A DRIVING FORCE BEHIND ETHICAL FASHION
In conversation with Charini Suriyage
- Please introduce yourself to us. Include your background, education, experience and where you stand as of today.
I had the privilege of growing up in the beautiful hill country as a child, that experience with nature has defined a lot in who am today and my values and ethics. I studied bio science for my A/L s but then, although selected, I decided not to go to uni in the science stream and joined the architecture faculty. There I specialized in fashion design completing a 4 year degree. I joined MAS holdings where I continued to work for more than a decade and was heading design for the intimates cluster. I believe in having a sound academic background, At every opportunity I got, I have studied fashion. I did multiple study programs at central saint martins London , FIT New York , and then subsequently did my masters in design management at London college of fashion while I was based in London. I also did design training in LA , New York and also in London where I believe I managed to get that international exposure so that CHARINI is a fashion brand that believes in designs being edgy yet timeless I could become a more rounded designer. I launched my brand for the first time with Colombo Fashion Week and have been a part of it for the past 15 years . I have been living overseas on and off for a while and at one point moved to London with my husband as he also was working there. While I was working as a designer there I launched my brand at London Fashion Week Ethical platform where the brand took part in several seasons and also did shows and exhibitions in other countries as well . Today as a mom of 2 kids I try my best to juggle family life and being an entrepreneur as personally, it’s very important to be a more rounded person than only being successful in a career. I have always been very passionate about being a designer. As a designer I’m fortunate to experience this industry in the corporate world as well as being an entrepreneur. Talking about my personal life, I have always wanted to be a hands-on mom while balancing my personal aspirations too. For me it’s important that I work hard but still find time to do little adventures with my family . I love the outdoors and activities like camping, hiking and trekking. I also have been lecturing with universities for more than a decade and continue to do so as it’s my way of giving back to the younger generation.I feel I’m in a very happy place with my equation right now with my brand and my personal life .
- Tell us about your label. What led to its launch?
CHARINI is a fashion brand that believes in designs being edgy yet timeless. Produced under responsible production practices therefore circularity throughout our design to delivery to our end customer using the end of the product life cycle is important to us. We design statement pieces with a strong sense of inspiration where every piece has a story behind them, so the client buys something with a bit more value beyond aesthetics. You are known as a designer who has made a mark in the Ethical Fashion arena. What does this mean? I have always been passionate about sustainability as a person. Then I took part in the ethical fashion section at London fashion week which made me analyze every single step of the process in the manner international brands are expanded to do . CHARINI as a brand has always taken a variety of steps to do what’s right by the community and the planet . We work alongside a number of diverse traditional Sri Lankan craft communities to develop collections. We maximize material usage minimizing wastage with smart pattern cutting techniques. We use eco-friendly printing methods so that we reduce chemical waste . We believe in timeless fashion where our customers still come and tell me they have worn that garment for years and years . That’s definitely a testament of how a brand can reduce their impact on the planet. We also have taken a pledge with CFW circular fashion initiative.
- Do you see such ethical concepts being applied in the industry in Sri Lanka? Please elaborate and tell your thoughts and if there is room for improvement in the industry.
As a designer the awareness of ethical fashion has made me base my business and design practices on the triple bottom line (people, planet and the profit). It has also led to me always viewing a product from a more holistic standpoint, starting from the initial concept and the design process, sourcing raw material to manufacturing and distribution. The responsibility of being ethical is a correlation between the brand and consumer which is fulfilled only when each individual component of the product completes its life span. With the increase of consumerism designers have to be more focused in employing innovative approaches to design, sourcing, manufacturing and development. The deflating industries of heritage crafts in Sri Lanka are also an area we can still help improve with knowledge transfer programs. Reviving Sri Lankan crafts (for example lace making) helps to create sustainable livelihoods for these small cottage industries that mainly employ women. Exchanging knowledge with the small community enterprises is very inspirational and makes these industries have the skill to upgrade their products to meet international standards and current trends . Circularity in fashion has become beyond a buzzword now specially with platforms like CFW giving prominence to themes like this where not only designers but also consumers are encouraged to be apart of this movement. Up-cycling /minimizing waste, sustainability and supporting local cottage industries are embraced by more brands than before .
- Does your label see more success/sales locally or globally? Why do you think this is the case?
We have been heavily focused on retailing overseas at the start especially when I was based in London, The Past decade has been a mix as I have personally put more effort into growing the brand name and capturing the Sri Lankan market.
- How can the fashion industry in Sri Lanka support the Nation’s economic recovery?
Talking specifically of the SME sector there are significant challenges at present around supply chain challenges and the overall increase in overheads in doing business due to exorbitant taxes and tariff increments. Whilst the above challenges affect the industry and business community at large, this also creates an opportunity for local industry players by promoting local brands and buying Sri Lankan concepts. With the depreciation of the exchange and increases in air fares, shopping overseas has now become limited to a smaller segment of the market. This opportunity can be harnessed by local SME players to drive and grow business. This leads to job generation which can support the recovery of the country.
- How has the crisis affected the industry as a whole and your label as an individual?
Like everyone else in the country we have tried to stay resilient from one crisis to another for the past few years.It has taken a lot of self motivation as an entrepreneur. We can see that the consumer buying patterns are changing. What consumers put value in to has changed . Since I’m pitching to the luxury market the impact is less. Consumers do need a bit of retail therapy and do have to dress up for the functions . Therefore with travel restrictions and the dollar value going up, they do prefer buying from local brands which can offer even a customized option for a better price. Raw material scarcity has been a massive challenge. On the other hand, as a brand we have decided to be creative and innovative and make existing raw materials special by making our own prints to make them unique or get craft related items to add value. Personally I’m someone who would take on a challenge and not stop until I overcome it .
- Being a creative person helps in situations like this as you can think out of the box. Can you tell us about some of the promising initiatives made by other designers which you admire?
I see that designers in Sri Lanka continually come up with very creative ways to promote Sri Lankan crafts. I won’t name as I’m sure I’ll miss many names .. but as initiatives the designers who work with batik , beeralu, handwoven textiles are doing a great job providing livelihoods to Sri Lankan craftsmen.I also see some designers working with organizations who support people from challenging backgrounds. Do you think the designer wear segment in Sri Lanka has the potential to be as big as the area is in other fashion forward countries? To be honest I think there are limitations. I don’t think it’s a matter of talent or the consumer not being fashion forward. Sri Lanka is not big enough as a market where designers can depend on scale. What are some immediate changes that you would like to see in the industry? Both in a local and global context. I would say the most important change we need is being eco conscious as that is not a fad . It’s the utmost important factor that’s going to define our future and every brand has to take it as a part of their brand ethics.