to break the Bollywood formula to success, " he says. He agrees that the Mumbai film industry is a huge driving force for designers but emphasises the need to reach out to a larger international audience. "To establish your brand globally you need good partners and a sound business mind in addition to talent, " adds Mohapatra, who admires Indian designers like Nachiket Barve, Rahul Mishra and Rajesh Pratap Singh for their "broad vocabulary of design". Two seasons ago Mohapatra had participated in Lakme India Fashion Week but he is yet to open a store in India.
"I have thought of it but I still have to understand if the time is right for me to make my Indian foray, " says Mohapatra, who has also done a trunk show in Mumbai to get an idea how people respond to his work here. The fifth anniversary edition of Vogue (India) had Priyanka Chopra on the cover wearing a gold gown designed by him. Whether he embraces India or not the fashionistas here are already rooting for him.
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