Bibhu Mohapatra would like you to know that he’s a feminist. Dyed-in-the-wool and unabashed. And not just because it makes good business sense in 2018 for brands to align themselves with the resounding chorus of female voices demanding their place at the table. But because he was raised by strong women and he just doesn’t know any other way.
“For me, my first language or sensibility of colours and patterns came from my mother, Sashi,” he says. “She was a traditional woman, but she was also very curious about what was happening within the world and popular culture. When I told her I wanted to learn fashion designing, she just said, ‘Here, sit at the [sewing] machine.’ Neither she nor my father knew what it meant to be a fashion designer, but they always let my sister and me make our own decisions, and they supported them.”
Bibhu’s mother, Sashi Mohapatra
In homage to the woman who let him “destroy her saris and tablecloths to make dresses for my sister”, Mohapatra is now expanding his label’s offering with the launch of a permanent capsule collection that will be sustained alongside his main brand — a special range, lovingly called Sashi by Bibhu, which debuted at New York Fashion Week’s (NYFW) F/W 2018-19 presentation. With accessible price points, the line of contemporary separates speaks directly to the millennial woman. “For me, the message is recognition of the power of women, and what the women in my life gave me while shaping me. I want to channel this through Sashi, not just populate the world with more clothes. It has a mission; it needs to fit in with people’s needs.”
Like those of his young niece, Isha, who’s just finished her engineering degree and is preparing for campus recruitment interviews. As with everything that enters his orbit, Mohapatra is deeply involved, those brain cogs in constant motion, as he tries to work out a way in which his designs can empower the women they clad. “I asked what she (Isha) was wearing for the interviews, because how is this 20-year-old in 2018 going to sit across the table and talk to an HR person who probably sees clients globally? What is that one thing, besides her actual academic credentials, that will help her feel that she is strong and confident for that interview? I really believe that a well-tailored piece of clothing makes you feel like that.”
Velvet and silk dress, Sashi by Bibhu. Suede heels, Manolo Blahnik
Even though his brand has received consistent praise from critics and celebrities alike (everyone from Jennifer Lopez and Priyanka Chopra to Michelle Obama have had a Bibhu Mohapatra moment), the designer has taken the cautious route to expansion, because the idea is “to not only plaster my name everywhere, but also to come up with a product that has the same DNA as the Bibhu brand, and let the ultimate consumer find it”. It’s why it’s taken him nine years since the launch of his namesake label to announce Sashi, even though the idea has been stewing for a while.
“In the past 10 years, things have changed dramatically. With technology, our world has changed…our practices have changed. I cannot believe that driving from Rourkela to Bhubaneswar through these beautiful mountains, I was able to web-check-in to my flight and make sure that my package from Amazon got delivered.”
Mohapatra now sees himself playing catch-up with the rapidly evolving millennial consumer — where he once used Instagram “just for fun”, he finds that, “in the last three years, a good amount of our direct consumer sales happen through Instagram; almost 40 per cent”.
Silk top, silk pants; both Sashi by Bibhu. Polyvinyl chloride heels, Samuele Failli
All it takes is one celebrity appearance and the brand’s Instagram account is besieged with requests for me too versions, often from older collections. “I’d rather put our resources into rethinking the business model, because it’s very rudimentary right now. The mission of the new Sashi line, in connection with the Bibhu Mohapatra premium brand, is to reach out. If customers have access to the source through social media or some other medium, they will always prefer that. It is all about the trust you build.”
I ask him what his late mother’s reaction would have been to hear of a capsule collection — aimed at millennials and presented at the glamorous NYFW — being inspired by her. Mohapatra looks at me in surprise: “You’ve just taken me to a different place…”
“She would just laugh,” he finally decides. “She would be flattered and shy, or she’d try to make a fool of me to save herself from being embarrassed. I didn’t want to dedicate a collection to my mother that was not for the future, because she always taught me to look ahead.”
Bibhu Mohapatra at his New York studio with his muses, actors Tiya Sircar (best known for her roles in The Good Place, Star Wars: Rebels and the upcoming series, Alex, Inc. on Comedy Central) and Geraldine Viswanathan (of Blockers fame)
From left, on Sircar: Silk dress, Sashi by Bibhu. Leather and latex heels, Gianvito Rossi. On Mohapatra: All clothing and accessories, Mohapatra’s own. On Viswanathan: Velvet and crepe dress, Sashi by Bibhu. Leather heels, Gianvito Rossi
Photographs: Ricardo Abrahao; Styling: Malini Banerji
Hair: Corey Tuttle/ Honey Artists; Make-Up: Sabrina Ziomi; Models: Tiya Sircar, Geraldine Viswanathan; Production: Isabel Scharenberg; Assisted by: Divya Gursahani and Riya Khanna (Styling), Hector Adalid (Lighting); Digital Tech: Alexander Shaw