Fuelled by his passion for making change and being creatively different with everything he delves into, entrepreneur, designer and “rabble-rouser” Stefan Andre Joachim says what he does best is light fires in the souls of those who dare walk through his mind.
Talk to him for just a few minutes and you will realise that it’s mostly his own mind that’s aflame – in fact I sometimes wonder if Stefan is able to sit still and stay silent for longer than a minute! Forever burning with new suggestions and solutions, exploring possibilities, driven to action, propelled by passion and utterly outraged by inequity above all else – the state of the nation, the plague of poverty and apathy of all-powerful politicians drive him to despair – Stefan doesn’t mince his words when he speaks about Sri Lanka and the path it’s on.
Following are excerpts of an interview on his life, the road he’s travelled and his vision for Sri Lanka:
Q: Let’s go right back – tell me about the mangoes and the start of your journey?
A: Two words brought me here. Necessity and challenge. Financial necessity because I never had it growing up and challenge because I have always been highly competitive – challenging the status quo and challenging fake beliefs cast upon us in order to appease society’s expectations.
The primary and formative years were spent at St. Peter’s College and at Wycherley International, where the only thing I truly learnt was how extremely outdated the teaching methods were; neither did anything for me but rather improved my social skills in leaps and bounds. In truth they are both great schools but clearly I was an academic challenge.
It was while spending some time in Dambulla after my O’Levels that gave me my first lesson in economics at the age of 15. I learnt that buying mangoes over there and selling them in Colombo had a pretty healthy profit. The money from the mango business made way for buying fabrics (from Veytex Veyangoda Textile Mills), which had just become the hit of Colombo after the disastrous closed economy policy of Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the 1983 civil eruption. The clothes became a hot seller but it really was my entrepreneurial skills rather than design skills that created this little business while in school.
Q: How did you go on to political science and journalism from there and how and when did you get into designing?
A: Honestly, I never chose either but they both chose me. I hated school with a passion, and after my O/Levels I refused to go back - I told my mother I would rather join the CMC than go back (I believe it was harder then than now). In sheer desperation she put me into Wycherley International.
With no real choice in the subjects I wanted to do, which were anthropology and sociology, I ended up doing Political Science, English Lit and British History. It was almost destiny when political science became my all-time favourite subject and most importantly I loved my teacher, Mrs. Indra Puvemanasinghe.
Even though I was academically terrible, my heart was passionate about political change and I was determined to dive into investigative journalism after I completed my A/Levels.
I was hugely influenced by Pieter Keuneman, as a Burgher, and for the fact that as a member of a minority group he managed to reach the levels he did politically – and that too with such a non-mainstream belief. When it came to Keuneman, his chosen career and attitude was so far away from the usual Burgher beliefs that I started to think maybe there was a really good chance, that with 1977’s new open policy, I could to try this out.
I was always joking around saying that I wanted to run for the office of President but with the JVP creating massive havoc in the late eighties, killing their own people and looking even worse than the LTTE, this dream was becoming more challenging than I initially believed it to be. So as the design business was at such a high, I kept at it until I left to Sydney, Australia, where my father lived.
The political volatility and the war made things very difficult and I kept flittering back and forth between Australia and Sri Lanka, and I couldn’t decide which side to stay on.
I entered the University of Technology in Sydney as a design student but never completed due to financial hardship. I returned to Sri Lanka and continued in the design business as it was what I was good at, but as we all know only too well in Sri Lanka, design as a business exists only in the eye of your ego and somehow everyone ends up glorified English-speaking tailors and catering to the demands of the wealthy and oh-so-fussy ladies of Colombo
Q: Why as a student did you think of the office of the President and not think of starting from the bottom?
A: For the first 15 years of my life, I grew up down Vijaya Road in Mount Lavinia. This was right opposite the Courthouse. My daily visuals were seeing troubled people with their faces filled with worry and sadness.
They used to be pushed from pillar to post in the sweltering heat, eating the minimum of food from the little shops, children crying, and amidst all of this, the authorities treated them worse than stray animals.
Around our house I had friends who went to S. Thomas’, Thurstan College and DS but the majority of the neighbourhood was complete slums. As children, we see no social or religious divide. What I saw were other children who had nothing, not even the little we had, and they were my friends. My grandmother was an extremely kind human being who used to attend to their wounds and feed them when they were hungry.
My grandfather was in the travel trade and had many contacts overseas.
One instance I will never forget is when he organised almost 250 toys to be brought in from Germany to be given to the less-fortunate children in the area. We almost lost our gate and boundary wall because of this.
