How has the fashion industry changed from then to now?

I believe that the fashion industry was much more professional at that time than it is today. There was a clear understanding in terms of the quality expectation of what a collection should be and as a result the collections produced were of very high standard. The senior designers at that time were Mangala Samaraweera and Nayantara Fonseka, who set the benchmark as to what a new and upcoming designer should follow. Being a designer was not about sewing clothes and selling it to the audience or filling up shelves. A collection was genuinely a collection, which is not so today. It is a totally different ball game out there.

Back in the day when I entered the industry we had to really aspire and push ourselves to achieve our goals. We had to break boundaries to achieve what we believed in. However, between the 1990s and 2000s, the entire perception and understanding of what fashion and design was about, changed. The younger generation of designers do not really understand the depth and responsibility of being a designer. Many of the schools they attend, do not teach the students these aspects of being a designer. The design schools are mainly money making ventures. They do not provide proper guidance to the students. In that sense we have really gone backwards.

In Sri Lanka we have the state universities and the private design schools. The Moratuwa University has a very good curriculum and I believe it is one of the strongest in the country. The students who pass out of this faculty have very strong skills, which we do not see in students who pass out from private schools. There may be a few, but in most instances the students that come out from private schools have big egos—but in terms of skills they are lacking. But, with government institutions the students may have strong skills, but not so much personality.

Personality is equally important, I believe, in terms of their creative ideas, how they view their opponent’s designs and communication skills. To be a designer you have to have the personality and the skills, it cannot be one or the other. We can build a persons confidence and give exposure that will develop their personalities, but to acquire skills is a totally different matter. You have to be creative and have the talent as well. Therefore, a balance must be struck and when it comes to education proper standards must be set.

Usually in our local universities, the creative students are unable to express themselves. Their personalities are very different and at times their sexual orientation may not be what is deemed as the norm. This basically inhibits the growth of their personalities. The government needs to look at this matter very seriously, because at the end of the day these are the youth who need to contribute to the economy. From the side of the private colleges, they have to be very responsible because they are taking money from the student. There are foreign missions in Sri Lanka who award individuals that have absolutely no worth and experience in the field, from even a students perspective, with design awards. Opportunities like this should be given to talented people and not to people who do not have the talent or in actual fact are not designers.

Design and fashion are not about giving publicity to individuals. This is an entire industry we are talking about, it is very important to take a stand now from the country’s perspective so that this industry does not destroy itself.

 The younger generation of designers do not really understand the depth and responsibility of being a designer

Fashion shows are a regular feature in Sri Lanka, what are your thoughts on this?

Today, fashion is a business. Many of those who enter this industry think its only about the glamour—that is just runways and models.They think that is what being a designer is all about. They do not realise how much work it takes to really come out with a product. To bring out an original collection takes a lot of work and energy. Fashion shows today are purely entertainment for the audience. A fashion show should technically last no more than 15 to 20 minutes per designer. Today, fashion shows go on for hours because producers have made it that way and the audience expects it too.

Historically this country has been raped of it’s resources by foreigners and we have had local traitors who have helped this happen. It’s no different today with the fashion industry, which if nurtured properly, can become one of the key contributors to our economy.

I take grave offense that foreigners are being allowed to do fashion shows and weeks using the country’s name. Any government should not allow this. Fashion shows on a private basis are fine but we should not allow foreigners to take over the local fashion industry. If logic prevails, why would a foreign cricket coach lead the Sri Lankan cricket team to world victory, if not for it being simply financially viable for him?

So how can we improve this situation?

The industry has to take on a professional outlook and it has to start at the top. Standards have to be set and changes have to be done. Like in any industry, there are those who are only there for personal gain. They do not see the industry as something that needs to grow together. I feel it is a very selfish way of looking at it simply because you are looking at a mass industry. It is not just the manufacturers, suppliers or the designers. We have very talented young people in this country, but they do not get a chance. Sometimes when they go abroad they are not even to the standard of a first year student. Therefore, we really need to look at bringing in quality and standard to the industry.

I believe that our critiques are not educated enough to critique. That is number one. Secondly, even if they are, they are not critical enough. Most of the fashion shows are sponsored by a media institution. Therefore everything about that particular show will be portrayed in a positive manner. Then, where are the checks and balances? A critique cannot give their personal views, they have to judge from a very strong perspective. Today, everything is about money.

I strongly believe that to be the best in any field there is a lot of work involved. To be a designer you must have the passion. You need to feel it from the gut. A person does not become a designer just because they have a facebook page or the media gives publicity to them. Anyone can crib a design from a magazine, mass produce the item and put it on the shelf and make money. That does not make a person a designer, that only makes you a good thief or a creative thief. Unfortunately, there is no one to regulate the industry. There is no one to say “this is wrong”.

There are many creative people in this country and they are good workers. But, what happens is they always get knocked down because of the rubbish that is produced by the industry. And, I must say the rubbish is always political in terms of the fashion industry.

There are many local materials that can be used by the fashion industry. What can you tell us about this?

