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Bibhu Mohapatra is trying to make luxury more accessible

In an interview with Lounge, the US-based designer talks about his ‘Artemis’ jewellery collection, plans to enter India, and the power of storytelling

The Artemis Collection is inspired by nature.
The Artemis Collection is inspired by nature. (DeBeers Forevermark)

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It has been over two decades since Odisha designer Bibhu Mohapatra moved to the US, building an eponymous brand. Over the years, he has dressed the who’s who of the film industry in India and abroad, from Priyanka Chopra to Gwyneth Paltrow and Hilary Swank. Former US first lady Michelle Obama wore a Bibhu dress during her 2015 India visit. For more than 10 years, Mohapatra has also been designing costumes for operas; the latest was in November, for the Washington National Opera’s Come Home: A Celebration Of Return concert in honour of US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

His magic lies in creating garments that meld global sensibilities with Indian craft, be it in the form of designs like ikat or embroidery like filigree. So why doesn’t he sell his clothes in India?

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You can say that this collection is like the beginning of my way into India, says Bibhu Mohapatra
You can say that this collection is like the beginning of my way into India, says Bibhu Mohapatra (Courtesy Bibhu Mohapatra)

It’s in the works, says Mohapatra, who was in Mumbai late last month for the launch of the Artemis Collection, his second collaboration with De Beers Forevermark. The diamond jewellery line, available online from 20 May, features layered necklaces, cocktail rings, pendant necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and cuffs—all inspired by nature. “You can say that this collection is like the beginning of my way into India,” he explains in a video call.

Mohapatra speaks to Lounge about the jewellery collection, his plans to enter India and the power of storytelling. Edited excerpts:

Why nature as inspiration?

Because nature and women is where we all come from (smiles). The ultimate power lies in nature and women. To be honest, I started working on this collection before covid but my mission continues to be, do whatever you do, make it about women and nature. Simply because everything stems from there. We won’t exist without these two, would we?

And look at the infinite sources of inspiration nature offers. All the 18 pieces tell 18 different stories.

What kind of stories?

I used one piece of flower to create something… lily, for example, to symbolise the beginning of something. They are all transitional pieces, which take you from day to evening. You can layer them, wear them with your traditional or Western outfits. You can wear them to work, to a cocktail party. I wanted these pieces to be so versatile that they become a part of your life. That was the thinking—I believe in evolution. No matter what we do, we always have to be ready to change. The problem is we often get married to a norm because we feel comfortable doing it in a fixed way. What we need to do more is stop, look and question things. How else will we grow?

Is your process different when you create for the stage?

Theatre allows me to have more fun, since I have to research depending on the era a production is set in. It’s like food for the soul. Not that that’s not the case with what I do for the fashion side of things. That’s where the money comes from (smiles). Both these processes help me grow.

And when will Bibhu Mohapatra the brand come to India?

(Laughs) I am taking my time, but soon.

Several brands are now joining hands with companies. Would you be open to this?

I am open, yes. It’s a good thing, you know, because then you can focus more on your craft rather than account books. It’s something that has been happening in the West for a very long time, and there’s nothing bad in it. I think Indian fashion will evolve far more now. I think it’s a great time to be in the Indian market.

What’s taking you so long?

I am taking it very seriously. The what, the how, the when of the India entry with my namesake brand. I don’t want to do it like, “Oh, let’s try this.” I believe that if I want to bring my work here, I need to closely understand what the Indian consumer wants. It can’t be like, “Oh, anything would work here.” I have to understand what the audience is like now, what the young individual wants to wear to work or to parties and events. Tastes are changing every minute in today’s globalised world.

There are also a lot of beautiful products coming out of India, so I need to be clear where I can contribute. The collection has to be designed for India, for the audience in India. The price has to be right. The design has to be right. The distribution, the quality, everything needs to be right. I don’t want to leave anything to chance. Even with this jewellery collection, I followed the same strategy. We spent a lot of time planning it. I don’t want to just create for the heck of it and then do PR events, talk and forget. It has be a deeper commitment to offer consumers something that’s aspirational but also accessible. It’s luxury without exclusivity.

So you are trying to make luxury more accessible?

Yes, I am trying to change the definition of luxury. Traditionally, luxury is like (points towards a pen at his desk), “Oh I like this pen, so I can have it.” This instant gratification concept needs to change. I am training myself and my audience to respect what goes into the product they like. I want them to know what is the source of that particular piece. Like the beautiful blue scarf you are wearing. Who made it? Who were the artisans, the weavers, the ones who did the embroidery on it? Who did the job of delivering it to you? What is its real legacy? To me, that’s where luxury lies. We already know this but I think it needs to be repeated more often: India is home to many crafts, some of which have been lost, and there are people trying to revive them and popularise what’s fading away. When we talk about luxury, we also talk about craft.

And if you don’t start with the people at the grass-roots who are behind that craft, then you could be talking until the cows come home, it would mean nothing. So that’s what I am doing, unlearning and relearning. I don’t think we have to be in the luxury space just by making the supply very scarce and stuff expensive. I am also an economist, so I understand what drives these things. But luxury is not about the prices; it’s really about what goes into a product, the stories it tells. For example, each of the pieces in this jewellery collection states who found the particular stone, its design aspect…. It’s our responsibility as creators, and the people who are going to be selling it, to tell the right story and retrain the audience that they should not discount the values behind that piece of luxury they are eyeing.

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