These Brands Have Their Hearts In Sri Lanka And Their Eyes On The World | Verve Magazine
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Fashion
June 18, 2021

These Brands Have Their Hearts In Sri Lanka And Their Eyes On The World

Text by Ranjabati Das. Interviews by Akanksha Pandey.

Verve speaks to Josie George, Joanne Stoker and Amesh Wijesekara, respectively the founders of Amma, Noad and Amesh – clothing labels that are rooted in and derive inspiration from the island country – and unpacks how they are driving progress in the sustainability space

Photograph by Deborah Grace

“In any South Asian country, craft-based communities are a model of self-sufficiency and creative identity. A lack of focus on these erodes the basic identity and creates an ethical imbalance, and this happened in Sri Lanka as well. There is a renewed focus now, especially on weaving and dye-based textile craft forms, like batik, beeralu, Dumbura and tie-dye, alongside new practices like recycling and repurposing,” says Colombo Fashion Week founder Ajai Vir Singh to Verve when quizzed on the future of Sri Lankan fashion.

Corroborating his claims are three clothing brands with roots in Sri Lanka – Josie George’s Amma, Amesh Wijesekera’s eponymous label Amesh and Joanne Stoker’s Noad – all of which have made a name in the sustainable fashion space thanks to their commitment to protect local heritage crafts and textiles, innovation, ethical practices and regenerative techniques. While both Amma and Noad focus on zero waste, the former uses dyes derived from food waste and plants, with an eye on small batches that are carefully made by hand. The latter zeroes in on natural dyes and fabrics, mainly deadstock, which is then upcycled into contemporary sartorial styles. Amesh, too, utilises waste, ensuring that the modern, vibrant creations synonymous with the brand are entirely handmade, keeping the environment and the needs of the community in mind.

As Singh points out, “Historically, Sri Lanka has been a trading post. This means that while it has its own identity, it has also been influenced by waves of travellers who either came to settle or trade. The same culture, creativity and confluence is seen from two fresh perspectives, and the same source of inspiration is captured by two different perceptions and presented as a creative product, which is also true of these three brands.”

Hailing from England, George and Stoker (29 and 38 respectively, both now based in Sri Lanka) are conscious of the repercussions of running a business in a culture other than their own. Accordingly, they take into deep consideration the regional crafts and craftspeople and create products that are made in harmony with their immediate environment, emphasising accountability at every step, from design to disposal. Wijesekera (27), on the other hand, is a London-based Sri Lankan designer who has built much of his career internationally. Having gone on record claiming that he doesn’t ever intend to make fabrics or buy them off the shelf, he enjoys the creative challenge of using unusable stock procured from local markets to forge something new.

All three designers prioritise not just the material or medium but also the means to the end, and they work exclusively with a female workforce. Amma provides training and employment to mothers via sustainable jobs within the textile industry, allowing women to return to their home villages and re-integrate into their communities. Stoker avails of the atelier at her doorstep, offering employment to native craftswomen during the pandemic when factories were cutting staff. By working with artisan weavers, Wijesekera is able to provide the predominately female workforce with employment and fair wages.

George, Stoker and Wijesekera look at Sri Lanka for inspiration, with a core focus on contemporary aesthetics that have indigenous textiles, markets, crafts, designers and community-driven initiatives at the heart – the common thread that ties them together.

Excerpts from the interviews with the three designers… 

Amma by Josie George

Photograph by Molly Fenton

Where were you born and raised?
I was born in London, where I lived until I was 10 before my family moved to Wales to live by the sea. So, I had quite a varied experience – of growing up in a multicultural city and then the culture shock of moving to the countryside with lots of sheep, grass and space, which I love now, but back then I wasn’t so keen on it! I later moved back to London to pursue a BA in textile design from Central Saint Martins.

