Three years ago, on a cold, hazy morning in Delhi, Bibhu Mohapatra finally got his due in his motherland. In photos and videos splashed across virtually every newspaper, television channel and online platform, Michelle Obama, as she emerged from Air Force One accompanying her husband on a state visit to India, was seen wearing an elegant, black-and-white patterned dress and coat with poppy motifs from Mohapatra’s 2015 Spring collection.
“That was all her doing,” reminisces Mohapatra, 46. He says he did not know when and on what occasion she was going to wear his creation. “[But] I could not have asked for a better ‘brand ambassador’ to do it in the most special way.”
While his home country might have taken a while to discover his genius, the New York-based fashion designer has no dearth of global ‘brand ambassadors’ of sorts to sport his enchanting evening gowns. This includes the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Lupita Nyong’o and Viola Davis. Closer home, the list features Sonam Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor, while Priyanka Chopra famously appeared on the cover of Vogue’s anniversary issue in his creation.
Things were not always this starry. He grew up in Rourkela, Odisha, in a middle-class family and studied engineering, even though he always knew his interest lay in fashion. He then enrolled in a master’s programme in economics in the US. To his credit, Mohapatra did complete his master’s before turning to his first and true love—fashion. “It was time to take a decision whether to go to New York [to study fashion] or apply for a PhD [in economics],” he says. “I called up my father and he said, ‘Close your eyes and try to picture what you see yourself doing ten years from now and being 200 per cent happy—that is your thing’.”
It has been ten years twice over, and Mohapatra definitely has reason to be 200 per cent happy, possibly more. He got through to the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, graduating not just with a degree but also a critics award, and valuable experience interning with the legacy brand Halston. He immediately got a job at the design house J. Mendel. The rest of the first ten years was spent as the design director there.
The next ten years were going to be epochal. In fact, Mohapatra calls his decision to quit J. Mendel as his toughest, yet biggest breakthrough—perhaps even bigger than the Obama moment. “[The job at J. Mendel] was comfortable and I had a massive salary,” he says. “I was saying something, but it was not cent per cent my vocabulary. I wanted to get to a stage where, when I write a sentence, it is entirely my own.”
With nothing but determination, hard work and sheer talent, Mohapatra rose up the rungs of Manhattan’s champagne class; his outfits talking for themselves with their global sensibility of international cuts, a touch of Indian crafts and colours, and a strong inspiration from history and literature.
As his international designer brand completes ten years in February, Mohapatra has big plans, starting with India. “I am planning to create a specific line for retail in India, with the right aesthetics and the right price point,” he says. “We will announce it as part of the tenth anniversary [celebration], to be executed in the latter part of 2019. We plan to manufacture 90 per cent of it in India.”
His home state Odisha is never too far from his thoughts. Mohapatra is involved in a textile revival project there, and is planning to work with weavers and craftsmen from across the state for its second phase. His family is also close to his heart. A capsule in his last ready-to-wear (RTW) collection was named after his late mother Sashi, who taught him how to sew.
And what does the next ten years hold for him? Mohapatra is brimming with ideas. “I want to have a presence in India... we want to get into menswear, shoes and accessories,” he says. “And I want to expand our distribution network globally in a very rapid way.” Mohapatra has enough and more reasons to ensure his home country will not forget him in the coming ten years and beyond.