Fashion

Bibhu Mohapatra: My Indian heritage gives me an edge in American fashion

The designer dishes out some home truths on the fashion climate right now

There’s a different satisfaction in meeting international designer Bibhu Mohapatra in person. Sort of like putting a face to the name, and then a personality to the face. In his starched blazer with a neat diamond lapel pin, the Odisha native is a perfect gentleman, drawing up a chair for me as we sit down to chat on a sunny morning, his exquisite Artemis collection for Forevermark within arm's reach.

Over the course of the next 20 minutes, he walks me through the politically-charged climate in his adopted home, the United States of America. No evasiveness or diplomacy here; Bibhu has a gift for bringing out your empathetic side, which has no doubt won him friends in high places. The name Michelle Obama ring a bell?

What is it like to be a designer of Indian origin right now in the United States, given the heated political atmosphere?

In a way, we are back to the dark days. Civil rights are being questioned, minorities are fighting for basic rights. It was a country that always celebrated immigrants, and now I wake up to find my friends in the fashion industry worried about their status as an immigrant. These are challenging times, yes, but this is the moment for me to take the little platform that I have, powered by my own heritage, and stand with the people who are affected.

The reaction in the world of fashion has been instantaneous...

I think you’ll find that artists, in general, are the first ones to raise their voice and express their dissent through their craft, even if displeases the critics. Their art is how they make sense of the world around them, of the issues that bother them. So while you have a Meryl Streep using her platform with her brilliant speech, fashion designers are sending out a message of their own through something as non-verbal as a runway collection.  

How are you using your Indian heritage to impact the cultural conversation?

My Indian heritage is branded into my DNA as a designer; it is woven into my work almost subconsciously. It could be something as basic as a colour combination that you can’t quite put your finger on, until you remember that it’s the same pairing you’ve seen your mother wearing when you were growing up. Say, for example, beautiful blues and browns paired together with sage. I have been educating the American audience on our excellent regional crafts [Bibhu runs a textile revival program for the weavers in Odisha] and the response has been spectacular. My heritage is my edge. It gives my work a unique voice in the cutthroat world of global fashion.

On the work front, what’s keeping you busy?

I’ve released an extension to my debut jewellery line, Artemis with Forevermark. The focus of this responsibly sourced diamond line is on ancient vedic rites that retain inner balance and outer strength. You can expect to see a lot more of my signature sun, stars and moon motifs, in keeping with the interstellar theme.

Bibhu Mohapatra's easy guide to accessorising