Designer Bibhu Mohapatra. Pic/Suresh Karkera
Sometimes, memorable anecdotes arrive at the end of an interview. In Bibhu Mohapatra's case, it was 50 minutes into meeting him.
An enquiry about the meaning of his name leads us to a meeting with 'God'. “I left for America in 1996 to pursue a masters in engineering, and had to fill up a landing card on arrival. My name — Bibhudatta Mohapatra — didn't fit in the available square boxes. One letter was hanging,” he says resisting a laugh.
Bibhudatta translates to 'gift of God', and the designer found himself in a pickle — should he choose 'gift' or 'God'? In all wisdom, he decided to stay with God. Hence, the name the world knows him by: Bibhu Mohapatra. “So, every time you take my name, you are in fact, taking God's name,” he says poker faced. The 44-year-old designer, whose mention in media is never without the detail that he dressed former First Lady Michelle Obama on two high profile occasions, started his career behind his mother's old “pedalwalla” sewing machine in Rourkela, Orissa. “How many traditional Indian mothers encourage their sons to take up sewing?” he asks, making her liberated and special in an instant.
His late father taught him the importance of technical know-how. An engineer by profession, his Sunday ritual entailed de-assembling his Rajdoot motorbike, and by sundown, putting it back together. “I wish I could have those days back. On Sundays, my mother would cook mutton, and after a hearty lunch, I'd naturally feel sleepy. But then dad would remind me about the bike. It taught me about seeing things inside out, which came handy when I designed clothes.”
In Mumbai to launch the second chapter of his ongoing association with Forevermark India, Mohapatra sits down to talk about the importance of staying hopeful in present-day America, the strategy behind filing for bankruptcy, and of course, Mrs O.
The year 2017 was one of unhinged positivity; you offered joyful clothing in an uncertain political climate through your Spring 2017 and Fall/Winter 2017 collections. What is the science behind a positive mind?
Because hope is the most effective tool we all need and have. I was invited for President's Barack Obama's farewell party, and I asked him, so how do we go from here to what's coming? He summed it up beautifully, saying, 'this is democracy, our people elected the next President, and we have to respect their choice. However, we have to be vigilant for the next four years, we have to be hopeful and positive, and look out for not only our issues, but others' issues as well. We have to stay together, and go through it together.'
His words stayed with me.
I asked three members — Mexican, Chinese and Afro-American from my design team — to take a bow at the end of my Fall 2017 collection at New York Fashion Week. It was my way of taking a stand against harsh immigration laws.
America is a young country, with a recent history of civil rights, where coloured people were not allowed to vote. Since then, we have come a long way… we had a Black president for eight years, and two consecutive terms. But now, it seems like we are going back to the dark ages. So staying positive is essential.
It was widely reported that you had filed for bankruptcy protection in New York citing just over $1 million in debt this January. Why the decision?
Many fashion brands have gone through this. As you build a brand, you rake up a lot of debt. It's the nature of doing business in fashion. I started my brand in 2008-09, which was the worst time to launch. We ended up with some old debt, which became a hindrance since many potential investors were interested in the brand. We ensured that the news was made public by sending a mission statement out to friends, clients and the media. The staff is intact, vendors are in place; we are merely shedding old debt.
And ever since the announcement, we are in talks on three major deals. It's a good moment for the brand, now that there is room to take on new investors.
What can we expect from the restructuring?
Apart from Purple Label, which is essentially a ready-to-wear available at our stores at a couture price point, we are planning to launch a mid-level-price diffusion line. This range will be manufactured and sold in India. The idea is to align it with the Make in India movement. We are also in talks for licensing deals for shoes, and an outerwear collection. The Artemis fine trinket collection for Forevermark India is also part of this restructuring agenda.
Have you given a thought to tapping into the Indian trousseau market, considering it will never be hit by economic ups and downs, and you do evening wear deftly?
I'd like to be part of it, but I would want to say something new, and definitely want to do something the Bibhu way. I wish to appeal to not just the top two per cent, but reach out to a bigger audience in India.
Take for instance, the fine jewellery pieces here; some are elaborate, encrusted with diamonds, and then there are relatively simpler designs in white gold and diamonds, with a more approachable price point.
Is it true that Michelle Obama indirectly helped cement the jewellery line deal?
(Laughs) Let's just say, she expedited the deal. I met her at a dinner before her January 2015 India visit, and she said, 'we are going to do something good together'. When the [former] First Lady whispers those words in your ear, you can't even ask for more information. We were already in talks with the brand. But after Mrs Obama stepped off Air Force One with the former President wearing my design, a printed floral dress with matching coat, in New Delhi, it gave the deal a final nudge.
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