WHEN HE LEFT INDIA in the mid-’90s to pursue Masters in Economics at Utah on a scholarship, and then a fashion degree at FIT New York, little did Odisha-born Bibhu Mohapatra know that he would one day be one of India’s finest international fashion ambassadors. With his latest Fall 2024 showing at New York Fashion Week at The Pierre in Manhattan, where he had veterans, including supermodel Beverly Johnson sashaying down the runway in fierce-shouldered 1980s gowns, dresses, and pantsuits in cobalt blue, indigo, blacks and greys in a tribute to fashion photographer Helmut Newton, New York-based Bibhu has proven that he can create collections for global audiences, with an Indian heart.

“All my clothes are made in New York City,” says Bibhu, who famously cold-called fashion houses post his degree and bagged an internship at classic American fashion brand Halston, and then a job at furrier J Mendel. “All surface embellishments, embroideries, karigaris, beading, and threadwork are done by artisans of India, in Mumbai and Kolkata.” For the last 15 years, he’s been telling the story of Indian craft — that is what luxury is, he says. “There is a story in every yarn and fibre. My fabric comes from Japan or Italy. We bring it here and do the pattern work, then it goes to India, and the artisans do their magic, and then it comes back to New York. Whether we produce one piece or 25, we tell the story of every hand that produces it.”

Living in the heart of artsy Tribeca, in New York City, with his eponymous flagship in the tony neighbourhood known for its myriad art galleries, Bibhu is not only credited with dressing up First Lady Michelle Obama (the blue and white dress she wore as she landed in India in 2015 with the then U.S. President Barack Obama), but also Hollywood A-listers such as Oscar winners Glenn Close, and Lupita Nyong’o, superstar Jennifer Lopez and others.

Indian audiences got to see a retrospective of his past collections, interspersed with his new line, during his October finale at Lakme Fashion Week in New Delhi, entitled ‘Coming Home’, where he presented models, the muses he wanted to honour — such as Ananya Pandey and Carol Gracias. “These are all successful women, and they have paved the way for young models.”

Looking East

If coming home seemed right six months ago, then his being in India is even more relevant today. “That’s the ultimate dream — to do a reverse migration,” says Bibhu. “Besides my connection to my core audience through my homeland, it is my dream to bring my brand to India — and not just premium and exclusive clothes. It must be done with a partnership that allows us to have retail and manufacturing infrastructure, to create a unique collection for India… The country is so vibrant, with so many designers. I’m constantly looking at how to say something new to the audience.”

He would, however, need to fine tune the product range for India. “Our sizing differs from Europe, to Asia, to West Asia,” says Bibhu, “It’s not a blanket sizing. Part of our DNA is that we produce well, produce less and produce mindfully, so that when you wear a piece of our clothing, it makes you more of who you already are.”

Known for his evening cocktail dresses, Bibhu wants to be a part of his customer’s life “the moment she starts her day, not just after 5pm.”

“We have always done trousers, separates, skirts, lunch/date outfits, and date outfits because somewhere between day and cocktail outfits — we make these elevated day pieces. For example, a beautiful white cotton shirt dress,” he adds.

Clockwise from left: Jennifer Lopez and Michelle Obama don dresses designed by Bibhu; models showcasing his collection.
Clockwise from left: Jennifer Lopez and Michelle Obama don dresses designed by Bibhu; models showcasing his collection.
Image : photograph: Getty Images (Jennifer Lopez)

He is looking to make a collection focused on Odisha, provided manufacturing is possible, so that there is no break in the production cycle — as department store orders tend to be on the kind of scale that need perfect manufacturing logistics and delivery. “If they are handwoven fabrics, I don’t have that kind of system set yet,” says Bibhu. “My dream is a whole collection from an Odisha weave — I want to make sure we can produce it.”

“Each pocket of India holds so many secrets, mines of brilliant art, I would need to go to each state at least 10 lakh times to fully explore it!” he adds.

One of his favourite moments has been Michelle Obama wearing his clothes for her India visit, TV appearances, and White House events. He says at the last party he attended at the Obamas, after Donald Trump came into the White House, “I held (Mrs Obama’s) hands and told her, ‘Thank you for what you did in India (wearing his dress). This is my American story coming true.’ She was in tears. She knew the power of her platform, despite the critical eyes on her.”

Looking Ahead

It’s been 15 years since he founded his label. The NYC store looks at an eyewear line in Spring every year, in tie-up with a German firm. “We control everything about the business,” says Bibhu. “Post-Covid, we started a new chapter. Ours is a laboratory; we create unique things.” During this time, he also launched his website with e-commerce, and has shifted strategy from wholesale to global retail, launching in London, Bahrain, relaunching in Kuwait, Qatar, and Panama. “Our retail partners are long-term, the ones we did our wholesale business with. That puts everything to store, e-commerce or direct.”

“We don’t overproduce — we don’t create stock just to have it. We create enough for our store. Our collection will have to increase as we grow our business,” he adds.

Indians, so clued into the bridalwear market, are bound to ask if he will ever create for this niche audience. “I do get asked if I will do an Indian bridal line. We do make on special request.”

The young boy, who learnt how to sew on an Usha machine that belonged to his mother, has come a long way. “I lost her to brain aneurysm when she was 59. She encouraged me to sew. I am blessed I had her, and she still inspires me to this day.”

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