Ralph Gardner Jr: The Runway Less Travelled

Mar 23, 2019

Bibhu Mohapatra fitting a model
Credit Courtesy of Bibhu Mohapatra

There’s a TV commercial from a while back – I can’t remember whether it’s for a car company, cigarette manufacturer, or Metamucil – but it shows a lone automobile forking off a busy superhighway and heading off into the wilderness.

It’s supposed to be a representation of rugged individualism and the ability to think for oneself rather than going with the crowd -- again when it comes to choosing your next vehicle, smoke, or over the counter regularity cure.

I sometimes think of that commercial when I’m heading upstate from the city along the West Side Highway and leave much of the traffic, and what feels like the entire rat race queuing to get onto the George Washington Bridge, behind.

Indeed, that’s the moment when it feels as if the weekend begins.

The Hudson Valley has its particular delights. But one of the most profound, particularly if the occasionally terrifying Taconic State Parkway is your escape route, is the feeling that you’re shedding the crowd and everything that goes along with it.

This stands in stark contrast to other destinations favored by city folk, particularly the Hamptons, which I enjoy in limited doses, especially to remind myself of what I’m missing. And what I’m missing includes the lavish traffic jams getting out there and many the same people one tries to avoid in the city.

I’m not arguing the Hudson Valley is some sort of social wasteland. Quite the opposite. In fact our social life upstate is probably more active than it is in the city. It’s just that, as with Metamucil, you can regulate it.

You can go out almost every night if feel like it or lead a hermetic existence. There are all sorts interesting people hiding out in these here woods – writers, artists, architects, even a smattering of celebrities – but you’d never know.

And did I mention fashion designers? They include Bibhu Mohapatra, a friend and Indian fashion designer, who has dressed the likes of Michelle Obama, Glenn Close, Viola Davis and Allison Janney.

I attended Bibhu’s recent Fashion Week show, packed with banks of photographers, preening influencers, the fashion press and, of course, long-legged models walking the runway in Bibhu’s latest collection. The scene couldn’t have felt further from the quiet retreat that Bibhu shares with his husband, artist Robert Beard, in Stuyvesant, NY.

I know as much about fashion as I do about string theory. But I’d describe his designs as influenced both by the audacious colors of his native India and haute couture, with a healthy measure of fun thrown in.

For example, the printed crepe dress and silk and wool cut-away jacket Michelle Obama wore when she stepped off Air Force One on a 2015 trip to India. The ensemble featured a giant flower that blossomed across the dress’s front.

But I was less interested in discussing Bibhu’s work when we got together for lunch last week at Pico de Gallo, a Mexican restaurant overlooking the Hudson River and an Amtrak train crossing in Stuyvesant, than I was the importance of his upstate home to his mental health.

Bibhu had just returned from Paris Fashion Week, where he’d shown his 75-piece collection, with a stopover in London for dinner.

“It’s not such a race,” Bibhu said of the tranquility he feels as soon as he sets foot in the house he shares with Bobby. “It’s you own little sanctuary to go in there and be who you want. I don’t shave for two days.”

Sometimes he’ll catch the Friday evening train and return to the city late Sunday morning. (Bobby notes ruefully that Bibhu has never spent a full, uninterrupted week upstate.) But even that limited amount of time is often enough to “clear the fog,” as he describes it, of the relentless demands on his time, energy and creativity back in the city. “Fashion in New York can be exciting,” he explained, “but also suffocating.”

Of course, the area is changing. Stepping into a Hudson bar last weekend shortly after he got off the train, Bibhu and Bobby ran into a couple of well know New York City fashionistas.

And if Bobby had his way, according to Bibhu, their weekends would scheduled as rigorously with cocktail parties and dinners as his weeknights are.

But the charm of the Hudson Valley, your sociable partner not withstanding, is that you can be as active as you want. Or not at all.

While the couple, as you may have gathered, doesn’t quite lead a “Green Acres” existence upstate they did have livestock, at least for a while.

“Seventeen chickens named after supermodels,” Bibhu reported. “Linda, Naomi, Claudia.”

When they were invited to dinner parties they’d bring fashion eggs, decorated by Bobby.

Unfortunately, poultry has a way of disappearing, turned into prey by those further up the food chain.

There were six hens after the first attack and then but one after the second.

Appropriately, it was Naomi, named after Naomi Campbell.

“The tough broad,” Bibhu remembered affectionately, referring both to the famously feisty and combative fashion model and also to his laying hen.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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