We were also one of the only houses to have a colour TV, and at six in the evening those children used to be watching TV hanging on our wall and looking through the window. That image of those children still haunts me to date.
With the closed economy during Sirimavo’s ’70s, everything was rationed, from sugar to cloth to bread. I remember standing in the queues to buy fabric that smelled of kerosene oil. These people were so poor that they even sold their own quotas of everything they could secure. I could never understand this financial divide and I still can’t.
In 1983 we had a Jayawardena Government that allowed mass murder, I saw my friend’s home, where my cousin and I used to play, being burnt to the ground. I could never understand why good people like this paid the price for something that happened 250 miles away.
The older I got it was extremely evident that all this economic suffering in the ’70s and human beings being burnt alive and their lives destroyed was for nothing but political leverage by a handful of ego maniacs.
Another extremely important thing to understand here is that, when you are poor, your life is literally consumed with making it through the day, so you have no time to even try to find a way out of the mess. Giving the poor a fairy-tale to believe in is the way of any crooked politician.
If the leaders of any of these governments actually lived in the areas where the poor were suffering, or if they actually had to face the same economic hardships that the poor were facing instead of reading about it or hearing it from their ‘English nannies,’ this country may have had a better political foundation.
So to answer your question, even as a student of political science at 17, what was most evident was that unless you have true power to change anything, all you are is a lapdog who needs to be obedient in order to rise in ranks. Who has the time for that?
Q: You have your fingers in so many pies, pies you’ve baked yourself – Andre Estefan, Chagall, ARQ, Flamingo House, The Love Bar, The Attic, etc. Tell me about all the ventures you’re involved in now and outline your vision for each of these places?
A: My entrepreneurial vision was, is and will always be very simple. Make change and be creatively different with each and every business you create. Lighting a fire in the soul of he who dares walk through my mind is what I do best. Some call me a rabble rouser, I rather like that title.
Andre Estefan the clothing label started it all, with me doing my first solo show at the age of 18. It was a very cutting-edge concept at the time when everyone was going safe with wearable clothes. How it stood out was with the style lines offered, where women were given the opportunity to be completely different and a little bit more daring.
Chagall followed with me wanting to create a difference in a hair business with location and interior style by being a visually open space when everyone else was in closed spaces. The business was a great one until the directors didn’t see eye-to-eye any more on a common vision for the company and thus decided to part ways.
Flamingo House, The Love Bar and The Attic is all a part of the one business and this I designed based on a book I am writing. The idea behind this was to create a space that no one else would have in the entire world. Menus are inspired by many things and nothing is truly unique in the world of food as it derives from something already out there, but when it comes to concept, the imagination has no boundaries.
The success of the space also lies in the hands of the other two directors who steer that management skilfully, and the common denominator amongst all of us is that we fully support each other and respect each other in our common vision for the business.
The concept behind ARQ was old world luxury, where service is at the top of its game along with the feel of the concept. I believe that the service industry is pretty much at the bottom of the barrel in Sri Lanka due to the loss of industry staff owing to the situation the country is in, but it shouldn’t stop us from doing our utmost to stay on top of our game. Again here my business partner is truly my rock and has my back no matter what hair-brained concept I bring to the table because she believes in my madness for life and understands my soul.
I have been involved in a few businesses - not all of them have been successful - but I have the ability to move on to the next without inner sadness and loss of ego. I believe I have mastered that over time by understanding the founding principles of Buddhism.
Q: What’s the status of your book – could you tell us what it’s about, how far along it is now and when one can hope to see it in print?
A: I am mortified every time anyone asks me this question because this started as a labour of love. It’s pure ‘faction,’ which is little bit of fact, and a lot of my imagination. It’s a lot of snippets from things my maternal grandmother used to tell me mixed with my own sordid conclusions to a lot of them.
It’s about a forbidden great big love affair between an Englishman and a Tamil estate woman. The key word is ‘love,’ the perception of ‘love,’ and the trials one goes through in the eyes of society in order to triumph over all odds.
As for when it will be out, that’s a question even I would like an answer to!
Q: What are your views on Sri Lanka’s fashion industry and future in design?
A: I love the way the industry is taking shape now because you see so many young designers from various different disciplines entering the field. Textile designers, artists, kids who are great at ready-to-wear and just overall excitement.
I guess the concern is that they are all competing in the same gene pool when it comes to the money market. Colombo has very little buying power when it comes to ‘designer clothing’. We are essentially a saree market and hence it makes it difficult to make a living off it as a designer by staying true to design. I go back to my original statement of being a ‘glorified English-speaking tailor’ here, because unless you are willing to compromise, it’s impossible to make proper money off it.