Why did you choose to focus on textiles?
We encounter textiles every day, through the clothes we wear, the chairs we sit on, the sheets we sleep under – they are everywhere, and we take them for granted and overconsume them without thinking about the processes that go into creating them. I first travelled to Sri Lanka in 2010, when I was 18, and discovered handloom weaving: both the beauty of this equally simple and complex art and also the role it plays in creating livelihoods for rural artisans. I was struck by how quickly the handloom industry was dissolving in Sri Lanka, India and around the world. In the same year, I travelled to Burkina Faso in West Africa and spent time with artisans living on the edge of the Sahel desert. I had the opportunity to spin cotton by hand and weave on a basic loom. Both the similarities and differences among the weavers in Burkina, Sri Lanka and the UK struck me, and I knew I had to be a part of this industry.

What is the story behind Amma’s genesis?
Honestly, a number of things went wrong in my life at the same time, and my mother suggested that I get some space and volunteer for an NGO run by a friend in Sri Lanka. A few years after that experience, after I had freshly graduated from Central Saint Martins, that same friend told me about a group of mothers living on Sri Lanka’s tea estates. They wanted to work but had very little prospects. She asked if I’d like to start a social enterprise revolving around them, and this led to the launch of Amma in 2016. Working in partnership with a local preschool run by the NGO, we invited women who were interested to an interview. We started super small, just me and two mothers in a small outbuilding on the preschool grounds, and we grew slowly from there. The two mothers I first employed are still working with us.

What does the brand stand for?
“Amma” means “mother” in Tamil and Sinhalese, the two languages spoken in Sri Lanka. Our mission is to provide training and employment to mothers through sustainable jobs within the textile industry. We are aiming to be a model for rural livelihood creation which empowers women and protects Mother Earth, and creating design-led products that respond to the regional environment by using dyes that are derived from food waste and plants. We have a strong focus on developing a regenerative textile economy, adopting zero-waste principles and committing to small-batch handmade production.

Why is it important to empower mothers?
Amma is a business that is 100-per-cent female-owned and -led. Three out of our four directors are mothers. I believe that it’s important to create organisations that are flexible enough to meet the needs of mothers, who have a huge range of responsibilities. Empowerment comes from the space which is created at Amma by our workshop manager, Meena, who leads the organisation as a mother and has built a supportive family-like environment for each woman to feel safe and thrive in. Through learning new skills, gaining confidence and becoming primary earners in their households, the mothers gain greater agency in their lives, contribute to the local economy and become leaders in their communities. I see the mothers and the brand as one and the same. The mothers are Amma. 

How would you describe a normal day at Amma’s headquarters (in Nuwara Eliya in central Sri Lanka)?
Every day starts with a morning prayer led by Meena, and this is followed by a staff meeting. Everyone is welcome to share how they feel and whether they need support with anything. Then it’s time to start making; the looms start clattering, the sewing machines buzzing and the dye pots boiling. It’s a loud and vibrant place to work at. I’m currently based in the UK due to COVID-19, so I have a Zoom call with the team after lunch. We cover finances, product design, orders – I love these calls; it’s what keeps me connected and motivated to do what I can from here? to support Amma’s growth. We are also taking part in a business accelerator programme, so much of my work right now is about supporting my Sri Lankan team to gain confidence in the business side of things so that ultimately, one day, they don’t need me.

Why is it important to work with natural dyes? Who do you look up to in this field?
My journey with using natural dyes came about during the days when I was pursuing my textile degree. I was shocked by the toxicity of the acid dyes which were available to me to dye my yarns, and I wanted to find an alternative. So, I experimented with using onion skins and blackberries to produce colour, and I just fell in love with the magical process. Sri Lanka is a big garment-exporting country, and when I first started Amma, there were hardly any organisations researching or practising natural dyeing. Not only is natural dyeing a simple process to learn, it brings awareness to the huge issues which are present in the fashion industry right now and shows that there is an alternative. I’ve been really inspired by the work of Michel Garcia, who developed a recipe to balance indigo vats using overripe bananas, which is a method we have adopted at Amma. I also love the work of Maiwa, a Vancouver-based store/brand which has primarily been working with Indian artisans to make slow clothes since 1986, and the Fibershed movement, a California-based non-for-profit organisation that develops regional and regenerative fibre systems.

