Bibi Russell: The designer who put Bangladesh on the global fashion map

Bangladesh may not prominently feature in the global fashion scene. Although the scene has elevated significantly in recent years, the fashion industry is still in nascent stages. However, one of the trailblazers, name that many Bengalis associate with fashion is Bibi Russell. We know of her, but I am not sure we know the extent of her achievements.
I was so surprised when I first found out that Bibi Russell, “that Gamcha Lady” (as my mum refers to her in true Brown mom style), walked the Paris Fashion Week more than 20 years ago. She also worked with prestigious names as Vogue, Harper Baazar, Cosmopolitan, Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, Carl Lagarfield among many more.

Even the non fashion-conscious Bengali grew up hearing her name and fame. Be it because of her iconic love for gamcha print, or her rickshaw-painted frames, or her loud statement pieces and accessories. So, how did she turn Bibi Russell into a household name?

The little girl from Kamrunnisa High

Bibi had extensive exposure to culture during here upbringing- primarily because of the influence of her father, Mokhlessur Rahman. Mr Rahman got her a book from Chanel on French Haute Couture when she was 13-14. The book sparked her interest in high fashion. Also, she received her prospectus of the London College of Fashion- where she pursued a degree in Fashion Design later on.

Bibi oftentimes expresses how her early encounters with vendors wearing colourful gamchas and lungis invoked and engrained her love for the deshi, colourful manner of sustainable clothing. As early as 10 years of age, she was gifted with a sewing machine as she was never really satisfied with how her own clothes were made.

From her early teen years, Bibi knew she wanted to do something different despite receiving multiple awards for her arts.

So after she finished school from Kamrunnisa High and Home Economics College, she left for London, where she had to insist the authority for 6months consistently to finally get in.

Her big break

She was finishing her degree with a scholarship when for her last project she had to design 11 outfits and showcase them in a runway. At the insistence of one of her teachers, she sported the first and last one of her designs on the runway herself even though she wasn’t exactly warmed up to the idea of modelling, “my parents were already hearing a lot on how their daughter has gone off to become a tailor”.

After Bibi’s graduation show, she started to get a lot of offers from agencies and magazines. The first one she posed for was Harper Bazaar (so you probably shouldn’t procrastinate on your thesis/ projects so much). Her teachers encouraged her to take up this opportunity to learn about the fashion world as much as she can and that is precisely what she did. Her first show was with Valentino, and Vogue’s admiration for Bibi put her on the map pretty strongly “you could put two teacups on her cheekbones”, Vogue famously said.

Bibi Russell walked the ramp alongside the likes of Naomi Campbell and modelled in prestigious campaigns of Jaguar, BMW and Toyota among many others.

Her bottomless bucket of achievements

After she put her long and glorious modelling career to rest (from 1978- 94), she completely concentrated on putting Bangladeshi rural weavers out for the world to see. Her first collection was displayed in Paris, February ’96 in collaboration with UNESCO, her second one supported by the Queen of Spain in ’98- both of which of course showcased Gamcha, Khadi, Jamdani and other native Bangladeshi fabrics which were praised worldwide for their eco-friendly nature.

Bibi was awarded as Designer of Development in 1998 and Artist for Peace in 2001 from UNESCO. She also received “Cross of Officer of the Order of Queen Isabella” from the Spanish government for her influence on the Spanish Fashion industry and these only started her journey towards a lifetime of achievements and awards- all of which she always dedicated to the people who work for her and help her shape the dreams.

There were questions raised at one point about the child labourers Bibi employed in her production house, but during the making of a documentary she cleared the air up by showing how its more of a learning process of the craft for the children than it is about work. Her more recent work with acid attack survivors and rural Rajsthani weavers has also been the topic of international discussion.

The pull towards her root

Fluent in three (Bengali, English, Italian) and moderate in three more (Spanish, French, German) languages, with an already established career in modelling, Bibi could easily continue on the international platform as she was. She didn’t really have to come back to Bangladesh and try her hardest to revive our almost dying hand-woven textile industry. But she did anyway and after her Paris show, she got almost 30000 orders for the weavers who worked for her, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Now more than 35,000 weavers, excluding the people who work on other sectors of the house, from all over the country work for Bibi Production that produces and makes dresses out of all hand-woven, deshi material. Her production house has put Bangladesh’s best foot forward by exporting the products to Europe and the USA.

With all these success and acclamation, Bibi had every chance to bury her head in the clouds and forget her root, but she seems to be more pulled towards it with time. In fact, when she first came back to Bangladesh she spent month after months travelling all throughout the remote villages, learning different dialects and cultures to get a better understanding of the trade and the people she’s going to be working with. She has always been admirably vocal about getting recognition for the people whose relentless effort makes the wonderful world of glamour more magical. In return, the people she works and stays with has always embraced her with open homes and open hearts.

To sum it up, Bibi Russell has been the epitome of that artistic yet successful cousin who our parents want us to stay away from while we dream to be them someday. If her life is any indication, we should definitely try at the very least.