Mohapatra’s Moment

The Indian-born designer proves that nice guys do finish first—and sometimes get to dress the First Lady too

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Mark Mahaney for TIME

Mohapatra in his studio. "As a creative person," he says, "you want to start with a blank canvas."

Just before heading to bed one night in August, I got a text message from Bibhu Mohapatra. It contained a photo of First Lady Michelle Obama in a citrus-print sleeveless sheer yoke cocktail dress. Above it, a message: “Just found out, Michelle is wearing the yellow dress.” Mohapatra has dressed Kristen Wiig, Hilary Swank and Glenn Close, but this was different. There she was, America’s fashion icon on The Tonight Show, validating Mohapatra’s work before a national audience.

It is Mohapatra’s moment, but it’s a story that almost wasn’t. He had never been on a plane before 1995, when he left his native Orissa, India, at age 23 with a one-way ticket to Logan, Utah, to pursue a master’s degree in economics on an academic scholarship to Utah State University. Between homework assignments, he’d sketch. And sketch. Until, by chance, a professor saw his sketchbook of dresses, jackets and coats and said, “You’re in the wrong business.” So Mohapatra called his dad, who told him, “Close your eyes and picture yourself 10 years from now, having the most fun, being the most happy—that’s your answer.” Mohapatra packed his bags, moved to New York City and landed a spot at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he could finally pursue his lifelong passion.

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Now 40 and a newly minted member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), Mohapatra launched his namesake label in 2009 after nine years at J. Mendel, where he worked his way up from assistant to design director. “As a creative person, you want to start with a blank canvas,” he says. “This is like having the biggest canvas on which to paint.” His clothes do have a painterly quality: rich color, prints and patterns on structured silhouettes. Modern yet supremely feminine. There are shades of India, too, in the embroidery and beading—traditional dressmaking techniques that Mohapatra likes to call “Old World bones.”

I recently paid him a visit at his cavernous, 5,000-sq.-ft. studio in the heart of Manhattan’s garment district—a big upgrade from the cramped 600-sq.-ft. space a block away where he used to work. His new spot is a sea of white walls and columns punctuated by splashes of color: a sage gown with beads and feathers from his 2013 resort collection and a chaise longue he found on the street and re-covered in lapis-print fabric of his own design. He greets me at the door with his signature boyish grin and a hug.

“He has the biggest smile in fashion and lacks any of the attitude that sometimes comes with a young designer’s success,” says Steven Kolb, the CFDA’s CEO. “Bibhu is a gracious and tasteful gentleman,” says Linda Fargo, senior vice president of Bergdorf Goodman, Mohapatra’s biggest account. “His métier is elegance.”

As Mohapatra describes them, his designs are a study in opposites. “Masculine and feminine, graphic and organic, but always staying true to the core of making beautiful clothes,” he says. He has a hat trick of debuts coming up: in September, he’ll show his first collection with handbags; in January, his first pre-fall collection; in February, a complete line of handbags. “A lot of exciting things are happening,” he says. “I hope to grow another head and two more hands,” he adds with a laugh, “like an Indian goddess.”

To see CNN national correspondent Alina Cho’s interview with Bibhu Mohapatra and for more coverage of New York Fashion Week, tune in to Fashion: Backstage Pass, airing on CNN on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 2:30 p.m.

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