By Cheranka Mendis
She is a pocket sized bundle of excitement. From first glance you know she’s just doesn’t fit into the ‘social box’; she is a fighter, dreamer, believer and above all, a hard worker.
She is all about making it big, in her own unique, Sri Lankan way. Winner of HSBC CFW’s Next-Gen Awards, Deneth is an exceptional designer and truly inspiring woman. Just passing the five foot mark on the height chart and her hair flying behind her as she sprints from one corner to another, she can easily be passed on for a primary school kid. Bright-eyed and petite, it is fitting to say that her work is three times (or perhaps more) the size of her.
She frames herself as an artist before designer. Growing up in a household where the smell of paint and thinner was a constant presence, the most natural thing for her would have been to follow on the footsteps of her parents who were both artists. Instead, she rebelled against the idea and wanted to make her own way in the world; and that was the start of her story.
Finding her way
“It was the last thing I wanted to do; become an artist. I grew up with the smell of paint heavy in the air, I did not even want to think about becoming an artist,” she said. “I wanted to do something else and get away from it all. And I tried so many fields but ended up where I started – at home, with paint.”
All smiles, Deneth shares that by trying to move away from a life that was evidently cut out for her, she tried her hand in many professions. She studied accounting with the hope of becoming a banker, she learnt French to become a guide, studied HR to voice her opinion as a human right activist, pursued computer studies and even video editing. Nothing seemed to fit right.
“I travelled for seven years looking for inspiration. I travelled to India, Nepal and Bhutan working with artists and musicians on art projects. I was experiencing life and at the same time coming into realisation that art and design was part of my life,” she said. “It was not something I could just shake off. I was talented; I was born with it. I could create things and the things I created were beautiful.”
The beginning of a Cheeththa story
With that confidence blooming in her head, she decided to try her hand in different modes of art and design. Looking for a different medium to pursue her new love, she decided to discard the usual canvas, board and paper and opted instead for a childhood fascination ‘Cheeththa’ material. Having grown up in Kurunegala where dresses from ‘Cheeththa’ material was a common sight and is available in abundance, Deneth started painting on the highly colourful and heavily printed material. “This became a hit. Not instantly, but over time,” Deneth admitted. “What I realised is that people are reluctant to wear clothes made from this material as most of the common village people wear this clothing because of the affordability. People from affluent families almost look down on such material.”
But for her, Cheeththa material was a mesmerising art. “I grew up with this around and I have always been fascinated by the colours and designs on the Cheeththa. I could not believe people did not want to wear this – this riot of colour and pattern.”
Then she set about revolutionising the local fashion industry; which ironically started in Delhi. Having found her foot in the art world, she soon began to utilise her art in her clothing. Having painted on Cheeththa, she then started wearing it. And the feedback she received was overwhelming. That was the start of her life as a designer. She is not shy to admit that the run for success was not a smooth one. “For the first three years, my designs were not very practical to wear. It was artistic but people could not really wear it in day to day life. I corrected this mistake and in 2009 held her first fashion show in Delhi.” Holding it on the last day of Delhi Fashion Week at a fringe event of the main show, the ten jacket/ overcoats she designed out of Cheeththa became an instant hit. She managed to sell all pieces on that day itself.
Modesty and simplicity
With the taste of success and acceptance now on her lips, Deneth came back to her motherland, as she always expected to do. “I do not belong to the category of people who go abroad to earn money and live there. I travelled because I wanted to find myself and I always knew I will come back. I worked for art projects when I was abroad because I had to find a way of supporting myself.”
“I do not come from a rich background. Money for me was survival. I have always wanted to come back and support my parents and family and that is what I did; what I have done and what I am doing. This is what makes me proud.” Returning home in 2010, she was invited by the organisers to showcase a collection at the ‘Elegance’ fashion show held at Galadari Colombo. With that being a success, she received a call from Melaché, a fashion boutique which showcases and sells clothing designed by Sri Lankan designers.
