Bibi Russell: The Women Who Changed Bangladesh with Fashion
She was a highly successful model with the world at her feet; working with top designers, photographers, top fashion magazines and brands, travelling all over the world, at one point, her agent event suggested her to act in movies. Yet, she gave up all that and returned to her homeland with a dream to do something for her people and country. Yes, I am talking about none other than Bibi Russell, the famous fashion model and fashion designer of Bangladesh. She played a big role in reviving our handicrafts and textiles industry.
In this post, I shall talk about Bibi Russell’s life and work-
Bibi Russell’s family and childhood:
Bibi Russell was born in Chittagong to Mokhlesur Rahman and Shamsun Nahar. She was the third of five children.
Her parents had a big influence in her life. She did her schooling at Kamrunnesa Girls’ High School in Dhaka
Since childhood, Bibi Russel had great interest in clothes. She did not like the dresses her mother made for her. When she was ten, her father bought her a sewing machine. She could barely hold scissors but operated a sewing machine. Sewing clothes made her very happy. Using the yellow from her house, she produced dye for her clothes.
She was 16 years old when her father brought home a book on fashion written by famous fashion designer and entrepreneur Coco Chanel. The book introduced her to the world of fashion. She told her father that she wanted to study fashion designing.
She received her B. Sc degree from Home Economics College. She went there because it would help her to study fashion. In the college, she had Siddika Kabir, the famous Bangladeshi nutritionist and cook, and Hosna Banu Khanom as her teachers. They encouraged her to pursue her dreams. One day, she received a prospectus of the famous “London College of Fashion.” She decided to study there.
London College of Fashion:
Bibi went to London in December 1972 but had to wait for six months to get admission. The school refused her application on the ground that she did not complete “A” level or “O” level and had no knowledge or education in fashion but she did not give up. Every day she called the office. In June, she, along with 60 other aspiring candidates, was called for interview. Bibi knew that she had no chance but it did not deter her. Her interview was scheduled at 11:30 but she arrived at 10 a.m. earlier. The secretary told her to go to the cafeteria and come ten minutes before her interview. Bibi was very excited. She asked the secretary what kind of question they would ask her. The secretary suggested her to answer all the questions properly and not to take anything personally.
At the interview, they asked her to spell Bangladesh. Bibi smiled and spelled. This was followed by few basic questions about color and shape. When they asked her about fashion related questions, she could not reply. She was selected on the condition that she would have to take extra classes at night. Bibi Russell became the first Bangladeshi to study in London College of Fashion, one of the most prestigious fashion schools in the world.
Life in London College of Fashion:
The first year was very tough for Bibi. She woke up at 4 a.m. and took classes all day and night and then returned home. She took up various odd jobs to support herself such as delivering letters. She even worked in weekends. Bibi did not let her parents know about her hardship. At the college, one of the professors encouraged her to take up modeling. Initially, she was apprehensive.
Becoming a model:
Bibi graduated in 1975. The next day after her graduation, her principal told her that famous model agent Laraine Ashton wanted to take her. Initially, she did not want to get into modeling but her professors suggested her to become a model for it would help her to gain further understanding of the fashion world.
Russel’s first modeling assignment was a spread for the famous fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. For a fresh graduate like her, it was a matter of great prestige. She regularly appeared at the pages of Vogue, Cosmopolitan and other renowned fashion magazines.
Bibi did her first show for famous Italian fashion designer Valentino. Other top designers for whom she worked for were Yves Saint Laurrent, Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani. Japanese designer Issey Miyake is Bibi Russell’s favorite designer.
Bibi, Jerry Hall, Abdulmajid mononymously known as Iman; were top models at that time. She walked the ramp with Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer.
5’10” tall Bibi Russell’s biggest appeal was her oriental background, black complexion and long hair. She modeled for top automotive brands like BMW, Jaguar, Rolls Royce, Toyota which was very uncommon in those days.
Bibi’s work took her to different parts of the world; Italy, France, Germany, NewYork etc. She even travelled in private jets.
Bibi did a photoshoot for a shampoo with famous fashion photographer Norman Parkinson. They went to Barbados for the photoshoot. In one of the shots, Bibi had to dive into the swimming pool from a diving board. Bibi was not afraid of heights but she never dived from a springboard. For the next ten days, she practiced diving with her feet tied by nylon cord.
An ordinary Bangladeshi girl thrust into the limelight of the fashion world; it was not an easy ride but Bibi learned a lot. She travelled the world and learned about different cultures. Modelling helped Bibi to become more matured. In 1982, Bibi went to Milan.
Visiting Bangladesh during holidays:
During her holidays, Bibi visited Bangladesh. She used to visit remote villages and met with craftsmen and weavers. She met with Joya Poti in Tangail. Joya Poti’s work inspired her a lot.
Following her heart:
Bibi wanted to return to Bangladesh and do something for the local craftsmen and weavers. When she told it to her colleagues, they did not take her seriously. Her agent even told her to think about acting in movies. But Bibi’s mind was already setup. She became a model to gain further knowledge of fashion. When she understood that she is ready to start her own journey, she left everything behind and returned to Bangladesh for good in 1994.
