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In an interview earlier this week, Bibhu Mohapatra had zero to say about how Michelle Obama’s wearing one of his dresses on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” helped raise his profile. Then again, he had plenty of other benchmarks to talk about.
The 40-year-old designer is making fast tracks with his four-year-old, $1.5 million signature label. The search for his company’s first president has narrowed and a second round of financing for his business will soon be finalized. At his Feb. 13 runway show, models in his Man Ray-inspired pieces will also be displaying the geometric handbags he created with London-based Bracher Emden.
Back in India, where he was born, Mohapatra initiated the Odisha Handloom Textile Revival Project with help from the Indian government and nongovernmental organizations. Committed to rejuvenating the craft of ikat dyeing in Odisha, Mohapatra has already commissioned fabrics from artisan co-ops in five villages. He will return to Odisha in March to help roll out the project’s second phase. “Each village has its own craftspeople but the average worker is in their 60s. And most of the younger generation has moved on,” he said.
Accustomed to hectic workdays, Mohapatra is also talking with Taj Hotels about a potential collaboration. In 2014, he will design the costumes for the Glimmerglass Opera, but he “would really like to do a ballet.”
As soon as he graduated from the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Fashion Incubator, he tried to think long-range, leasing a 5,000-square-foot West 38th Street space “with room to grow.”
While seamstresses worked on his fall collection, Mohapatra said he was inspired by Man Ray’s photographs of Lee Miller and Nancy Cunard. “I like the responsibility of these women who had a very completely different mission than just being fashionable,” he said.
Although the designer earned a master’s degree in economics at Utah State University, he is looking forward to handing over the day-to-day responsibility of running his business.
But it is not as though he shirks hard work. While studying for his master’s, Mohapatra took art classes and worked 20 hours a week (the maximum time allowed for international students) in the only job he could find — a janitor.
After relocating to New York to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology, Mohapatra used a different kind of elbow grease to get his name out there. He printed out 30 copies of his résumé and went door-to-door at 550 and 500 Seventh Avenue leaving them with receptionists at the better-known fashion companies. “I was literally in the lobby writing down the floors of different designers. I went to each floor and dropped them off like Chinese food menus. Some people were cool and some looked at me and said, ‘You don’t do that.’”
His perseverance paid off with a job at Halston, where Frank Tignino put him through the paces. A year later, he started an eight-year run at J.Mendel before venturing out on his own. With the support of key retailers and 25 private clients, Mohapatra’s business is gaining steam. But he walks with measured steps, noting that every morning as he passes by the Fashion Incubator he checks his watch and looks up to see whose light is already on. “For me, each of those steps has mattered. I am happy to see people working hard. I want to be supportive. Look, many people have been very kind to me.”