What kind of food wastes are you currently able to process?
The skins of pomegranates, onions and avocados are well-known sources of colour, and all of these get chucked in the bin once the juicy fruit inside has been eaten. So, it just made total sense to work with cafes and juice bars to source what they don’t need and make use of a waste product. It’s not without its difficulties and makes for a complicated supply chain, so we are always thinking of ways to make the supply more reliable.

Talk to us about your views on the current state of the fashion industry?
The dyeing and textile industries contribute to 20 per cent of freshwater pollution worldwide. Azo dyes, which account for approximately 70 per cent of all dyes used across the fashion industry, are known carcinogens. This is why we only use plants and food waste to dye our fabrics. We are working to harvest rainwater for dyeing and planning to grow our own dye garden so that we know the source of our plants.

The fashion industry also sees a mass migration of people from rural areas to large cities to work in the garment factories. As we’ve witnessed with the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, often the working environments are not safe. Workers aren’t paid enough to live on, and for many young women, it’s their first time living away from home. Amma provides employment rurally, allowing our women to live within their communities and raise their children.

There are few local initiatives that develop artisan clusters and revive traditional crafts both in the Subcontinent and globally today. How can we rectify this?
There are incredible locally founded artisan businesses thriving right now in Sri Lanka. I encourage you to check out Good Market – a curated community of social enterprises, co-operatives, responsible businesses and voluntary initiatives – to see the Sri Lankan entrepreneurial spirit in action. I think a foreigner starting an initiative in a country other than their own has a myriad of complexities, and I couldn’t have started Amma without the support of the NGO that we initially worked with.

People need examples and models, which are working within their context so that they can imagine themselves starting a similar business. Amma has shown that a group of mothers from a marginalised group in Sri Lanka can create a unique business that provides them with a fair salary and inspires others. 

As a social enterprise, how do you generate revenue?
We have collaborated with other like-minded brands since the start, producing tote bags, pouches and accessories for them. We get a lot of interest from wellness, healthy food and yoga brands, and we love developing products in partnership with others. We have an e-commerce shop on our website where we retail our own products, and we are looking to grow our wholesale offering over the coming year. Since the start of 2021, we’ve been working on a new product range to encourage our community to engage in making. 

How are you safeguarding your employees from the pandemic?
I’ve been following the lead from my local team, who are keeping me updated on the Sri Lankan government’s latest advice. We closed the workshop for around three months last year during the height of the outbreak in Sri Lanka, and we worked closely with our NGO partner Tea Leaf Vision, who distributed hundreds of food parcels to those most in need within our community.

Noad by Joanne Stoker

Tell us about your background in fashion.
I’m 38 years old, and my career path opened up 20 years ago when I went to study fashion design at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne in England.

My mother, who was a designer in her own right, used to make me wonderful dresses, and from a very early age, I would spend most days dressing up and matching each outfit perfectly while drawing with my two favourite toys of the time – Fashion Wheel and Spirograph.

After studying, I moved to New York for a short stint, and then to London to work as a textile designer. At that time, I really wanted to focus on shoes. I am a shoe addict at heart, and drawing them just came naturally to me. I enjoyed the fact that it was not just design but product engineering, and I took a lot of inspiration from architecture, which essentially formed the basis for my heel designs throughout my design career.

I then went on to pursue a master’s in footwear design from London College of Fashion. Upon graduation, Jimmy Choo selected me for a mentorship programme that would help in setting up my own shoes and accessories brand, and in 2009, I launched a footwear label under my own name. In 2016, I decided I wanted a more holistic life and took the leap to move to Sri Lanka, which changed my career path and life.

Why Sri Lanka?
I visited Sri Lanka in 2013 and knew instantly I wanted to live here. I’m originally from the UK and had lived in East London for over a decade. In 2016, I started reaching out to companies in Sri Lanka. I was then appointed as the head of the fashion design and textile department at Academy Of Design (AOD) in Colombo. I met my husband, who is of Swiss and Sri Lankan origin, and had our son shortly after. Starting a business just felt right again. With the heritage craft and domestic manufacturing skills Sri Lanka has to offer, it really is the perfect place to develop a brand. Sri Lanka offers a lot of scope for sustainable practice and ethical growth, in terms of labour. It’s important that a new brand focuses on design sustainability.

