The Story of Kantala: Bringing Sustainability to Life through Modern Fashion
A splash of colour can brighten one’s day and warm one’s soul. At ‘Kantala’ they achieve both with their unique approach to the market which provides colour and enjoyment to their customers, one artisanal product at a time.
“I personally always had the determination that I should be doing something that’s for the people and the planet…there has got to be a value behind everything that we do…”
Said Vikum Rajapakse, co-founder of Kantala, a fashion accessories brand which produces colourful high-quality bags and wallets with little waste and careful design approaches using natural handwoven fibres from the hana plant (Agave cantala). The handwoven Dumbara hana mat, which is at the core of every Kantala product, is a traditional technique that has been passed down over three hundred years through successive generations in the village of Henavala, nestled between the mountains of Kandy. Keeping up with its founder’s vision of sustainability, all Kantala products are at least 90% bio-degradable and are ‘PETA-Approved Vegan’. No animals are harmed throughout this green manufacturing process and no animal-based materials are used in creating their retail products for the worldwide niche ‘vegan fashion’ market. While doing so, they seek to help local artisans achieve an economically secure livelihood while reviving Sri Lanka’s vanishing hand weaving traditions.
A past pupil of Ananda College, Vikum Rajapakse completed his higher education in the United Kingdom, earning a bachelor’s degree in business and economics with years of work experience in asset management. Upon returning to Sri Lanka, he joined one of the country’s leading garment exporters. Kantala is his third entrepreneurial project, after having tried his hand in a cinnamon export project and an HR software solution. Vikum co-founded Kantala with Nadishan Shanthikumar. Nadishan worked for several investment banks in London while earning his master’s degree in financial mathematics in the United Kingdom. In a twist of fate, he ended up working two years at the same firm as Vikum. Vikum and Nadishan never imagined they’d wind up working together at the helm of an emerging fashion enterprise. Despite their different backgrounds, they founded the brand on a shared vision.
The story of where the inspiration for this brand name comes from, is fascinating. On a holiday in Egypt, Vikum was impressed at how local enterprises creatively integrated elements of Egypt’s cultural heritage into contemporary products to create value for the country and communities. That was a turning point in his career, as the thought of why Sri Lanka is failing to do the same crossed his mind.
“I mean, I felt sad to a certain degree that we’ve about 2500 years old history, but we’ve nothing to show for it today other than historical, cultural and religious monuments” he added, explaining his moment of revelation.
Returning to Sri Lanka with the thought of carrying traditional crafts to the worldwide market through contemporary goods, he started working towards something unique that screamed Sri Lankan. He had gained some experience and knowledge in different local crafts while studying art at school. Broadening this knowledge, he conducted extensive research, reading up on what’s available and what can be done, with ‘Gokkola’, the tender coconut fronds catching his interest first. With the help of a family friend, Professor Oliver Illeperuma, he started looking for preservatives to be used in Gokkola products. During these experiments, Professor Illeperuma informed Vikum of a group of artisans he had conducted a workshop on natural dyes some years back. Professor Illeperuma showed Vikum several samples of the coloured fibres, and this immediately caught Vikum’s interest. When trying to locate the source of this material with the help of others, Vikum was directed to Henavala, a quaint village of artisans outside of Kandy, which is now referred to as ‘Kalasirigama’. After visiting the village and meeting Mr. Dharmadasa, the chief artisan of the village, Vikum was amazed by the potential the 300-year-old tradition of the handwoven Dumbara hana mat presented. He describes that as the moment when “everything fell into place”.
That was only the beginning. After immersing himself and understanding the nature of the craft and the tradition around it, Vikum pitched his idea to Nadishan, explaining the intricate details of the handwoven Dumbara hana mat and the history behind it. Nadishan immediately felt that it was something that he wanted to be involved in. He further went on to say that it was the perfect timing for someone who was also thinking of doing something other than being in the corporate sector. He said that “I had been working in this corporate sector for some time and wasn’t really you know, jumping out of bed, excited. I didn’t feel like there was a purpose, and when Vikum pitched this idea to me, it was really interesting because I’m a Sri Lankan, with the potential of taking this product abroad and helping a community”. Then the actual process started.
The most difficult element of branding a product is coming up with a name that not only grabs everyone’s attention, but also has a narrative to go with it. ‘Kantala‘ is named after the Sanskrit term for the hana plant, which provides the primary raw material for all of their goods. Is there more to this story than meets the eye? The answer is yes, Vikum and Nadishan are also avid football enthusiasts who decided to pronounce the name ‘Kantala’ after the surname of famous footballer Eric Cantona, adding a unique personal ring to it.
