SLDF goes ‘locally global’ this year, incorporating fashion, design and rural empowerment
By Cheranka Mendis
Promoting Sri Lanka’s design and creative industry as a ‘locally global’ one, the Sri Lanka Design Festival is back hosting its fourth edition tomorrow (15 September) at the scenic Mount Lavinia Hotel.
Progressing from an industry oriented design festival to an all-encompassing portrayal of the best in apparel as well as backward integration industries, inspiring people from around the island, SLDF promises to be bigger and better this time around. In its attempt to establish a steady progression to a knowledge-based creative fashion industry, the festival has gained momentum and has gathered a faithful following over the years.
Sri Lanka Design Festival and Academy of Design Founder Linda Speldewinde joined the Daily FT to discuss how the fourth SLDF will integrate design, creativity, industry, and SME sectors together.
Q: How is this SLDF going to be different from the previous years?
A: Through our involvement, we have been able to get the Government to recognise design and the value that it can add to the industry. When we started four years ago, we stated with what was there – apparel industries manufacturing garments and showed it as it was. Today we are working with the industry, celebrating designers, and this year for the first time, the Design Festival is actually a design-led festival.
We have added new areas such as Sri Lanka Fashion and Apparel Awards and launched the festival in London to generate some hype there. This year will certainly be bigger in value and better in all aspects of the festival.
Q: What exactly will be the focus at the event?
A: The many apparel focused events at the festival will bring together the outstanding work ethics of ‘garments without guilt,’ sustainability, best solutions to shrink the supply chain and costs, international networking opportunities, business-to-business, and most importantly, design. There will be special focus on SME and crafts, education and promoting Sri Lanka as a leader in the apparel industry in the region.
Q: Industry-wise what is to be expected?
A: There are several events lined up that will directly benefit the apparel and creative design industry itself. One such event is the South Asia Apparel Leadership Forum. It was launched last year and received high commendation from the industry and the audience.
Our aim with this forum is to establish the fact that Sri Lanka is ‘the’ happening place in apparel, that the country is the leader in the ethical fashion movement, and to draw attention to the garments without guilt movement.
People are always curious about our apparel industry. They are interested to know how we still tick, even with high costs. This will therefore focus on what is special about Sri Lankan apparel industry. By naming it the ‘South Asia Apparel Leadership Forum,’ with delegates from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh taking part, along with buyers and decision makers in UK and North America, we want to show that we are leading the way. It is more of a thought leadership forum.
There will also be a ‘Sustainable Fashion Symposium’ with total focus on the garments without guilt aspect of the industry, i.e. the social sustainability side that incorporates environment with a few industry touches. Jonas Eder-Hansen from the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, which is the global fashion summit, will chair the Symposium.
There is also a ‘Best of Industry Fashion Show’ event where the industry will showcase their best. We have worked on this for nearly a year, looking at factories, identifying their key strengths and then working on it.
A ‘Best of Industry Exhibition’ will be held for buyers and retailers to take a closer at what is special in the industry, and a number of B2B meetings and factory visits where we have started to see a few partnerships happening thanks to last year’s project, will all add value to the industry.
The ‘Fashion Apparel Awards,’ a new initiative launched this year will recognise the great contribution made by Sri Lanka’s fashion and apparel industry to its socioeconomic growth and outstanding individuals and companies will be initiated and launched as well.
Q: By bringing crafts into SLDF, are you hoping to create a new Sri Lankan aesthetic for the industry?
A: Yes, absolutely. This is a project we work on during the whole year. The craft project touches the lives of almost 500 people, which includes 150 from the North. Here, our aim is to pitch these crafts to the hotel industry. There was a good response last year and this year’s aim is to showcase this as an innovative industry and to show that they have not been stagnant in their creativity.
There are shawls from Diwulapitiya, bangles and beach bags from Mullaitivu and Jaffna – it is a whole new concept we are pushing. All this has an international look but is made in Sri Lanka.
Q: Is this the main thought process behind this year’s theme as well?