What does Noad mean?
“Noad” translates to “grace” in Swedish. I chose the word as my design style is very Scandinavian, and my origins are from this area. The word also  sums up the ethos of the brand – smoothness and style of movement. It is also about giving grace to the environment and the people who essentially create and make the brand.

What is your brand philosophy and what measures do you take to be sustainable and ethical?
All of my fabrics are classified as deadstock, which I then upcycle. I purchase these from a small store in Pettah market in Colombo. I then focus on zero-waste pattern cutting. The colourblocked no-waste Iris and Yeshika dresses are made from the final leftover pieces of fabric used in that collection. I import organic naturally dyed cotton fabrics using indigo and beetroot from Bali, and I am working with a new natural plant-dyed fabric, which is currently being woven in Sri Lanka by Amma for the next collection. We are working on a specialist rainbow-stripe fabric, using avocado, turmeric, madder root, pomegranate, eucalyptus, thambili (king coconut) and indigo leaf. I am hoping to launch the collection by midsummer, and I want Noad to become more of a plant-based focused brand, in time.

I am also very concerned about using natural fabrics over polyesters and have created my own organic eco-clothes-washing soap slices to ensure the garments are washed with care along with saving excess water waste. Additionally, all of my machinists are paid fairly. I have never demanded a price; instead, I ask the women artisans what they would like to be paid depending on the work.

What does sustainability mean to you?
For me, sustainability has to be a way of life, and the pandemic is showing us this in a very hard way. It has to be embedded into how we design, through our choices and the materials we use. Sustainability can also mean personal well-being, and in London there was massive expectation to meet seasonal deadlines and pressure to deliver to stores, which come with longer credit term periods that can be difficult in terms of cash flow for a small brand. But living in this tropical country allows me to design in a more free and holistic way. Along with developing my brand digitally, travelling around Sri Lanka is important to me, and it allows me to take inspiration from my natural surroundings, which feeds into the sustainability aspect.

What kind of clothing labels are the need of the hour?
Clothing will always exist, and we all need it; it’s part of who we are as humans. However, what we also need are more brands that are created with love for the planet. Saying no to fast fashion, poor working conditions, low pay and the throwing away of clothes should be the future. If the world were full of only creative designers, doing their own little unique things in terms of fashion, we would still have such great and unique style periods. Personally, I do feel a lot of uniqueness was lost when fast fashion came to be the norm, especially in the UK. Dressing to create your own identity as a person doesn’t really exist anymore amongst the masses. In the past, it was a way of life.

How do you seek to expand the brand?
I’m hoping to work more with the local craftspeople, but this process will take time to grow organically. Firstly, I am hoping to add footwear and accessories to Noad very soon, and I am currently developing these products with the fibre of the hana plant. Our production is underway in Henavala village, which is just outside of Kandy. I also want to create a range of ceramics and homeware. My aim is to develop further the heritage crafts in a contemporary and modern way to fit with the design style of Noad. If I could advance the footwear industry in terms of manufacturing on the island, that would be a great advantage for both the local and export markets as it is very limited at the moment.  

How are you safeguarding your employees from the pandemic?
From the conceptualisation to the launch in 2019, the brand has been sustained mainly through digital means. The team communicates very well through WhatsApp. I find this platform most efficient; it is the quickest way to run a business these days. I share my designs and techniques with my machinists, and the fabric specifications with the Amma team – which is currently being run remotely by Josie George, who is stuck in the UK at the moment . My photographers are based along the southern coastline, and my sales channels (The Design Collective and Urban Island) are in Colombo. They have a great online system for checking stock and sales. At the moment, I feel it is working very well for all of us; we can all work freely and flexibly from our homes  Colombo is a very busy city, and I feel cutting down travel within the city is part of a more holistic approach for my workers, especially during these times. And this way, we are not contributing to the air pollution as well.

