"It's much easier being a designer now," says Brian Kerkoven, a Sri Lankan fashion designer in the business for ten years.
"Thanks to the internet, global fashion has become much more accessible and attitudes, especially towards male designers, have changed. People are much freer now to do what they want."
Kerkoven recounts occasions of Sri Lankan models participating at international pageants in styles out of date – a velvet dress when chiffon was in vogue – an unforgivable fashion faux pas on an international scale.
But times have changed and opportunities are no longer scarce.
Thanks to a rapid rise in media access and the growth in business travel, Sri Lanka – although geographically distant, is now more connected to the fashion capitals of the world. Designers are inspired to experiment and launching a brand is no longer a pipe dream.
"We visit the lingerie stores in Paris, London and New York to understand the market, to understand the styles that are selling that season, colors, silhouettes, pricing and what value and premium brands are doing," says Ajay Amalean, managing director of MAS Corporate Solutions and Retail, India.MAS Holdings launched Sri Lanka’s first lingerie brand ‘Amante’ in 2007 and with a 700 million US dollar annual turnover, is among the country’s leading apparel manufacturers.
Sri Lanka’s growing fashion industry has been propelled along by its established apparel manufacturing sector and individual designers of high fashion, supported by design schools that have mushroomed in recent years.
Building Sri Lankan Brands
Building on 20 years of skill in design and manufacturing for the likes of Victoria’s Secret, Marks and Spencer and Speedo, MAS Holdings launched Amante in India – a then immature market that still bought lingerie in corner shops.
Deciding against its own store due to the prohibitive costs of real estate, Amante lingerie and swimwear is now distributed in 250 retail outlets and department stores in nearly all major cities in India.
Selling in India, Amalean says, is like selling in four different countries. Tastes and values differ from the more metropolitan North to the conservative South. Currently, nearly 4o percent of its business is in the Northern cities.
Understanding the market is key: "One needs to understand that India doesn’t buy what’s off the catwalk. We tested a lot of silhouettes in India and found that just two or three worked."
And styles are tailor-made for conservative India – a push-up bra for example, may lift a little less than usual.
Amante is a reflection of Sri Lanka’s hard won success as an apparel manufacturing destination and a growing reputation for world-class design. All Amante products are made in Sri Lanka, where technical and design skills are still superior, Amalean says.
Some products are even patented.
"When building a brand you have to make sure you have your best resources on board and are prepared to go the long haul. It takes time and it takes money."
Product design has been the next logical step for Sri Lanka’s 3.2 billion US dollar apparel manufacturing industry. By offering buyers a full-service package, companies can stay competitive.
"When we started out, the apparel industry was little more than a tailoring unit with little or no design input. With time, buyers have begun expecting more design and creative ideas," said design consultant Mihiri de Silva.
Individual designers have also been making a mark in Sri Lanka and the region, through hand-crafted products, often inspired by traditional cottage industries. A hand-made batik saree in silk or chiffon could sell upwards of 16,000 rupees (150 US dollars), high by local standards.
Buddhi Batiks has even been experimenting with batik blazers and swimwear, says Dharshi Keerthisena, Head of Design at Buddhi Batiks. The market has been growing in Sri Lanka and the company has also successfully sold its products through two stores in India, in Hong Kong and the Maldives.
There are also several retail brand labels such as Dilly’s, Mondy’s, Haddai and Rebel among others that have taken design to more average Sri Lankan consumers, with moderately priced collections of office, casual and evening wear.
Creativity versus Price
Price however is a limiting factor for several independent designers.
"Although there are very talented designers emerging in Sri Lanka, the market for high fashion garments is limited and affected by price considerations, thereby limiting a designer's creativity and flexibility," says Ruchira Silva, Founder and Designer of ‘Rebel’.
Raw material inputs are also not freely available or there is no consistent supply. Kerkoven works within the limitations making the best of local accessories to keep prices of his clothes affordable.
But Silva who uses silk based satins, chiffons, lycra and spandex for her high fashion evening dresses, says these are imported from India, China and Korea and with high labour cost, prices can skyrocket. And competition from cheap garment imports makes high fashion a tough market to crack.
Not being physically close to fashion trends can also be limiting, despite better connectivity.
"As a country, we are way off from where fashion really is. Although access has improved, we are not at the hub of fashion and that frustrates a lot of local and even foreign designers who come here," Amalean said.
Designing for the Future
Schools such as the Academy of Design, Lanka Institute of Fashion Technology and the University of Moratuwa are among the more popular design schools in Colombo, teaching diploma and degree courses in fashion, interior, graphic and jewellery design.
Some schools receive extensive support from the industry, from raw materials and technical training to internships for students. But unless the industry is also flexible, these aspiring designers may not have anywhere to go.
"Currently the Academy of Design (AOD)has a 99 percent placement rate but as time goes by, this is not going to be easy if the focus is going to be only on fashion design," says Mihiri de Silva, who also teaches at AOD.
The issue is a very real one. Hiring a designer is a long-term investment and manufacturers rarely ever hire several designers every year. The solution then is to train young people in different aspects of the design business, de Silva says.
"We need to look at design on the supply side and not rely simply on the front end of a product to take designers on board. When we work with students, we do projects with lace, graphics, at washing and finishing plants – we expose them to different sides of the business so when they graduate, they have options."
"But the industry and schools need to work hand in hand, and I think the industry is seeing the necessity and are more open to taking students on board."
Sri Lanka’s first Design Festival currently being held in Colombo showcases and hopes to raise the profile of Sri Lanka’s creative talent.
A steady supply of talent, constant innovation and the knack for understanding customers and markets could be Sri Lanka’s winning cards in the high stakes world of fashion design and creativity.
Says Amalean, "At the end of the day, you need to be a commercial designer; you need to look at design in a way that it can be turned into a commercial product. And you need to understand your customer."