This does not depend only on the designer it depends on the support industry as well.For example, if I want to use local cotton I should not have to go looking for it to the manufacturer, it should be readily available for me. That is where the support industry is required. The young designers have potential, but they do not have the materials to work with. If we look at some other countries, where they manufacture the material as well as accessories, it is very easy to source whatever is required and at good prices. What happens is the local manufacturers charge huge sums for items that could be purchased for cheaper rates from countries such as Thailand and India. There is a lot of potential in it for someone who is really into raw materials.

What are your thoughts on Sri Lankan labels?

I have always said this and I will stand by this—Sri Lankan designers—unless the industry changes radically, they are going to live and die as glorified English speaking tailors. I have said this a thousand times and I will keep saying this for one simple reason; you need to be creative in order to put out something unique.

Everyone is so tied down with making the bottom line. The general market views the designer as a tailor. Most of the time these labels are again crowd catering, which is fine because you have to sell to customers. I do not think there is anyone really defined out there, other than Buddhi Batiks and KT Brown. I am very proud of what Darshi has achieved. Simply because Darshi has created a niche for herself based on the customers coming to her for a particular look and feel. But her work has a lot to do with fabric.

In terms of local labels, Buddhi Batiks and KT Brown have set a very strong yet commercial standard. These two ladies are the only people for whom I will stand up tall and proud as a fellow designer and I would not hesitate to do a fashion show with them. We are not competition to each other because we do completely different things, and even if we did we still stand strong with our individual skills.

Usually when something new comes out, it is the norm in Sri Lanka for someone else to copy it. They do not think of doing a complementing business that will benefit both parties. The designers in Sri Lanka should work together and be proud of each other.

You have international exposure. Can you tell us a little bit about your career?

Actually, when I was young I studied political science and investigative journalism because I wanted to enter active politics. But not to stand on podiums and scream, but more like a think tank and policy implementation. That has really been, even up to now, my passion. My designs are very focused, they are not weak. Much of my work is based on and influenced by politics. I was inspired by Mao Tse Tung and Che Guevara. I believe in disciplined work and very hard lined style.

Sri Lanka has lacked discipline for a long time and I am happy that we are actually moving to an era where we need to follow the law whether we like it or not.

I was in Australia for a long time and yes that did give me the outside exposure I needed to think outside the island mentality. Everyday has been about pushing boundaries. I believe in the Buddhist philosophy of life where you never know what to expect from tomorrow so you might as well push yourself to the boundaries today.

I love the bridal work and the hand crafted individual pieces which we do. I believe that every bride that I have designed for has been a highlight for me in some way or the other.

I am determined to put Sri Lanka on the fashion map. Whoever that may be, whether it is a young person with huge potential and talent, or whether it is one of our own labels, is immaterial to me. I enjoy being passionate about fashion and design, more than any other other aspect of it. And I am very Sri Lankan when it comes to that. I am very fierce in terms of my territory. I don’t like outside interference.

Will you ever get into politics?

I would like to think that I am in it right now. I am that controversial in a lot of sense. I am able to work with any party because I do not have any personal agendas. The other day someone asked me whether I regret not getting into active politics. I regret it for this reason; I believe that I could have made a very strong difference in the creative areas of promoting Sri Lanka as a country. Those who are in-charge of it today do not understand what it means to promote the country. Sometimes when I look back, I feel that maybe I should have fought a little bit harder.

But then, on the other hand if I did, I would have probably had to take a side and as politics goes in any country, you need to be on one side or the other—you can’t be on both. I feel I am at a stronger advantage now because I am willing to work with anybody. And as I said, I don’t care what their agenda is. I can work with anyone who is willing to create a stronger image for Sri Lanka—whether it is in fashion or visual communication of the country. I don’t care whether they are blue, green or pink, it makes no difference to me as long as the country is put first. I really feel that I could make a difference for Sri Lanka as a country, purely from a creative perspective. I have no other agenda other than the fact that I love my country.

Can you tell us about Design Café?

Design Café was really the amalgamation of four principles of design. We have an incorporation of fashion, interior, industrial and visual communication. We cover the whole spectrum of design. When I was in university, I was very interested in the industrial aspect of design. Even when I look at a garment, I look at the structural aspects. Design Café was actually spread out in Colombo, what we have done is, we have brought all sections under one roof.

I really feel that I could make a difference for Sri Lanka as a country, purely from a creative perspective.

Design Café is the brainchild of Dr Harsha Subasinghe, CEO of Codegen and myself. He is actually my business partner in the Design Café. We felt that it was time for Sri Lanka to build a product, be it a label or some kind of a unique design, in terms of any industrial product. We are determined to create a difference in the economy of this country. My personal belief is that I stand above all politics as a human being who has the creative ability to make that difference. It has been a very long and hard journey but the wiser you get the easier the path and the clearer the vision.

We are definitely pushing ahead with our plans to create two labels in relation to garments. That is from the fashion side of it. From the industrial side we are still on the lookout for young designers and to give them the opportunity to work towards something interesting with us. We are very positive about where we are headed. I believe that we will make that difference for Sri Lanka. 2014 is the year!