Stepping into Bibhu Mohapatra’s elegant Tribeca atelier, it might seem easy to spot what inspires the renowned Indian-born, New York-based designer. There are the rich hues of color boards and a collection of fashion’s greatest tomes. Yet for Mohapatra, there’s another, less tangible muse that inspires his couture creations: his memories. Mohapatra fondly recalls his mother teaching him how to stitch, sowing into his interests at the ripe age of 12 in their home in India. He gleans inspiration from moments like that to dress those at fashion’s pinnacle, people like Michelle Obama, Lupita Nyong’o, and Priyanka Chopra. But the memories he holds closest to his heart are those associated with Diwali.
Also known as the Festival of Lights, it marks a time of joy and prosperity, of ritual and togetherness. For Mohapatra, it reminds him of glowing diyas flickering through the night, fireworks bursting with abandon, and family near and far. Diwali, a five-day celebration, is also a time to spotlight fashion and encourage those who participate to express themselves sartorially.
So when The Glenlivet, a scotch whisky brand, tasked Mohapatra with creating a bespoke dress for model and entrepreneur Pritika Swarup to debut at this year’s Diwali Gala, hosted by Maneesh K. Goyal and Alvina Patel at The Mandarin Oriental, it was no surprise that he turned to his childhood memories to create the look. His immediate thought revolved around fireworks.
“Diwali is all about happiness, and some of my happiest moments were spent with family. My father would take me to the shop two days before to pick out firecrackers. We would go to our building rooftops, light the diyas, and watch the burst of colorful fireworks explode,” he said.
Shimmering like the night sky, the designer’s one-of-a-kind gown is a masterpiece of intricate handiwork. The fitted bodice is cut from decadent black velvet and symbolizes the “beginning,” when the night sky just starts to darken. The intricate beadwork features over 500 crystals, 6,000 cup sequins, and over 1,000 Japanese bugle beads. The embroidery is set against a sleek black silk skirt that flows into a dramatic train.
When designing the dress, Mohapatra sought commonalities between Diwali, Swarup, and The Glenlivet. He noted how Swarup represents the modern, empowered woman who uses her platform to drive change through her conscious beauty brand, Prakti Beauty. As for The Glenlivet, for over two centuries, the brand has brought loved ones together to toast to life’s triumphs and tribulations. “The biggest similarity is appreciating heritage and traditions, but with a modern outlook that is also focused on setting new standards and reaching new heights. Just like the rest of my work, I focused on this juxtaposition to create something modern but timeless.”
The process of ideating, sketching, and ultimately making the dress took about two months, with Mohapatra working with experts in his homeland. “We get a lot of support from the artisanal communities in India who have kept the craft alive for generations. Four or five highly skilled artisans spent over four weeks doing the embroidery for this dress,” he explained. After the embroidery process, the dress was shipped to New York, where two expert seamstresses at Mohapatra’s atelier spent a week hand-stitching the pieces together.
As a designer, Mohapatra’s work is never strictly literal. In fact, his inspiration is rooted in research and his own personal and professional experiences to give couture a contemporary voice—one that combines innovation and heritage. Still, he keeps in mind that, at the end of the day, no matter what you are wearing, confidence is the best accessory. “Clothes can be your support system and give you power. No matter who I am dressing, when they put on one of my pieces, I always ask, ‘How do you feel?’ Let the design speak to you.”