The cantala plant which originated in Mexico and subsequently grown in Southern Asia, is also used as a medicinal plant. One might wonder what it has to do with Sri Lanka. The handwoven Dumbara hana mat was invented in Kandy, Sri Lanka’s last royal kingdom, about 300 years ago. According to legend, two brothers wove natural fibres into wall-hangings and offered them to the monarch of the time. The monarch who was so taken with the brothers’ handiwork made them the official suppliers of wall-hangings for the palace. In exchange for their services, the king decided to settle these brothers and their relatives in the village of Henavala. As a result, this caste of handweavers was formed.
For Vikum and Nadishan, taking this local craft to subsequent levels came with a lot of challenges. One was their limited experience in the fashion industry. Therefore, it had to be broadened with plenty of learning, through trial and error and talking to experts. They reminisce about their beginnings with enthusiasm: “We went through a huge trial process, I feel we wrote off about several 100,000 rupees worth in terms of fabric samples, trials, tests, errors, and everything. We had to travel through this process to make it perfect”.
When they first visited Henavala in 2013, the craft was almost dwindling. Nobody from the younger generation was engaged with the craft after the older generation of handweavers due to the social stigma associated with the weaver caste and its low economic potential. However, with the support of Mr. H.G Dharmadasa, and Kantala‘s fair trading policies, this situation was gradually reversed. “Due to the very low income being generated through the craft, many artisans had left the sector and the younger generation didn’t want to get involved due to the social perception around the craft,” said Vikum. At first, there weren’t many weavers, but paying a higher than market rate helped to attract artisans who had left the craft to its low income. In order to popularise the craft amongst the younger generations, Kantala conducted a campaign to educate the younger generation about the new potential of the craft repositioned as a sector with global aspirations. Today, twenty-three artisans are working with Kantala from two villages, including Henavala. The artisans range in age between twenty-four (24) years to seventy two (72) years. To this day the artisans in Henavala primarily use the age-old techniques and tools passed down to them through the generations while working with respect for and in tandem with the environment. With the leadership of Mr H G Dharmadasa and the support from Kantala, some elements of the production process are being mechanised to increase the productivity of the artisans thereby helping them to earn more, all the while ensuring the core artisanal elements are retained.
As entrepreneurs who are new to the industry, Vikum and Nadishan encountered various obstacles after taking the risk of quitting their day jobs to establish Kantala. They needed to create items that people would want to buy, and initially finding that market niche would have been difficult. What astounds us is that they both see it as a fantastic voyage that they have shared, despite the many ups and downs along the way.
“Having a business and making money is very important. But until I started Kantala, I didn’t realise that while you make money, you’re making a difference for a community or in the world, that really makes me happy” said Nadishan, sharing the secrets of their success. In addition to Kantala, Vikum also works with Selyna Peiris – another young social entrepreneur who promotes local crafts to uplift the living standards of rural women and men – to share their expertise and help other enterprises transform to make a positive impact.
Kantala is unique in its approach of respecting Sri Lankan traditions while ensuring an economically and socially secure life for craftspeople. Their approach to product ownership is simple yet inspiring: “we don’t want to own the entire value chain, our aspiration is to have a democratic and equitable value chain where the benefits are shared”.
Not only that, they go out of their way to constantly keep open lines of contact with Henavala’s traditional craftspeople, sharing new ideas, welcoming suggestions and allowing connections to flourish with their clients by showcasing their exceptional weaving skills. They pay Henavala’s traditional artists 15% more than the average inflation-adjusted monthly income in rural areas of Sri Lanka. In July 2020, Kantala led the setting up of the Sri Lanka Dumbara Hana Weavers Association which will be owned and administered by the artisans. The association, setup in a cooperative model, will formalise the work of the artisans as a producer group and enhance their economic, social, and cultural wellbeing.
As we mentioned before, Kantala products are sustainable by nature, as all of their goods are vegan and made primarily from plant-based components. They employ Piñatex as a secondary material in addition to hana as the primary material. Unlike petroleum-based synthetic leather, Piñatex is a plant-based alternative to animal leather that emphasises the product sustainability. All Kantala logos are created from polished coconut shells or upcycled wood pieces, and all handloom textiles used in Kantala items are Fair Trade certified and obtained directly from Selyn, a Fair-Trade brand of Sri Lankan handloom.
After several years of perfecting the business, it became renowned since it offers a ‘vegan fashion’ alternative, which is currently uncommon in Sri Lanka. Vikum and Nadishan hope you enjoy Kantala products as much as they enjoy the journey of providing them to you with love and a feeling of being Sri Lankan. We applaud and wish Kantala the best of luck in continuing their mission to bring the message of sustainable and responsible consumption to their customers, one product at a time.
Kantala goods are sold all over the world, with 40% of the company’s output going to the United States, Europe, and Australia. Kantala products are available for purchase locally at Stratford Avenue’s ‘The Design Collective Store‘ and Rosemead Place’s ‘The Design Collective Edit.’ These items are also available for purchase on their website: www.kantalabrands.com.
Written by Isora Liyanaarachchi