The story of designer Bibhu Mohapatra's career thus far is the stuff Hollywood (or perhaps Bollywood) dreams are made of. A young boy in India, inspired by the richness of the fabrics, colors, and crafts of his native country travels to the US to study design and is soon working in some of the most iconic style houses in the world. A few years later, he launches his own line, to great critical praise and is the recipient of prestigious awards and honors.
Sound too silver screen to be true? It isn't. Nor is his unbelievable humility and graciousness which makes that fashion industry archetype of the creative genius who is also a sadist/megalomaniac seem like a sitcom cliché.
How do we know all this? Bibhu Mohapatra recently sat down with Style Wylde to discuss life, film, creativity, and his Fall 2011 collection which will debut in the tents at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week next month.
SW: You studied at F.I.T., assisted at Halston, and directed design at J. Mendel for 9 years before launching your own label, how did these experiences shape you as a designer?
BM: My experiences, including those in my childhood before I came to New York, have everything to do with me as a designer. My career really started long ago when I was a child in India and just observing everything around me and getting inspired by everything. But, when I came to New York I studied fashion, had an internship, and then worked at Halston. At Halston I was sort of thrown into the middle of everything, and I had the opportunity to learn design from the ground up. I saw everything from sketches to pattern making. Halston is where I learned beautiful technique, and then later when I went to J. Mendel, I was equipped with a lot of the basics, and then at J. Mendel was where I really was helped to develop my own style. Basically all of it, my childhood, my education in New York, my experiences at Halston and J. Mendel it has all shaped me to the point where I was ready to go out on my own. So I owe a lot to that experience and the people that gave me that experience.
SW: Your first collection was launched in 2009, in the middle of one of the worst economic crises in US history. What inspired you to take the plunge in such an unstable time for the fashion industry?
BM: Looking back, I am so glad that I chose to do it then. I was extremely cautious and careful to slowly get it into it, but I knew that given the time and the market, people would be looking for new things. I had buyers from everywhere to come and see my presentation. I was surprised! They said “we’re not buying anything but we would love to come and see it”. I had a lot of domestic and international buyers come to my presentation. Did we sell out the whole collection? No, but I didn’t expect it to. Anytime you start a business you have to do the groundwork before people take notice, and I’d rather do the groundwork in that economy so when things turn around I am ready, I have things done, and I’ve started to established my brand. That was the main reason I chose to do it that way.
SW: So you actually feel that launching it at a slower time let you get started?
BM: Yes, totally, and people were so kind and especially made a point to encourage me as it was kind of unexpected to launch a new brand, but since I made the gesture the industry was really supportive, and encouraging. I felt people appreciated me bringing a new product into the market.
SW: Fast forward to Spring 2011, we saw gorgeous detailing on gowns and an epic Faye Dunaway inspired collection which seemed to scream Hollywood, do you often find inspiration in film?
BM: Films in general have always inspired me. I have a huge film library in my head, be it Indian films, international films, or Hollywood. They do have a major influence and I often draw from that and often it helps me shape my vision. So yes, I'm really, really, really appreciative of that craft and the people who make movies, act, or contribute to that industry. So much works goes into a film, it’s amazing!
SW: What is your favorite Bollywood film and favorite Hollywood film?
BM: My favorite Bollywood film is a film called Ijaazat which means Permission. It’s about the relationship between a man and a woman and the journey they make and the little things and times we spend in the moment with one another. It's just a simple thing about life and it teaches us how our minds work and how we interact with one another. It's beautifully written and beautifully shot and is by one of my favorite directors and composers, Gulzar. As for Hollywood movies, there is a movie with Richard Dreyfuss called Who’s Life Is It Anyway, about an artist that can no longer create his art and is basically fighting for his death.
SW: I know this film, it’s about and artist that is paralyzed from the neck down and wants to be allowed to die. Is that correct? It’s very heavy. What do you think it is about this intense subject matter that draws you to it?
BM: I do like films that are intense and go deeper than the surface. I consider myself an artist and as an artist, I’m completely constantly bombarded with visual stimulation that inspires me. I can’t shut if off. Things come to me in the morning and I wake up and I get the notepad and write down ideas that could be useful one day. But also as an artist my hands are all I’ve got. I need that coordination between my hands and my mind to execute my ideas, my inspirations. The thought of that day when I can’t do anything or execute those ideas haunts me.
SW: I remember seeing the film years ago. It was indeed haunting, and heartbreaking. On a lighter note, if you will forgive the terrible transition, earlier this month you were named one of the winners of the Ecco Domani Award for Fashion, which includes a $25,000 grant towards participating in Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. What did it mean to you to have your work recognized for this prestigious award?
BM: It felt great and it was such a great validation to be included in a group of such great designers. It’s truly an honor, and the added resources are of course a benefit. Right now I am putting everything into my business, to making my product better, the award is helping me do that.
SW: What were some major influences or inspirations for Fall 2011?
BM: I might have to be somewhat vague, I don’t want to give everything away! But I think this season the collection is more about mood. I was in London at Christmas in a snowstorm. I spent a lot of time at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in the Gothic department looking at ironwork, blocks, and stonework, all of these images were inspiring a mood. With this collection I have been on a dark journey, I have been thinking about another film, The Crucible, and about the dark side to all of us, the conflicts of our minds. This collection is much more stronger and intense, but really pure while still being chic and sophisticated. It’s very strong and mysterious and dark.
SW: How did you come to focus on this inspiration? Was there a process of elimination before you settled on one idea?
BM: I take everything in, everything I see strikes me for a moment. But then certain ideas come back to me and I find myself thinking a little more about them, and other things that relate to those ideas start to snowball in my head. Vague ideas become a solid idea, then I sit down and start sketching. I pick a category, such as coats or separates and sketch ideas for each category. Then I throw the sketches on the wall and let them sit for a day before I come back and look at it. Then I can see what belongs and what doesn’t. It becomes a process of creation and elimination. I go back and forth, in the end the core idea comes with all these elements that I’ve collected in my head.
SW: Let's talk about color. Without giving everything away, can you give us just a hint of what colors we can expect to see in this collection?
BM: There are beautiful blues and teals mixed with navy and a beautiful shade of emerald green. Also, there are ivories mixed with shades of bone and there will be pops of super saturated burnt orange that has a lot of gray in it so it will be great for day or evening.
SW: That sounds amazing, I can’t wait to see the final collection in New York. Thank you for speaking with Style Wylde, I look forward to seeing you in the tents!
BM: Yes, of course, and wish me luck that I actually finish in time!