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The designer who dressed Michelle Obama

Last updated on: February 04, 2015 14:31 IST

Bibhu Mohapatra from Odisha gave up a degree in economics to design clothes and hasn't looked back.

It is a regular, if freezing, January afternoon in New York, or so the news reports show, with the city having escaped the brunt of blizzard Juno.

As we speak on the phone, designer Bibhu Mohapatra, in his studio near Times Square, seems to have his hands full.

He is juggling several things at the same time -- preparing for his fall collection for the upcoming New York Fashion Week, arranging for important faxes to be received and responding to all the wishes pouring in on Twitter.

It's been four days since Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States, touched down in Delhi for a state visit wearing a floral printed dress from his Spring Summer 2015 collection, and messages of congratulations are still pouring in on the social media.

Mohapatra is no stranger to dressing celebrities.

Hollywood A-listers such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Hilary Swank, Glenn Close, Kristen Wiig, Elisabeth Moss and Lupita Nyong'o have worn his designs in the past.

He is quite a favourite with Bollywood actors as well, with Sonam Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and Kareena Kapoor donning his creations on the red carpet.

This is also not the first time that Michelle Obama has donned one of his dresses. She wore a yellow, printed and layered dress from his resort collection titled Citrus Painterly, nearly two years ago for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Given the United States' obsession with the First Lady's wardrobe, it had made Mohapatra a household name.

It's been a long journey for this boy from Rourkela, Odisha, who came to Utah to pursue a master's degree in economics and then left it all in 1998 to pursue a course in fashion designing in New York instead.

"Growing up in Odisha, it was a different sort of India back then, especially when it came to art and design. It was difficult to carve out a career in fashion," he says.

So, he focused on his studies and decided to pursue economics, a subject that he enjoyed.

With his brother and cousins already in the US, he too applied for the master's degree course at Utah State University.

"But all this time, at the back of my mind I felt that I had to do something in design," he says.

Mohapatra was nudged in this direction by his professor who was very impressed with the sketches he made in his spare time.

"My designs at that time were slightly immature but reflected a sort of confidence," he confesses.

His cousin, Sarita Mohapatra, too played a huge role in helping him make the shift from economics to fashion. But the final push came when he asked his father for advice.

"He told me to close my eyes and picture myself 10 years down the line and see if I was happy with whatever I was doing at that time.

"That sealed the decision for me," recalls Mohapatra.

After interning with iconic label Halston, he shifted to J Mendel, where he rose from being an assistant to design director, all in a matter of nine years.

Though he rates his years at J Mendel as extremely significant, Mohapatra left the company in 2009 to start his eponymous label.

"It was difficult. But it was my dream to have a label where I could create my own vocabulary," says Mohapatra, who began in a 15 feet x 15 feet room with one employee.

What is it about his designs that appeal to fashion icons from across the globe? "Mohapatra has mastered the balance between a refined sense of sophistication and femme fatale," says Malini Agarwal, founder of the fashion and lifestyle blog, MissMalini.

"Over the years, his designs have proved to be strong on wearability and have a certain polished appeal."

His clothes are considered ideal for women who prefer an elegance that is timeless and yet progressive.

Actor Nimrat Kaur, who is part of the acclaimed Homeland series on television, wore one of his designs — a metallic, printed, strapless dress — to the Screen Actors Guild Nominees Party a couple of days ago. She agrees with this assessment of Mohapatra's designs.

"I love the stylish quirks in his dresses. There is a femininity about them, while also exuding a sort of sex appeal," she says.

Back in India, designers are minutely observing Mohapatra's growth trajectory.

Rina Dhaka believes he has always been considered an exceptional talent, even before Michelle Obama wore his dresses.

"His designs are marked by clean lines, merged prints and impeccable construction — simple international fashion philosophy," she says.

His design sensibility is considered to be contemporary with a blend of his cultural influences from Odisha. "Mohapatra is a romantic in the true sense of the word," says Lauren Sherman, contributor to Style.com.

"His references — from shipping heiress Nancy Cunard to photographer Manoj Jadhav — always come from a genuine, pure place."

Having reviewed his collections in the past, she feels that in the past few seasons, Mohapatra has worked hard to really define his brand's aesthetic.

"Today, he has become known for interesting graphics and dressed-up daywear.

"I think his greatest talent is in designing glamorous clothes to wear before 6 pm," she adds.

Mohapatra rates his exposure to Odisha's craft during his formative years as one of the major influences on his designs.

"As a child, I was enamoured of colours. My mother's jewellery, her saris, the pipli and ikat work from the region — all this stayed with me," he says.

There's a picture on his Instagram account of his mother dressed in a traditional sari, wearing a striking maang tika, which seems simple at first, but on closer look reveals an intricate three-part construction.

It is these simple yet elegant designs that shaped his sensibility while growing up. Mohapatra who integrates a lot of the "ikat experience" into his designs.

"I feel that my heritage gives me that edge in making my clothes more modern."

Those who know him feel that his clothes are a reflection of his personality.

Sabine Heller, CEO of the exclusive, by-invitation online community, A Small World, has worn Mohapatra's designs on several occasions and considers him a good friend.

"He is truly kind and generous. He is, like men of true elegance, also humble," she says.

Not many know that Mohapatra had a cameo role in the Bollywood film, Teen Patti, starring Amitabh Bachchan.

It's a funny story how this came about.

"The producer was a friend who knew what a huge consumer of Bollywood films I was.

"She invited me to watch the filming on the sets.

"Next thing I know is that I am being dragged into the makeup van and being given lines to read.

"I kept insisting that they had the wrong person, but no one listened to me," laughs Mohapatra who played himself in the film.

"During my scene with Bachchan, I was sweating and kept forgetting my lines.

"I am never star-struck around Hollywood actors, but with Bollywood stars it's a different reaction because I grew up watching their films," he says.

Any plans of pursuing acting further? An emphatic "No" is the response.

As of now, he has a lot of projects lined up.

First up is the second phase of his project with the handloom weavers in Odisha.

The project, which was initiated by the Odisha government and implemented by the Sambalpuri Vastralaya, roped in designers such as Mohapatra, Rajesh Pratap Singh, Abraham and Thakore and others to develop a collection with the weavers.

Designs from the first phase were shown at the Wills Fashion Week in 2012.

"The challenge before me is to ensure that the project empowers the weavers, that they get a fair remuneration and their standard of living becomes better," he says.

Mohapatra has also started retailing in India through Kitsch, the multi-designer fashion store by Priya and Charu Sachdev.

"There is also a jewellery line for India on the cards. I don't want to reveal too much at this stage," he says.

'Michelle loves colours'

Even though, Michelle Obama has worn his dresses on several occasions, Mohapatra hasn't got an opportunity to work directly with her so far.

But he is all praise for her style sense.

"It is truly special.

"She loves colours and loves to experiment.

She goes for really vibrant designs and doesn't follow huge brands all the time. Her unique sense of style is an extension of her personality," he says.

Photographs: Ministry of External Affairs/Creative Commons and Business Standard

 

Avantika Bhuyan
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