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Eye on the White House

Designer Bibhu Mohapatra, famous for dressing Michelle Obama, tells Indira Kannan about his plans to widen his canvas

Indira Kannan 

Michelle Obama in one of Mahapatra's creations
Michelle Obama in one of Mahapatra’s creations

Flashes of red and gold, delicate lace on sleeves, sumptuous silks and stylish furs, all tied together with a whimsical dragonfly motif - Bibhu Mohapatra brought his Fall/Winter 2016 collection to Toronto last month for a fashion show at the end of the annual gala of Anokhi Media, a Canadian lifestyle media company catering to the south Asian community.

The New York-based fashion designer had debuted this collection back in February during the New York Fashion Week. But in Toronto, he looked as intense as if he was unveiling it for the first time, huddling with his staff, and hurrying backstage several times before the models strutted out.

Seven years after striking out on his own, the Rourkela-born designer has already made a name for himself, dressing famous women like US First Lady Michelle Obama and film stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Hilary Swank.

Now, Mohapatra wants to go beyond merely dressing women. "I want the brand to be present in a lot of other aspects of my client's life, meaning she would have shoes, a living space designed by Bibhu, or the home collection, or the fine linen that she sleeps on," he says.

The foray into diamond jewellery in April, when he launched the Artemis collection in India in collaboration with De Beers' premier brand Forevermark, is part of that expansion. He also has a fur collection, sold through Saks Fifth Avenue.

His dream of going into business for himself ran headlong into the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, but the designer persevered with his plan, telling himself, "Anything you start any time, you'd have to do the groundwork for a couple of years and then it will start getting traction. So, might as well do the groundwork now, and by the time the economy turns around, I would be ready to take on the bigger opportunities." That's exactly what happened, he recalls.

Eye on the White House
Even in the short time he has been in business, Mohapatra realises the market has changed, largely because of social media. A season's worth of feedback is now available almost instantly. He has a big following in West Asia, and says people reach out through email or Instagram. He meticulously collects feedback from clients and retailers, and mines his own past collections for data, with a laser focus on how to increase sales. "I look back at things that were successful - not only how people wrote about it, but also what actually sold."

He is currently working on his Spring 2017 collection, which will be about "giving due credit to amazing muses that have always inspired painters, writers, sculptors but never got their due credit in a social setting." But one part of his collection will be predictable: a set of "Bibhu classics", items like sheath dresses, tailored canvas jackets and stretch crepe trousers. "It may not always walk the runway, but we have a version of those outfits that we know people love season after season," he says.

While Mohapatra and fellow designer Naeem Khan are now marquee names in fashion, and the best-known Indian-born designers in the US, the most powerful endorsement for both arguably came from Obama, who wore their creations at high-profile events. With the presidential election just two months away, what about the next occupants of the White House? "I would love to make something for Hillary [Clinton]," Mohapatra says, referring to the Democratic candidate. "I think she's amazing." And should Donald Trump's wife, Melania, become the First Lady, and Ivanka the First Daughter? "They are beautiful and have their own sense of style. I think we did dress Melania when I was designing for J Mendel and so, if they like my work, sure, why not?"

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First Published: Sat, September 03 2016. 00:17 IST
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