Reviving the textile and handicrafts industry of Bangladesh:
Bibi used to tell her mother that she would work to improve the condition of the local handloom industry. With that goal, for the next one and half year, she travelled the length and breadth of the country and talked with the weavers and craftsmen. Initially, the weavers thought that she was just another traveller who came here to take pictures of the places and people and would leave them. They thought she would exploit them. It took her more than a year to convince these people that she came here to help them change their lives.
After one and half year of hard work, Bibi started her organization Bibi Production in July 1995.
Bibi invested her life’s savings in Bibi Productions. With meager financial assistance, she started her office and then started to collect Jamdani sari from Rupganj, near the banks of the Sitalkkhya river. She also went to Tangail, Sirajgonj, Rajsahi, Comilla, Candina, Kushtia. Along with handloom clothes, she collects jewelleries sold by local craftsmen. She has very good relation with the weavers.
Bibi Production does not get any funds. It is entirely funded by Bibi Russell. Whatever money she earns, she invests in Bibi Production.
Bibi has great respect for the rural people. She achieved all her success because of them. She says, “I am who I am and where I am today because of my parents.” Her father was from Rangpur and mother from Dhaka. They were cultural activists. They supported her a lot. They helped her gain a deeper understanding of the Bengali culture. Since childhood, many famous cultural personalities frequented their house. Abdul Gaffar Choudhury, who wrote the lyrics of “আমার ভাই এর রক্তে রাঙ্গানো একুশে ফেব্রুয়ারি”knew Bibi Russell since she was a child. Later, he made a documentary on her.
When Bibi was working as a fashion designer, many people used to tell her parents that they turned their daughter into a tailor but they supported her all the way. Bibi inherited her parents’ house. She converted it into her office. She stays in a small apartment. She leads a very simple life and has no qualms about it. She wears colorful dresses. Most of the time, she wears a “gamcha” style turban or stole. She says “I grew up with the culture of Tagore and the philosophy of Gandhi; I grew up with my feet rooted firmly in the subcontinent and I saw beyond the poverty.”
Currently, Bibi Production has 30 employees and work with one lakh weavers and craftsmen in Bangladesh.
Bibi Russell as Fashion Designer:
Bibi designs dresses and accessories bags, shoes, stoles, bangles etc. The materials she uses in her products are hand-woven and natural. She says “I do not use synthetic materials. The fabrics I use are khade, cotton, silk, gamchha (Bengali check-designed washcloth), jute, tribal textiles, recycled fabric and the opulent Jamdani, once used by the royalty.”
She did her first designer collection in 1996.
Even today, she spends most of her time designing clothes.
Her biggest sales are accessories and scarfs. The bangles she designs are made out of water hyacinth
She also designs frames of glasses based on Rickshaw arts.
During her visit to Spain last year, Bibi Russell gifted Gamcha to famous Spanish actor Antonio Banderas and he wore it with great excitement and pleasure.
Image Source: Shobhaa De
Over the years, she also worked for handicrafts industry of India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Latin America, and Vietnam.
While working in Cambodia, she designed products with recycled materials. She is now an expert in recycling.
One of the reasons behind Bibi Russell’s success is research. She does a lot of research. She is also a serious reader.
Movie and documentary:
Bibi even appeared in a movie. Maner Manush, a film on the life of famous Bengali folk singer and philosopher Lalon Shah, was released in 2010. Famous Bengali Director, Goutam Ghose directed the movie. Bibi’s character’s name was Borgakhepi. She along with Ghose’s wife, Neelanjana Ghose, designed costumes for the movie.
That year she appeared in two documentaries; Problema and Silken Synergy. Silken Synergy is based on Bibi Russell’s life and work.
Fashion for development:
Bibi Russell introduced the idea fashion for development through Bibi Production. By reviving the local textile and handicrafts industry, she wanted to alleviate these people from poverty.
She dedicated her life to revive Bangladeshi textiles and handicrafts industry. She did many exhibitions in countries around the world and introduced Bangladeshi textiles and handicrafts and Bangladeshi culture and heritage. Many of her exhibitions were sponsored by UNESCO.
UNESCO understood that there is a connection between fashion with development, education and health. For her work, Bibi received a lot of international support. She visited top universities that are now working on fashion for development.
She was even invited to the World Economic Forum.
The Indian Government took Bibi Russel to help improve their Khadi industry. She is the state guest of the Indian government.
Working with street children:
Bibi supports more than one hundred street children. She sent them to NGO schools and became their guarantor
Bibi Russell is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador representing the handicraft industry all over the world.
She is a recipient of the prestigious Rokeya Medal.
She became a fellow of Bangla academy in 2011.
In 1999, she received `Honorary Fellowship’ of London Institute.
That same year, the UNESCO gave her the title ‘Designer for Development’ followed by ‘Artist for Peace’ in 2001.
She received Peace Prize from the United Nations Associations of Spain in 2004.
Entrepreneur Woman of the Year” by the Foundation of Entrepreneur Women.
UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador
YODONA Award for Humanity.
Bibi Russell’s quote on success:
No creative person can tell you that I’m very successful. If you think you are successful you will go down. You do day to day. I went to a very good college and I learned and I worked very hard. I don’t go and download film, yeah I do listen music when I feel like that. But I go through lot of researches. I use local materials to produce world class design, for instance take Khadi- Khadi does not mean you have to make something that look like a politician’s cloth. You can make young things out of Khadi. I make diversified products out of local fabric and materials.