rowing up in the tiny town of Rourkela in Orissa, India, Bibhu Mohapatra indulged his passion for fashion by styling his mother’s and sister’s outfits. Now the design director of the renowned Paris-based fashion house J. Mendel, Mohapatra has crossed continents and achieved fashion fame. Amidst indulging his passion for traveling, lounging at his weekend getaway—a “modest country house” in upstate New York–and cooking Oriya food, he finds time to reflect on his experiences with Nirali.

“Being South Asian in the fashion industry has been a definite plus for me, and people have shown me nothing but the greatest love and respect.”

House of style

As a young boy in India, Mohapatra was inspired by sumptuous Indian fabrics. His mother’s rich sense of style in her selection of saris and jewelry provided the foundation for his love of Indian fabrics and textiles. “I was very aware of my surroundings as a child. Though whatever was going on around me could be categorized as very regional, I was extremely conscious of what was happening outside of that as well and had a keen sense for world trends,” he says. His journey to the United States started with the idea of getting himself a degree in economics; securing that, he moved onto the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York to study fashion. Earning degrees in the disparate fields of fashion and business allowed him to acquire a strong foundation in business principles while learning how to play by the rules in the fashion industry.

Eugenia Volodina walks in the Spring 2005 show in a coral dress. Jennifer Lopez wears the dress on the red carpet.

And though Mohapatra hailed from a traditional Indian family, they never opposed his choice of career. That support has paid off—J. Mendel’s latest showing has received rave reviews, in no small part thanks to Mohapatra. Mohapatra believes that his Indian heritage, which has traditionally been associated with the world of art and culture, gives his work an extra edge. “Being South Asian in the fashion industry has been a definite plus for me, and people have shown me nothing but the greatest love and respect.”

Daria in an silk chiffon gown with antique zardosi embroidery.

What’s Next? Trends 2005

We asked Bibhu Mohapatra what styles were hot at this year’s New York fashion week and what looks to snag this summer.

Fab Five at Fashion Week

– Color blocking
– Use of bright and brilliant colors in gowns and daywear.
– High waistlines with slim silhouettes.
– Lots of fur
– Pale and bright colors in the fall collections

Summer Lovin’

– Colors like deep pinks, saffron, greens
– Lots of white
– Jeweled gowns
– Slim and sexy silhouettes
– Cocktail wear that skims the knee

In an industry that is synonymous with fierce competition and constant change, Mohapatra has managed to keep up through constantly educating himself on the finer aspects of art, culture and cinema. And while his Indian background leads him to choose bright colors and luxurious fabrics, he has learned to mix Indian flair with Western practicality. “I look at the two major influences in my life, the East and the West. That is what gives me my ideas. Looking at the people on the street, at pieces of art, observing life are some of my passions and also the elements that I draw from,” he explains. Eminent designers have also influenced his work: “Karl Lagerfeld (Coco Chanel), Alber Albaz (Lanvin) and of course my boss Giles Mendel in the international circuit, and Bhanu Athaiya, Shahab Durazi in the Indian industry are some of the designers that I greatly admire for their work.”

“Couture and money do not necessarily mean style. It’s all about recognizing your natural self.”

Making his mark

Mohapatra credits J. Mendel with a lot of his growth and visibility in the industry. J. Mendel is traditionally known for its rich and luxurious statements in furs with retail stores in New York, Paris and Aspen and a boutique at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. Mohapatra and the head of J. Mendel, Giles Mendel, have redesigned the fur line and added a ready-to-wear line which has been getting rave reviews across the globe. In fact, the company is setting itself up to shed its fur-heavy image and is ready to move on to the world of ready-to-wear. “The fall/winter collection was mostly inspired by 60s chic, 70s sexiness combined with some elements of Bardot’s inimitable quality. The highlights of the clothes were the details which were brought from Indian motifs without being gaudy and showy,” he gushes.

J. Mendel Spring 2005

But he’s even more excited about J. Mendel’s next endeavors: “Mendel is all about providing a luxury lifestyle. We are trying to come up with a line of over the top luxury ski-wear done with mink and sable. They are very luxurious materials used with a utilitarian and practical approach. We are working with ready-to-wear couture and moving away from the image of just being a fur-based design house.”

People are taking notice of J. Mendel’s new direction. Laura Linney showed off a beautiful J. Mendel creation fresh off the runway on the red carpet for the Oscars, and stars like Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Simpson, Liv Tyler and Julianne Moore also sport the brand. “Jennifer Lopez is one of my personal favorites and has great aura of energy around her. I dream of dressing Julia Roberts and Michelle Pfeiffer. Not to mention I would love to dress Indian actresses like Aishwarya Rai and Dimple Kapadia,” says Mohapatra. He adds that Parveen Babi, an Indian actress and 80s style icon, is his own personal muse.

Of course, Mohapatra ultimately returns to himself when defining his style. “To me, style is very personal. Everybody has it in them. It’s all about nurturing it and incorporating it. Find out what you like and what works for you. Couture and money do not necessarily mean style. It’s all about recognizing your natural self.”n

Rupali Hota moved to Seattle, Washington, from India three years ago to work as an Americorp member at Chaya, a domestic violence agency for South Asian women.
Published on April 4, 2005.
Photography: Courtesy of J. Mendel. J. Mendel Fall 2005 collection by Giles Mendel, head of design, and Bibhu Mohapatra, design director.

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