An Indian childhood inspires Bibhu Mohapatra for Fashion Week

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 September, 2013, 8:33pm

In his airy studio near New York's Times Square, Bibhu Mohapatra drapes some sequined Spanish mesh fabric over a US size-two mannequin and lets fashion magic happen.

"It reminds me of my childhood in India, where you'd put up mosquito nets at night, but with a little glitter in it," the 41-year-old designer says. "It's sheer, but it drapes beautifully, so I'm trying to figure out how to utilise it."

Such scenes of creative experimentation have been unfolding in fashion houses big and small for the spring 2014 collections that started coming down the runway in New York last Thursday.

More than 300 shows and presentations are on the schedule at Lincoln Centre and other venues, before the fashion spotlight swings over to London, Milan, and Paris.

Mohapatra will send out his latest creations for the namesake label on Wednesday, but if he's feeling the pressure, he doesn't show it. In a black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, he's a serene presence in the 11th floor studio/showroom/atelier where he employs seven people full time, up from two when he started out nearly five years ago.

I'm an artist, but I don't make art that just hangs on a wall
Bighu Mohapatra, designer

"It's been really quite an interesting journey," he says. "As long as you're open to learning, then you can really build something."

Mohapatra's interest in fashion goes back to his childhood in the Indian state of Orissa where, on an old sewing machine and with some tutoring from his mother, he made outfits for his first muse: his sister.

What he calls "a detour in my life" led him in 1996 to university in the western US state of Utah, where he picked up a graduate degree in economics.

Moving to New York, he enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology, won its critic's award for best evening wear designer in his senior year, interned at Halston, then spent eight years as design director at J. Mendel.

Since striking out on his own, his list of fans has grown to include Hollywood stars and First Lady Michelle Obama, who selected a yellow print dress from his 2012 resort collection for a talk show appearance.

For this season, Mohapatra is taking inspiration from Wendy Whelan, a close friend who is reinventing herself through modern dance at the age of 41, after retiring as principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.

"She's like a little kid trying to explore a new world," he says. "She's an artist and she's found a new language with which to express herself."

That's something he can relate to, as his business shifts into a higher gear and his profile grows in Asia, thanks to an exclusive agreement with Hong Kong-based Lane Crawford.

"I'm at a stage where I want to experiment with fabrics and materials and mix everything," he says. "My field of research is boundary-less and I draw inspiration from everything and everywhere."

Looking ahead, Mohapatra says the label that bears his name "definitely has to be bigger". Key to that vision is building a retail presence in New York and beyond.

"There are so many pockets in the world that we are trying to get into, one by one," he says.

"We are pretty well recognised in the Middle East and now we're starting to be in Asia with the best partner you can ask for. It's baby steps."

Meanwhile, Mohapatra's forged a sharper idea of the woman he designs for. She's well-educated, well-travelled, firmly on trend, but also a bit more demanding in the wake of the global economic downturn.

"I'm an artist, but I don't make art that just hangs on a wall," the designer adds.

"I develop a product that I hope somebody is going to be moved by in such a way that they are going to put it on their back and feel good about it."