Economy

Why Sri Lanka has designs on the fashion world

Charini Suriyage lingerie
Image caption Charini Suriyage's lingerie is designed for international markets

Sri Lanka has long been known as a manufacturing location for the international garment industry.

But the island is changing, according to the first Sri Lankan to present her own design at London Fashion Week's Esthetica - the hub of London's ethical fashion industry - into a fashion destination in its own right.

"I personally see a massive change in the industry in Sri Lanka," Charini Suriyage told the BBC Sinhala service.

"At one point Sri Lanka was only a manufacturing destination, but I see a lot of fashion schools and universities coming up and also I see most of the companies having a design section."

'Contemporary twist'

Ms Suriyage, winner of the Sri Lanka Design Festival 2010 Ethical Fashion Designer for lingerie, is launching her own lingerie collection at the event.

The collection is described as "luxury, hand-crafted, timeless, vintage design with a contemporary twist" - a far cry from any sweatshop image many might have of Sri Lankan apparel.

"It is great to take part in London Fashion Week," she says.

"It has given me such a great opportunity to be amongst all those international brands who have made their name in the industry.

"It has also given me so much exposure in terms of press and it has been amazing the kind of response so far from all those international buyers."

Ms Suriyage is a graduate of the University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka and currently studies at London College of Fashion.

She has undergone an intensive mentoring programme on ethical fashion, designing under international designers Orsola de Castro, Filippo Ricci, Elizabeth Laskar and Claire Hamer.

She was also inspired, she says, by the work of the late Alexander McQueen and Issey Miyake.

"An ethical designer should be aware of the environment as well as the planet," she says.

"But it is a broader concept, where you think of the wellbeing of the people who are involved in the manufacturing process, the sorting process or the people who wear your product."

More marketable

Ms Suriyage's aim is to promote Sri Lanka's cotton and hand-woven silk production - crochet as well as traditional handlooms, such as the Beeralu lace-making industries - to international markets.

Image caption Charini Suriyage's products are 100% sourced and manufactured in Sri Lanka

She also eliminates all plastic and metal components while designing her garments.

"My products are 100% sourced and manufactured in Sri Lanka, as I'm very patriotic," she says.

"For instance, I work with some people on handloom products - as we all know there are a lot of handloom cottons in Sri Lanka, but hardly any handloom silk.

"I had to encourage the weavers so they can increase their potential as well in the international market, by experimenting with something different and something that is more marketable."

Motivation

Small industries that rely mainly upon other major industries must take risks and try to become less dependent if they are to progress and face challenges in the globalised economy, Ms Suriyage believes.

"Take the Beeralu industry, for instance," she says. "They sustain on tourism. I don't think they have enough motivation to continue with the craft because they are not getting continuous orders.

"I want to promote Sri Lankan craft in the international market and also to help these communities sustain what they are doing so that we can sustain our traditional craft as well."

London Fashion Week 16-20 September 2011.

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