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Home Emdad's Articles Bibi Russell: Artiste Extraordinaire

Bibi Russell: Artiste Extraordinaire

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‘Everyone thinks Bangladesh is a poor country. For me - it's rich in culture and everything. It gives me a lot of energy _ I live in Bangladesh. Most of the time I'm in villages and I'm competing with top designers.’


Bibi Russell is the delight of many Bangladeshis. She was born in Chittagong and comes from a very well known family. Her father known as Sadhu Bhai (Late Mokhlesur Rahman) - and mother Begum Shamsunnehar Rahman (Rose) were very prominent personalities in the media world.

After finishing secondary school, Bibi realised that she wanted to study fashion design. As Bangladesh did not have a design school, her parents sponsored her to study in abroad and hence became the first woman from Bangladesh to study at the London College of Fashion. When she graduated in 1975 she modelled her own graduation show. She was swiftly offered modelling assignments with an impressive array of designers, Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani to name a few. Bibi worked as one of the leading models for Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzo, Karl Lagerfield and Giorgio Armani for nearly a decade. In the past she has been featured in top magazines including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan.

Bibi has choreographed and arranged many fashion shows and exhibitions in Bangladesh and Europe, using hand woven cotton and jute fabric. With the help of Dr. Federico Mayor, secretary general of UNESCO, Bibi launched a fashion show in Paris in 1996. ‘He gave me my first big break,’ she said. The show was called ‘Weavers of Bangladesh’. Her second show was also with UNESCO a year later on, was aptly named ‘The Colours of Bangladesh’, and was held in Palma De Mallorca, Spain. It was launched and supported by the Queen of Spain. In September 1998, with support from UNESCO and the British Fashion Council, Bibi brought her third show to London, called ‘Stars of Bangladesh’”. Bibi was the first designer from the developing world to participate in the 1998 London Fashion Week. This was the first London collection to emerge from the villages of Bangladesh where about one million people depend on weaving glamorous silks and cottons for their livelihood. In addition to her success at London Fashion Week, Russell has developed a following in France and Spain. The queen of Spain was so taken with Russell's designs that she visited Bangladesh and invited her to present a show in Madrid. Bibi made her US debut in the same year at the closing ceremony of the State of the World Forum (a six-day gathering of activists and global decision makers). A year later she received the Women Awards 1999, at El Palauet Luca, Barcelona in recognition of Bibi Productions in Bangladesh. The Barcelona Chamber of Commerce supported the event.

Bibi has received both national and international awards for her work with the artisans and weavers in Bangladesh. She has been honoured with an Honorary Fellowship from the London Institute (1999), Women of the Year by Elle Magazine (1997), and Entrepreneur Woman of the Year (1999) by the Foundation of Entrepreneur Women. She has also been highlighted by Asia Week Magazine as one of the ‘20 people to watch in the millennium.’ UNESCO named her ‘Designer for Development in 1999 for her unfailing commitment to human dignity, development and the eradication of poverty. This title was replaced by the title Artist of Peace in 2001.

Bibi has also been the subject of a documentary by Uttam Kumar Ghosh—Bibi’s World, which was screened at the Alliance Française in 2002.
In the 45-minute documentary, Ghosh has focused on Bibi’s life and work and the problems the country’s weavers are currently faced with. The documentary has interviews with professor Anisur Rahman, actress Nazma Anwar, novelist Selina Hossain, Bibi’s mother Begum Shamsunnahar Rahman, French ambassador to Bangladesh Michel Lummaux and weaver Montu Basak from Tangail. Later in an interview Ghosh said, ‘Bibi is a renowned figure in international fashion arena and she has been honoured by UNESCO. Mine is the first film ever made on her life and work. I took it as a challenge. I sold my paintings to save money for the film.’

Amongst all this Bibi returned to Dhaka to realise a long held ambition to build an international reputation for locally crafted textiles by promoting traditional Bangladeshi fabrics, Khadi and Jamdani. Bibi Productions, the company Russell founded, is about more than rich textiles and embroidery. The thousands of tailors it employs are an inspiring example of micro financing. She now employs more than 30,000 people, consisting of knitters and artisans that produce her original designs. Spinning, twisting and dyeing provides employment for a whole Deshi family.

Bibi sites Sofia Kamal, Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as five Deshi personalities whose dress sense has won her admiration.

Two hundred years ago, fine muslin was obtained from Dhaka for the fashionable ladies of London. Once again handloom fabric is making its way to the catwalks of Europe from the villages of Bangladesh. Bibi Russell’s aim is to work for the craftsmen of Bangladesh with a view to reviving handloom industry by giving support and assistance. Bangladesh, though beset with poverty, is rich in traditional fabrics, which has great demand in other countries. Bibi's dresses may be the height of fashion but the technology that produces them is centuries old. It all starts with silk cocoons, which are laboriously unravelled into shimmering thread. Her contribution to the fashion houses of Bangladesh after her return from Paris to Dhaka is an inspiration to many and will encourage up and coming designers to work with local fabrics. Bibi Productions is an enterprise that is the only one of it’s kind in Bangladesh. The workforce consists of young people (mainly artists) that promote local crafts, including handloom weaving, recycled paper, and indigenous textile design.

In time there will come a generation of artists who will not necessarily recognise or understand the struggles that previous generations fought. Integrating her own rich multicultural experiences, including a decade of life, work and graduate studies, Bibi brings with her an in-depth knowledge of human culture. Her speaking style is energetic, truthful and humorous; her message—profound and thought provoking. Each of the upward steps she takes on that ladder is a success formula designed to be enlightening and entertaining, showing people how to take charge of your life without being self-conscious about it. Bibi’s mission is to encourage people to move beyond limitations and reach for their dreams. She emphasises the importance of recognizing and valuing everyone's contribution as a team member in life's pursuits. A dynamic stage presence, Bibi captures the attention of her audience instantaneously and never lets go. She combines hard facts, specific strategies and personal insights to create a powerful message. Her ability to connect with the heart makes her one of the most influential women in Bangladesh.

That's empowerment. That's development. That's Bibi.

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