Clothing design is also almost a toy of the wealthy. You need to have a substantial amount of money backing you in order to set up your collections, and stock and afford a retail space.
Q: What inspires you?
A: The truth. The underdog. The poor. Old people. Life. Music. Fairy-tales.
Q: You’re an avid reader; what would you list as the top five must-read books?
A: As my top five reads I recommend: 1. The Tripitaka; 2. The Bible; 3. The Koran; 4. The Bhagavad Gita; and 5. Harry Potter.
As an atheist this maybe surprising, however I believe that in order to live in such a multicultural and multi-religious country, the greatest effort you can make towards reconciliation is to at least try to understand the mindset of the person next to you. I have not read all of these cover to cover except Harry Potter, which I have read three times over.
Q: You’re constantly prodding, poking and provoking people online with your posts. What’s going on?
A: I am a social media junkie. I love how active it keeps my mind and I love how much it teaches me. Judging by how academically backward I was with the learning methods offered back then, this is like an entire world has opened up to me.
My way of putting something out there is almost experimental to see what reactions I provoke. This is a great method of market research at the tip of our fingers if you know how to master it. However, I never aggravate anyone on their posts, I only do that on my own wall.
Q: What’s the ‘Political Donkey’ all about?
A: The Political Donkey is the product of 70 years of frustration, anger and disappointment. The donkey is you and the donkey is me. The donkey is everyone other than if you are a Member of Parliament, a political henchman or a political appointee.
The donkey asks questions, everyday questions, and looks for simple non-complicated answers. I see the donkey as a sign of hope where if at least we laugh at ourselves, our inevitable deaths in the hands of this godforsaken Parliament won’t be such a bad one.
Q: What is your dream for Sri Lanka?
A: I don’t believe in dreams. Being dreamers is what has led us to this situation of permanent sleepwalking and never waking up. I believe in a vision and I honestly believe in a creative vision for this country.
Mainstream politics is a thing of the past and mainstream politicians are as archaic as some of the stupid laws we follow. How many times have we heard politician after politician, government after government say that we need to be like Singapore or Malaysia? How many go out there and come back with some hair-brained scheme from some first world nation?
The reason why we have nothing unique politically to offer is because whomever we have had up to now has had no passion for the country, and if they possess that passion, it has come at a great cost to our already-drained coffers. We see them fight election after election based on political agendas of no relevance to the growth of the country. Have we seen even one government win based on policy or vision for the future? None. The only victories we have witnessed are those based on the ousting of corruption only to be replaced by the equal.
The reason we are in this state of permanent disaster is primarily because the system of governance is completely outdated. This system worked when the world was a different place and when there was honour amongst gentleman. The honour now is only amongst thieves, and even that is now questionable. We are a nation that was three times conquered; we are now conquered by the system we foolishly keep voting for.
My vision is for a unique Sri Lanka. There is no reason why this island should be modelled after any country in the world, especially those nations whose citizens are primarily cold and unwelcoming.
We are one of the most uniquely diverse countries in the world, in that have more to offer in six hours than some first world nations have to offer in weeks of travel. Sri Lanka’s reserves of wealth lie in the hearts of her people, not in the tea we harvest or the women we sacrifice in the Middle East in the name of labour.
We need to take care of our own first; feed them, give them proper healthcare and educate them first before we talk of building underground transport systems and hosting world games.
For the current political system to keep getting voted in, it pays to keep the masses uneducated and the poor, poor. First the country needs to be awakened because only then can we become the change. The time has passed for asking for change and demanding change, because no one is listening. There are many young politicians with an honest vision in all of the current parties, but it’s the system and archaic hierarchy that keeps these people with a vision down.
No religion teaches you anything bad. I have never come across any Christian or Muslim or Hindu who has ever preached any violence. I have however come across political deplorables who have preached anger and violence in the name of these religions.
Buddhism is a way of life, and the fundamentals of Buddhism are some of the most amazing ways in which to live. Over 70% of the population of this country follows Buddhism so how difficult is it to truly return to a state of paradise?
The 27-year war kept us from growing at a pace that most of Asia grew at, however we cannot harp on what could have been. We see now from some first world countries that what they did in the name of progress has come back to bite them hard, so we need to understand that these countries are not always correct.
I believe that we have so much potential when it comes to teaching the world that there is an alternate way of life, a way that has belonged to us for thousands of years. We however need to believe and live by that first before we try to teach others.
- Pix by Ashane Bernard
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