Bibhu Mohapatra on His Rise to Fashion Fame

Photo: Getty Images
Looks from Bibhu Mohapatra’s Spring 2011 collection

Within the grim, sleeted streets of the Garment District, the slim glass walls of Bibhu Mohapatra’s CFDA Incubator Space feel particularly zenlike this week.

Like the designers who spend their days here, he’s part of the golden dozen—a young, diverse, elite group under enormous pressure to deliver standout collections this season.

But Mohapatra can walk a little lighter now: He’s already reached one of the year’s most formidable milestones: winning the annual $25,000 Ecco Domani womenswear grant, an achievement shared in 2010 by fellow CFDA Incubator participant, Prabal Gurung.

Like Gurung, Mohapatra is a talented émigré whose name is relatively new to the fashion forefront, though his design roots run deep to his native India.  

His charismatic dress designs have already earned him acclaim from the Vogue and red carpet set, with critics appreciating the level of artistry and workmanship that go into his dramatic statement gowns.

We caught up with Mohapatra the day after the Ecco Domani news was reported, as he juggled a trip to a furrier and a CFI meeting. We quickly learned that success isn’t going to his head—it’s going into his workmanship.

Congratulations on the Ecco Domani win. How do you see yourself utilizing this investment?

I will invest it directly into the product itself. My priority is always to make the highest quality garments, so this generous award will allow me to maintain the integrity of my label—during a difficult time for newer designers. I’m so grateful. I only found out that I won a few days ago—not long before it was announced publicly. I knew I was in the running, but I didn’t want to count on anything! But then, here I was, sketching, when I heard the happy news.

You have a lovely workspace—how did you get involved with the program?

That was another lucky occurrence. In 2009, I applied for the program after setting up my label the year before—and I was accepted. They offered me this beautiful subsidized workspace and wonderful mentorships—being a part of the Incubator program has been a true asset. I’ve earned access to resources I never would have otherwise. It’s allowed me to carefully grow my business over the past few seasons.

You did set up your label during a tumultuous time—right in the middle of the 2008 recession. Did you think that was a dangerous choice?

Oh, I was always asked that: “Why now?” And sometimes I asked myself that. But I always believed I was doing the right thing: I knew if I started it then, I’d grow it into a healthy business two years later. And that’s what I managed to do.

Would you consider yourself financially secure now?

There are still challenges—but we’re getting there. And, of course, we’ve had a lot of help.

It probably helps that you have an economic background—a unique insight for this industry.

[Laughs.] Well, let’s just say that numbers are not Greek to me.

Photo: Getty Images
The designer.

Why did you decide to study economics in college instead of fashion?

Growing up in India, I fell in love with fashion at an early age. But I wasn’t really able to study fashion formally there, so I chose to take my bachelor’s degree in economics. I was able to come to the States on scholarship, as my family came from modest means, to complete my master’s at Utah State University. I always wanted to return to fashion, though. After friends urged me to move to New York, I applied to FIT, and got in.

What were your first fashion jobs?

I interned for Halston while in school, and that turned into an assistant job. Then J. Mendel asked me to design for them, and I became their creative director for nine years before deciding to start my own label.

What are your first fashion memories?

I started sewing with my mother on her pedal-powered Singer. I’m not even sure what she was sewing, probably pillowcases! [Laughs] But I fell in love. I would make my sister saris. She was subject to some very unfortunate outfits in the beginning, I’m afraid.

How does your Indian background influence how you approach design?

It’s in everything I do. In my sense of color, shape, the way clothing feels, the weird attraction to opposites. In the fabric selections—when I go back to India twice a year, I always find amazing fabrics. There’s an amazing peacock fiber print I’m using.

Is there a burgeoning fashion industry in India?

There’s a definite pool of talent, but it still needs to be organized so that it can receive proper international attention. But many exciting ideas are happening there.

What is your take on the concept of seasons?

I think they represent different ways of feeling and thinking about things. I mean, you do actually feel differently and think differently in the summer—lighter, freer. And we are inclined to the darkness in the winter. We long to wrap ourselves in things, to feel intimacy. We want space in summer.

Which do you prefer?

I can enjoy both, but I am drawn to the darkness of winter. I love the idea of cloaking the body as a form of protection.

You already have many notable fans, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett. Who is your dream customer?

Probably Lauren Santo Domingo. A powerful, confident woman who understands clothing and uses it to empower herself. My muses connect to the transformative power of fashion.

Whats on your mind for Fall 2011?

I can’t give away much—but I can say that this season, my woman is stronger, more powerful. There’s a bit more darkness. We’re playing with themes of opposites, contrast and rituals. There will be linear, geometric shapes. There’s a lot of color, but it’s moody. I’m playing with a few new materials as well—a cagelike “leathertex” and some sensual, sheer prints that look painted onto the skin. It’s Tilda Swinton meets Leigh Lezark—clothing for strong, chameleonlike women.