Amesh by Amesh Wijesekera

Photograph by Jesus Rubio

Tell us about yourself and your background and how it contributed to your choosing fashion as a career?
I was born in London and  grew up in Sri Lanka, where I did my schooling. I pursued my bachelor’s in fashion and textile design from Academy Of Design (AOD) in Colombo. Growing up by the ocean in Sri Lanka was very different to life in London. Exposure to the world was limited. Opportunities to design and express were rare. I always leaned towards creativity, being involved in theatre and dance from a very young age. It was the only place I could be me, and I felt free among the magic of theatrics, music and costumes. Looking back, it’s very similar to producing a fashion show backstage.

Having parents who supported my involvement in the arts was a huge stepping stone. I grew up in a very creative environment; we had many architects, artists, horticulturists and photographers in the family. And it was actually my grandmother who introduced me to AOD and registered my name for an open-day event.

How would you define Sri Lankan fashion?
Sri Lanka has always had a rich heritage of crafts and textiles. Sri Lankan dress and style has a multitude of influences, which include the multicultural ethnicities and religions of the country. Today, Sri Lankan fashion is very diluted. Our identity has almost gotten lost. There has been a lack of contemporary fashion designers utilising home-grown crafts and inspiration, which is undervalued and not seen as “cool” enough. The colonial mentality persists.

Bridal and evening wear have always had a prominent place in the Sri Lankan fashion scene. It is still a lucrative business. The audience and understanding for contemporary fashion is minimal, similar to what the situation used to be in India till about a decade ago. I think there is a cultural aspect to this. However, with time and a growing interest in design education, a new generation of designers has emerged, and it is exploring both contemporary design thinking and traditional craftsmanship. We are seeing more people appreciating “Made in Sri Lanka” and proudly supporting local designers. I feel that, as an industry, we have a long way to go, but we are finally on the right path.

What are your thoughts on fashion education in Sri Lanka? Is it critical to initiating a career in fashion?
AOD is where I first discovered design and other people like me. It’s where I experienced a sense of community and belonging. Fashion education is seldom encouraged in South Asian families; however, AOD has been a huge pillar in terms of changing that mindset in Sri Lanka. Educational institutions back home have strong connections with the apparel industries. This is advantageous to design students as this is where they get the first peek and real insight into the real world. We worked very closely with the industry as students on live design projects, collaborations and competitions. These have given me and many others the chance to travel internationally and get exposed to new platforms and global industries. Education helps you find and fine-tune your practice.

Apart from knowing how to design, cut and stitch, it is also quite important to be aware of the issues the industry faces. As creative minds, we can now lead and drive change. We have a voice and platform.

Photograph by Gayathri Sribalasuhaprimam

What constitutes representation and inclusivity for you?
Being yourself! My brand is an extension of myself and embodies my struggles growing up in Sri Lanka. Representation and inclusivity are not just another marketing tool, although they are words you hear over and over again today. To me, this is something I am very sensitive about. Speaking from my own experiences, the lack of representation in the industry both at home and globally inspired me to act upon it. It is a work in progress but I believe change is happening. Sincerity and honesty are key here.

One of the main messages of the brand is to celebrate Sri Lankan culture and South Asian beauty. As a brown person growing up in Sri Lanka, we were always told we were “too dark” or not attractive enough solely because of the skin we are born in. It was after I moved to London that I found my true self that helped me overcome my own insecurities. People noticed and embraced me for who I was. This drove me to use my platform to inspire people who face similar struggles.

How are you breaking stereotypes through your design and visuals, and why is it important?
I think it’s something that comes naturally to me. Clothes and colours I would have been afraid of wearing growing up are now my subjects of exploration. Personal insecurities are now my inspirations. Breaking these barriers, I have found a new sense of freedom. It is important as I feel it can inspire and have an impact on somebody out there who is struggling just like I did.

Visual communication and storytelling play a huge part in all of this. My designs are modelled by friends or friends of friends, not professional models. I’ve had family modelling my clothes too. I conduct model castings on Instagram, in search of new talent. Most have no experience at all or don’t stereotypically fit your typical model “standards”. I use my own home and objects to set the scene/create a visual setting, using things we usefully don’t notice or value. This helps create a sense of place and origin. Moving away from layering tradition over tradition or staying away from what is “trending’’ has helped me to create my own world and point of view. It’s important to be “you”, and no one can take that away from you.