While her clothes moved at a slow pace at Melaché, perhaps because it was more advanced and unusual from the clothes we usually pick out from the rack, it caught the eye of a special lady whom Deneth remembers with love. Founder of Paris Ethical Fashion Show Isabelle Quehe in Sri Lanka looking for bright and new designers to feature at the fashion show was impressed by Deneth’s collection at Melaché. “It happened by accident. But she loved what she saw. She took photographs of some of my designs in the shop which the organisers of the fashion show liked. This was followed by an invitation to showcase my work at Paris Ethical Fashion Week. If I said I was excited, that would be an understatement!”
Making her first trip to Europe last year to partake in the fashion show set to be held in September at the Carrousel de Louvre, she recalls her experience as “amazing.” She claims she was in “shock” most of the time. “I stayed there for two months and it was just an experience I would never forget. I was shocked, both about the invitation and upon reaching Paris, of the clothes and people and colour there.” In Paris, everyone loved her story- small town girl from Sri Lanka working with local material creating something different. Deneth asserted that many wanted to collaborate with her. “I was so proud of myself. For taking Sri Lanka to Paris through fashion; fashion that I made at home.” She received yet another surprise at the fashion show with the organisers creating a separate section for Cheeththa designs where she got to showcase four of her pieces instead of the one that was allocated for new designers.
A pass for CFW 2012
Returning home after an “exhaustingly super” Paris journey, she was contacted by HSBC Colombo Fashion Week President Ajai Vir Singh who saw the photos of her collection taken by Isabell Quehe. “I was super happy. I was not in the Colombo fashion circle before. Ajai saw my work, helped me straighten things up and then invited me to showcase at this year’s fashion show. That is how I got myself into HSBC CFW 2012.”
Next-Gen, what’s that?
Bagging the Next-Gen Award which previously went to Dimuthu Sahabandu who got to showcase his collections at IIFA Fashion Shows in India, Deneth sees the award as a sign to go global in a big way. But for her this award too was a total surprise. “I was not planning to come on Sunday for the final show because I showcased on the previous day. I was exhausted. But I received a call from Ajai requesting me to come, no explanations given. I went and I still did not know why I was called. Backstage, someone was kind enough to explain the award was mine to take home this year.”
She continued, “I have never won an award in my life before. I did not expect this. This is big for me. This encourages me.” Deneth also added that she did not even know about the existence of the award until few minutes before she received it. Shock and surprise is therefore a given.
Doing things her way
With all this good things, what do her plans for the future indicate? Her answer comes fast, ‘going global.’ “I really want to sell more extensively in Europe and Sri Lanka. I want to improve myself, make a name for myself and help those around me.”
It has to be mentioned that all her clothes are sewed at home by her uncle who sews boy’s uniforms as a profession and her. The accessories that are made out of cut pieces are made by three families in her hometown, Kurunegala. All Cheeththa material is purchased from the Kurunegala town. “I want to help these people as well. People in Kurunegala are very simple. By getting them involved in this little capacity that I can, I am able to help them in a little way. So growth in my business would mean growth in their pockets as well.” She added that even though she could purchase Cheeththa material from elsewhere she is adamant to buy from her local sellers.Her clothes can also be purchased by her international clients from two online shops – Universal Love Paris and a Swiss online retail store. “I want to sell my clothes in Paris. I want to attend fashion shows and art exhibitions overseas. I want to take this to the next level.”
Not luck, just hard work
With such enthusiasm and a long line of what we see as ‘luck’ I ask her what she thinks of the last few years and the place she is in now. She soon dismisses the idea that her success could be attributed to luck. “I have not always been lucky. What I have been is working hard. I grew up with my parents telling me that you must make it on your own. I wanted to stand up for myself, and I have.
And all this is because I have worked so hard,” Deneth said.“I believe in what I do.
An I want to be the best in what I do and create something different. Something out of the box, something inspiring – something of my own.”