The teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka exported $5 billion worth of apparel last year, representing around half of the country’s total exports. Yet the Indian Ocean nation cannot claim credit for producing a single internationally recognizable fashion label. Not yet, anyway. A dedicated group of talented Sri Lankans have been stealthily working to reframe that narrative.
Last week marked the 16th edition of Colombo Fashion Week, founded in 2003 to nurture fashion design from a purely manufacturing base to the global stage. I first took up an invitation to attend CFW following the end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war in 2009. That uneven but exciting catwalk included two local designers I collect to this day. Inspired by what I saw on the runway, I loaded up on boho dresses from Deneth that incorporated the floral chettha fabric of her native Kurunegala village in the country’s bucolic center, and viscose jersey frocks reminiscent of early Donna Karan and Norma Kamali by Dimuthu Sahabandu, who showed again at CFW 2019. The Singapore-trained designer’s easy-to-wear separates and dresses get finished with traditional Ceylonese handloom textile touches or embellished with Buddhist motifs like the lotus flower. Anyone visiting the Sri Lankan capital can find his collection on the racks at Melaché, the country’s first fashion incubator. This year, more than 30 native and international designers showed collections on the catwalk.
Some of Fashion Week’s most relevant Sri Lankan designers are available year round at PR, the passion project of Annika Fernando. A style icon on the island herself, the entrepreneur credits the peace and stability over the past decade as the catalyst for rising fortunes. “Our fashion landscape has never looked better for up-and-coming talent,” says Fernando, who participates in CFW with her brand Maus. Casual but meticulously cut, the locally designed and manufactured separates would not look at all out of place on the hanger at London’s Dover Street Market or at Opening Ceremony in West Hollywood. Fernando’s glass box of a boutique in Colombo’s tony Cinnamon Gardens enclave also sells Sonali Dharmawardena’s label. Her contemporary, ladylike frocks, beach-ready tote bags, and one-of-a-kind evening clutches repurpose the batik techniques deeply rooted in Sri Lanka’s textile heritage.
If batik brings back summer camp memories of tie-dyed T-shirts made with hot wax and rubber bands, think again. Originally a Javanese word meaning “writing with wax,” the Indonesian art form has come a long way since it was introduced by Dutch colonial officers at the turn of the 19th century. Working in cotton and silk, several of Sri Lanka’s most talented creatives are tapping into the artisanal heritage, and by doing so are supporting economic development at a grassroots level. One of these is Gihan Ediriweera, known here as the king of tie-dye for his decades-long commitment to the traditional practice. An established women’s and menswear designer on CFW’s roster, Ediriweera paints daring prints in wax that elevate his classic cut shirts, dresses, and saris to bold statement pieces. The designer showcases his process through social media, with cottage industry craftspeople often making appearances alongside a messy bathtub.
To school local designers in consistency of style and incorporating international design trends, Colombo Fashion Week promotes 10 promising talents each year, providing them with mentors like Darshi Keerthisena, whose family business,Buddhi Batiks, has been promoting batik craft since the 1970s through their workshop in Koswadiya village on the country’s northwest coast. Under Keerthisena’s direction, these old-fashioned methods now get reinvented in a contemporary context, but each piece is still painted by hand in wax by female artisans, then hand-dyed by experienced dye masters in a rainbow of shades inspired by the tropical backdrop.
Shepherding the industry forward is CFW founder and president Ajai Vir Singh, an Indian expat who believes passionately in the island’s fashion potential. Asked about his vision for the future, he does not miss a beat. “To see people wearing Sri Lankan labels with pride,” Singh says. “Not just locally but in Singapore, London, and New York.” With collaborators like Keerthisena, Ediriweera, Fernando, and Sahabandu taking the scene to new heights, his dreams for Sri Lanka’s future in fashion may become reality sooner than you think.