Take us through your design process, from fabric sourcing to the final product.
The core of Amesh has always been about colour, culture, community and craftsmanship. I play around these elements in each collection. Everything is ethically sourced and proudly made in Sri Lanka; it all starts with a thread. Textile making and sourcing is one of the most exciting and important parts to me, and I work very closely with artisan groups from around Sri Lanka. Most of the textiles are handspun, handwoven and hand-knitted with yarns both natural and synthetic, which are all sourced locally. Handloom textiles are reimagined with refined contemporary patterns while deadstock woollen yarns are hand-knitted, creating refreshing colour palettes. As yarns and colours are limited, we are creatively challenged to be more innovative and experimental. The crafter is given creative freedom to be inventive and they are not given technical sheets or instructions to follow. This way, no two pieces are the same. It is an intimate collaboration between heritage craftsmanship and contemporary design knowledge.

Secondary textiles are sourced from local markets, where factory leftovers, samples and trims lie in piles across streets, almost like a bazaar. I find myself lost in this treasure trove. Most of these textiles are thrown out due to minor defects or as a result of being end-of-roll fabric. The deadstock fabric sourced is then given a second life through different textile treatments including hand and digital printing methods, appliquéing, collaging, etc.

The hand printing is done by me in our back garden. It’s quite therapeutic. All the final textiles are processed for manufacturing by a small women-only team. We develop samples and patterns together here and run small production cycles. I am heavily involved throughout the entire process from thread to final garment. I have built a strong bond with my makers, ensuring trust and quality.

How are artisans and craftsmanship in Sri Lanka placed today?
There has been a growing awareness of the craft communities of late. But we need education, funding and long-term development plans to amplify and uplift these communities. Unfortunately, it seems like we are hanging on to the last generation of craftspeople as the younger generation don’t see it as a substantial career option. Through my practice, I try to incorporate traditional techniques wherever possible, creating something fresh. We have to think beyond our shores and act global!

What factors contribute towards making your brand a sustainable one?
The core of the brand is community and craftsmanship, and we focus on making limited-edition luxury items. I strive to show that these can be created while still being cautious. Sustainability is not just using organic cotton or using beige and brown; it is about making an impact and a positive change. In my practice, it’s about empowering and uplifting communities and the people I work with. Being actively involved during the process of my work and transparent to my audience is equally important. Furthermore, the brand questions facets of culture, gender and social stereotypes, which sparks conversation with an audience. Fashion has further become a platform and tool to address my personal struggles as a young queer South Asian living between the two worlds of London and Sri Lanka. Being responsible is a lifestyle – my life practices and beliefs are connected to my work. I think it has to be holistic if you want to actually drive change.

Sri Lanka does not produce or wear wool as it is a hot tropical island. All woollen yarns used for Amesh knitwear are made from deadstock piles of excess leftover yarns that are sent to Sri Lanka by Scandinavian companies and other global commercial brands to manufacture winter wear. If not used, these beautiful yarns end up in landfills.

Sri Lanka also has a large apparel industry. Waste fabrics are carefully salvaged from the local flea markets and then treated, printed or combined with other artisanal textiles for a new second life, which is both exciting and value-adding. New collections and samples are also delicately crafted together using leftover fabrics from previous seasons, minimising studio wastage while being creative.

For me, it has always been about being resourceful, and maximising and utilising everything that is already around me in innovative ways.

Photograph by Ryan Wijayaratne

How are you safeguarding your employees from the pandemic?
I work with very small independent communities and manufacturers. Working with artisans has been especially tricky because all of them are based away from cities. With minimum physical contact and meetings, most of them continue to work from their own homes, communicating via WhatsApp. This has been a new experience for me as we usually work side by side, exploring different techniques and ideas.

I also work with another small women-led manufacturing team within city limits. Following all safety measures, we had relaxed our deadlines so that no one felt the pressure with the ongoing situation. The number of team members has been fluctuating as many areas have been and are under lockdown. With a crashing economy, pay cuts and cancelled orders, I felt it was my responsibility to provide as much work as possible. Even though we are a very small brand, there is still a strong bond and sense of community among my partners. We are like a big family.

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