Building a thriving fashion business ecosystem in Sri Lanka

Monday, 23 October 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Sri Lanka founder Linda Speldewinde speaks on the launch of the international fashion event of the year, and how it completes a strategic building block for a grand vision

Linda Speldewinde

Sri Lanka is to witness its first international fashion event this month with Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. Hosted as a joint coalition between Sri Lanka’s most dynamic design educator AOD, the automotive giant Dimo and the multi-billion dollar local apparel industry, the fashion week is expected to place Sri Lanka in the map for fashion and design, establishing a firm foundation for the country’s move to position itself as South Asia’s contemporary design and innovation hub. Linda Speldewinde is the visionary entrepreneur who founded AOD, and extended the thought innovation behind the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Sri Lanka. Speldewinde gave this exclusive interview to Daily FT, discussing how this mega event came into being with the support of its key partners, and what it could deliver for Lankan fashion in the long haul. Following are excerpts from the interview:

Q: You have been behind several initiatives pushing Sri Lankan fashion and design innovation forward. It may seem like many different things to someone, but really they are all working towards one idea, is that right? Can you share a little about that before we get into your newest undertaking – Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week – and how it fits into all this?

A: Yes, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week is actually the result of a vision we have been pursuing and laying the groundwork for, for over a decade now and this is a great milestone in that journey, to be able to attract one of the world’s foremost platforms like the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week to Sri Lanka, to showcase Sri Lankan and regional fashion and design globally – create awareness amongst new audiences with a broad global reach. The fashion runways for anyone looking from the outside, will clearly be the showcase of the best in fashion that the island has to offer – our massive apparel manufacturing industry and its impressive capabilities as it transforms to a value-added design to delivery full spectrum service destination for fashion as well as the nation’s fashion heritage and emerging design talent and upcoming brands. But while it is a great showmanship of our design, craftsmanship and attention to detail, what really drives me year on year is what goes on behind it to make this happen; developing the talent to meet these world class standards, working with industry throughout the year on collaborative projects to many things, allowing the space, exposure and the know-how for the young talent to stretch their limits and drive design innovation using the manufacturing at their doorstep – both grass-root like handloom, etc and the high tech apparel industry. Ultimately it is this confluence of the emerging young design graduates who have been given the opportunity to push boundaries working with an inspiring manufacturing expertise and infusing that magic and I am so glad that everyone seated at this table lends their support for this broader vision beyond the runway to the education, the sharing of knowledge, the creation of an innovative future, one that can compete with global markets to really position Sri Lanka’s apparel industry at the forefront of technologically, creatively and sustainably sound fashion manufacturing, to build its reputation to establish Sri Lanka as the contemporary hub of design, fashion and innovation in South Asia.

Like what Sri Lanka Apparel is to Sri Lanka, no one realises how much power fashion and the creative industries in general has to build economies, create commerce and employment around it to form powerful business ecosystems. Countries like the UK and Japan have such fashion business ecosystems and they are among the most powerful economic forces that fuel their nations. Sri Lanka is ready to leverage all the investment it has made in this area now. As part of the event, we will also be organising a creative industries policy dialogue/roundtable with key government and international stakeholders to move things forward.

Q: Can you explain what you mean by a fashion business ecosystem and how that works?

A: Sure. Basically, a fashion business ecosystem is a commercial network based on fashion and lifestyle consumerism. Together these businesses feed each other and sustain one another through their operations, leading to a functioning ecosystem. Primarily, a fashion ecosystem is made up of the key types of businesses in the fashion product chain – designers, manufacturers and makers, marketing and selling, brands and retail and of course, the consumer market. This can sometimes change – but this is the key ecosystem. And if you build one with all the functioning pieces, it will work and operate as a fashion economic cluster, bringing in commerce, employment and associated benefits to the country. This is what I envisioned to set-up for Sri Lanka, so that we can harness fashion’s power as a consumer product in a market that is currently exploding worldwide.

Q: How did you set about to deliver this?

A: So, I noticed that we already had one of the world’s finest manufacturing hubs leading with technology, sustainability, etc. but, Sri Lanka’s fashion business ecosystem has not developed further than that. So, around 2011, I set out to complete it – first, I founded AOD to educate and create design talent, and we have established world-class education in fashion design as well as marketing to create the professionals we need for a functioning fashion hub. In 2009 we launched the Island Craft Project which completed the low-tech end of the manufacturing sphere for our future hub. That was the first step to set-up design, product innovation, development and manufacturing.

Q: How did the rest of the fashion ecosystem evolve?

A: As the next step I founded the South Asian Apparel Leadership Forum with the apparel industry, which actually completes a very fundamental role in a fashion economy – this is fashion business intelligence. Fashion being a business that changes every few months influenced by consumer trends, understanding what drives it is crucial – this knowledge researched, studied and structured by professionals to be used by fashion companies to create the next range of products, is fashion intelligence. Over the years it has proved to be a forum of inspiration for the apparel industry, constantly challenging them and pushing the industry forward. After this – finally, the commercial output where this work would connect to the consumer was launched. This is, which is a South Asia focused digital retail proposition and the label Sri which was a more Europe and US highstreet focused product line that connects a different consumer to our fashion economy here. So, Sri Lanka’s fashion business ecosystem was being completed step by step.

Q: How does Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week fit into this ecosystem?

