With Indian Mohapatra, Fashion Grows Feathers, Channels Swinton

Bibhu Mohapatra fall 2011 collection
The fall 2011 collection by Bibhu Mohapatra. Photographer: Katya Kazakina/Bloomberg

Last week, Bibhu Mohapatra was facing the less-glamorous side of being a hot fashion designer: He had to complete about 45 garments, some of which still needed cutting, stitching and final fitting.

To all appearances the New York-based couturier was unfazed, and the showing of his fall 2011 collection at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week on Tuesday went smoothly.

“I am very well-equipped for this,” said Mohapatra, 37. “I learned every aspect of this business before I ventured out on my own.”

After a decade designing for J. Mendel and Halston, India-born Mohapatra introduced his first collection two years ago. Now his skillfully draped gowns and elegant dresses hang at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, at prices ranging from $1,700 to $5,000. Last month he received one of the $25,000 awards that Italian winemaker Ecco Domani gives to seven fashion designers each year.

He said the new collection draws inspiration from the distinctively angular and avian actress Tilda Swinton and from Arthur Miller’s play about the 17th-century Massachusetts witch trials, “The Crucible.”

“I call them urban pilgrims,” Mohapatra said. “It’s a collection of extreme opposites: Voodoo and black magic versus conservative, pilgrim culture.”

“This is much more sculptural than his earlier work. There’s very dark poetry to this collection,” said Ken Downing, the fashion director of Neiman Marcus, in an interview at Mohapatra’s packed presentation at Lincoln Center Tuesday.

Sporting exaggerated poufs, the pale-face models wore crow-feather chokers and bracelets. Mohapatra combined curves with hard edges, modest necklines with plunging backs, transparent fabrics with solid -- often within the same silhouette. It looked old-fashioned and futuristic at once, naughty and elegant.

Lady and Vamp

“My client is still a lady,” said Mohapatra. “Now she is a lady who can turn into a vamp.”

A smoky green leather jacket had chiseled texture and puffy silver-fox sleeves. A floor-length metallic-gold gown with a sculpted corset resembled a Surrealist painting frame. An asymmetrical denim dress had a bunch of green-black feathers shooting up from the waist.

“I thought it was stunning,” said designer Prabal Gurung. “Every season he gets better and better.”

An hour before his show, Mohapatra was juggling dozens of activities backstage. He gave an interview to an NBC television reporter. He adjusted 33 outfits to photograph a “look book” that goes to magazine editors. He air-kissed friends.

Ironed Hair

Behind him, makeup artists applied green and black eye shadow. Another assembly line pulled, ironed and teased the models’ hair, turning it into perfectly sculpted futuristic arrangements. Five minutes before the show, a Russian model began sobbing inexplicably, smearing the makeup all around her face.

Still, just as scheduled at 1:30 p.m., 33 otherworldly creatures on enormous heels began teetering into a darkened room. Mozart’s “Requiem” blasted from the speakers as throngs of photographers snapped pictures.

“I am definitely going to invest in him,” said Gary Wassner, who supports young fashion designers like Jason Wu and Alexander Wang. “We have a whole new generation of fashion stars in New York. Bibhu is one of them.”

(Katya Kazakina is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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