A:Branding the event as ‘locally global’ is mostly to carry the message forward. What is special about this is the whole ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ look. Having the global aesthetic while promoting a ‘cooler kind of Sri Lanka,’ different from India and not totally embracing the West – creating something in between.
Q: How successful have you been in pitching it to the hotel industry?
A: We have been very successful in our attempts. We are asking them to not import from Vietnam, Thailand etc. but to use local crafts. Why they had not done this previously was because of the poor quality in design. We have now given them a reason to use our products.
Q: Have any hotels purchased the products?
A:es, they have. We first chose to work with Mount Lavinia Hotel, and that was enough to help the girls for two months. We took a 2,500 piece order from MLH. The next order was from Chaaya Wild, for which we did a whole range of products which included beach bags, beach mats etc. Now the entire Chaaya chain carries these products.
Q: Have you tried pitching to hotels overseas as well?
A: We need to carefully manage the supply chain and the market because we do not want to mess things up by being unable to deliver. We will take it forward step by step. However we are not ready to go international right now. I would say we are about a year behind.
Q: In developing the SME sector, how have you chosen the areas to work in?
A: We looked at the heritage craft villages first. In the hill capital, there are traditional artisans who have produced goods for the Kandyan kings and royalty and are trying to keep it alive. For example, in the hill capital there is a village called Hapuvitha which does lacquer work, and then in Thalimurai, there is a different weaving technique followed.
We did a study in 2009 of all traditional craft villages and we decided to work with them.
The Northern involvement came from AOD desperately wanting to go there and do something for them. That was in early 2011. We are working in Punugudutivu island in Jaffna, in two villages in Mullaitivu and another two in Mannar.
Q: Why do you think these craft villages were previously not spotted by the industry?
A: I think their products did not match the industry’s needs. What usually happens is that the SME sector produces whatever they want. In the North, palmyrah weaving is a craft they excel in. They have the skills and resources to do it but have been producing hats and little things that the hotel industry cannot really do much with.
They were producing without thinking about the market. The Government and NGOs at the time wanted to develop it but were not developing it for the industry itself. Rather, they concentrated on livelihood generation. When we went to the North and saw so many girls around, we knew we must secure the market and then develop the products. Here, we looked at the hotel industry as we thought this was the closest market that could give the kind of volumes that could help a large number of people, convinced them and then went back and developed the product. AOD developed the design based on what the industry needed and what they would buy and the artisans crafted the product.
Q: SLDF also focuses on design education. Could you explain how this is done?
A: The energy for SLDF comes from AOD so the education side also plays a role. This year too we are bringing educationalists from around the world to conduct workshops, forums and will host a young talent fashion show for the purpose of education. This is done to empower our young designers and to share with them what is happening in the rest of the world.
Q: Why did you think of incorporating sustainability into the festival?
A: It is well known than Sri Lanka produces ethical clothing. One of the reasons to bring it to SLDF is that I really like what the apparel industry does and am a personal fan of it. Winning the British Council International Young Fashion Entrepreneur Award in 2009, I was preparing to go to London to represent Sri Lanka and was looking at what I wanted to get out of the experience.
It is at that time that I actually started looking at Sri Lankan apparel carefully and focusing on our key strengths. I then realised that sustainability is what made it special. So at SLDF, we try to incorporate this and design to promote it further in the global market. No one will wear fashion just because it is sustainable. Together with design, anyone will.
Q: Why did you decide to launch the festival in London?
A: London is known as the world’s creative hub. It also came up with the concept of creative industries and looked at how by integrating design in to industry, economic value can be generated.
I studied the creative industry concept in 2008 very carefully – how the UK did it, what the economic benefits are, what fold they have grown in. It was only after that I really pushed it in Sri Lanka. UK therefore has been a big benchmark for us personally and I felt the UK was a good platform to launch from this year to create hype globally.
Q: In the fourth edition, how has it been so far?
A: First we started with the apparel industry. The crafts came in 2010. It has become easier now to convince people. When I started, it was hard to convince the industry and the Government as they had never done it before. When I came back from London,
I approached the Government and it was a huge process to get them to recognise design. Now it is much easier. People have seen the results and the Government has understood that design adds value to the apparel industry.