Bibhu Mohapatra returns to Logan to talk about making dresses for Michelle Obama and others.
One might expect a designer who has had Michelle Obama, Zendaya and Gwyneth Paltrow wearing his clothes to have studied in one of the centers of the fashion industry, like New York.
Bibhu Mohapatra got his start at Utah State University, a place he said gave him “the right platform” to pursue his dream job.
“My time [in] Utah gave me such a solid background, that I’m able to do what I do now,” Mohapatra said recently, when he returned to Logan for a series of events on the USU campus, including speaking in a lecture series to current economics and costume construction students.
Mohapatra — who was born in 1972 in Odisha, a state in eastern India, on the Bay of Bengal — is an international alumnus of USU, where he received his master’s in fashion merchandising. He also studied economics. He later received another master’s, in fashion design, from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
Growing up in India, Mohapatra learned sewing from his mother. Those skills have always stuck with him, he said, as has the Indian influence in his designs. “I always say my heritage flows through my veins,” he said.
Mohapatra credits his cousin, Savita, as “the one who inspired me to come to America,” he said. Savita was attending USU, and Bibhu stayed with her the first few months he lived in Utah in 1996—and became, he said, one of his first muses.
After getting his degree from FIT, Mohapatra worked for such design houses as Halston and J. Mendel. He struck out on his own In 2008, starting his private company, with an order of three coats.
Mohapatra’s work has some consistencies, like an affection for playful dresses and cut-off jackets. His work experiments with bold details, such as sequins in the embroidery. He also likes to employ different fabric textures — including a good deal of tulle, a product of his Indian influence.
Celebrities started to catch onto Mohapatra’s style. Gwyneth Paltrow wore a black-and-white dress Mohapatra designed in Paris in 2013. Lupita Nyong’o (“Us”) wore one of his dresses at a cocktail party after the 2014 White House Correspondents Association dinner.
“The best thing that has ever happened to me in my career,” Mohapatra said, came in 2015, when then-First Lady Michelle Obama stepped out of Air Force One with her husband, President Barack Obama, in New Delhi — wearing one of Mohapatra’s designs.
Mohapatra said Michelle Obama hinted she might wear the items he made for her on the trip to India — but he had no idea she would be wearing one of his dresses when the First Couple were greeted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“A lot of windows opened for me” with Michelle Obama’s endorsement, Mohapatra said.
Later that year, the actress/singer Zendaya posed for a shoot in Harper’s Bazaar in a lavender gown Mohapatra designed. More recently, Allison Janney won her BAFTA in 2018 (for “I, Tonya”) in a Mohapatra-designed gown. Tonya Lewis Lee, wife of Spike Lee, walked the red carpet at the 2019 Academy Awards in a black-and-yellow gown Mohapatra designed. And in 2020, “Stranger Things” co-star Cara Buono wore one of his gowns at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
This year, Amy Ryan walked the SAG runway in one of his gowns, and “West Side Story” star Ariana DeBose appeared on “The Tonight Show” in a Mohapatra dress.
The key to designing for someone, Mohapatra said, is considering “who the model is as a person, and what are some of the important factors that propel their individuality. … My job [is to] design for them, not to turn them into someone else they’re really not. … Really understanding who they are as a person, empowering them, and defining this … so they project the best version of themselves.”
Mohapatra has expanded his fashion repertoire to jewelry, inspired by “the timeless brilliance of the Universe” for his “Forevermark Artemis” collection.
Fashion will always come first, he said.
“Fashion is a perfect blend to me of creativity and commerce,” he said. “It’s not just about selling clothes or creating mindless products. … It really starts from an individualistic point of view. What are the things I want to say this season? What sort of story do I want to tell? How authentic can it be?”
Mohapatra reminded the budding fashion designers at Utah State that he knows what they’re dealing with, working so far from New York or Paris. “I was there,” he said.
Mohapatra’s advice to future designers: “Be very focused and really believe in what [you] want to do … and yourself. Creativity is very unique to each one of us. Try to find your own style and make sure that you tell an authentic story with your craft.”
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