A: I think you can begin to see how Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week fits into this ecosystem perfectly as the ultimate platform to show the world this hub that we have created. Coincidentally, it was around the same time we launched the commercial platforms, that Dimo got the opportunity to find a partnership to host Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Sri Lanka – the timing was perfect and we were ready. We have the talent, the complete manufacturing spectrum, fashion business intelligence, a working commercial outlet that reaches the world – and now, the platform. It was the final piece we needed to set out to position Sri Lanka as South Asia’s fashion, design and innovation hub.

Q: So, how will MBFW help position Sri Lanka as a hub for fashion, design and innovation?

A: I see it happening in three ways. Firstly, from a business perspective where this internationally connected platform can link our fashion industry – that is to say everyone from apparel manufacturing, retail to individual designer brands, textile craft artisans, industry professionals etc. – to new business. We’re talking new brands wanting to employ our manufacturers, foreign retailers seeing our design talent and retailing their work abroad, sourcing specialists connecting to our traditional textile artisans to purchase their fabrics, consumers valuing purchasing ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ label for our industry’s sustainable’s vast. 

Secondly, I see this event contributing to making South Asia’s fashion, design and innovation hub here by the extending world-class opportunities to brands and talent. Being showcased on Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week itself is a remarkable opportunity, and also, it’s a fantastic launchpad for those looking for international careers – for example, Amesh Wijesekara discovered on Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in 2015 is now the emerging international fashion star from the country, winning at Graduate Fashion Week UK and recently, being on London Fashion Week. So, what this event can deliver to our brands and talent in terms of opportunities, is massive. 

Thirdly, I think it will take Sri Lanka’s name far, into every corner of this world, in terms of prestige. Name and fame is important in establishing this kind of hub, and a platform like Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week can deliver a lot there. It’s something I myself and our partners feel very strongly about.

Q: Who are the key partners of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Sri Lanka and what do they bring onto the table?

A: Our hosts at Dimo are behind the custodianship of Mercedes-Benz official brand here in Sri Lanka and they have done a tremendous lot to bring this event down to the country, along with the full spectrum of benefits and opportunities that come with it. They have been fantastic hosts. Then there is our visionary apparel industry that foresaw the benefits and global reach of this event and joined in with me from the very beginning. Our industry patrons at MAS, Brandix and Hirdaramani have been tremendous in rallying the rest of the industry behind this mega project and making them see what this will deliver in the long haul. We’re also had the support of many other partners who understood the gravity of the vision behind this work: Our Endorsement partners – EDB and Joint Apparel Association Forum Thread and Zip Partner COATS who has supported us throughout, Fashion Retail Partner –, Hair and Makeup by Salon KESS, Official Host – Mount Lavinia Hotel, Official, Airline Partner – Etihad Airways, Technology Partner – GT Nexus, Cultural Partners – German Embassy of Sri Lanka and Brazilian Embassy – Sri Lanka are also behind driving this. Also to add our print Media Partners – Wijeya, Online Media Partner – Life Online, Beverage Partner – Freelanka, Official Telecommunication Partner – Dialog, Print Partner – Softwave, Paper Partner – Papyrus, and Official Florist – Shirohana.

Q: How is the event structured?

A: The event is structured with a business and industry focused agenda and then a more lightly curated public program. The business agenda has been formulated thinking of how our fashion business ecosystem is evolving, bringing in the best in the island, and some great international counterparts, from every aspect – talent, brands, retailers, wearables manufacturing, fashion intelligence etc. We have fantastic talent both emerging and established, and thought leaders from home and abroad coming together to share some incredible fashion intelligence at forums and talks, bringing in the future of retail through tech and design innovation...etc. The whole business agenda is very exciting and we’re expecting some great participation from the business world.


Q: What about the public program?

A: The public program this year is a great curation that we think will attract any Sri Lankan who loves and enjoys fashion and lifestyle. It’s called the ‘Fashion Experience Weekend’ and brings together a fantastic line-up of live sessions, runways, mini-talks that have been curated around everyday style topics such as dressing yourself confidently for work, how to curate your wardrobe so it represents yourself, your values, social role etc. accurately and in a contemporary it’s a very relevant discussion presented in an exciting way that speaks to a vast audience. It is the first international fashion week experience that Sri Lanka is getting, and this is why we found it so important to open it out to the public with the Fashion Experience Weekend and share it with Sri Lankans interested in fashion and lifestyle. For the fashion business too, it delivers something important by educating and developing the domestic consumer base.

Q: What do you mean by educating and developing the consumer?

A: Well, fashion is something that constantly morphs and changes, so for a thriving fashion industry to exist, we need a consumer market that keeps reinventing its needs and desires – it’s that cycle that keeps the fashion ecosystem running. So, when we educate the consumer base of what fashion really means, how it aligns with their personality, heritage, public persona etc. we create awareness among them to use fashion intelligently, which in turn, helps us sustain a fashion business sphere of high standards that matches this intellectual consumer. A quick example is how educating the consumer about how important sustainability is when choosing their clothing helps the fashion industry keep things green and clean – it’s also about teaching the consumers how to use their ability to influence the fashion industry by asking questions about where and how their clothes were made; whether the worker who stitched these clothes were paid a fair wage or if a rich middle-agent is ripping off both ends; whether the dyes used in these garments will pollute the waterways that feed our children or, whether it does the opposite by empowering rural textile artisans, protecting craft heritages, using natural material that protects Earth, etc. So, it’s a give and take that works both ways between the industry and the consumer, and is a very necessary part in the fashion ecosystem.

Q: So, how can people become part of all this amazing excitement and knowledge at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Sri Lanka?

A: Well, the ‘Fashion Experience Weekend’ is open to the public- anyone and everyone is welcome to take part. You can call our hotline or log on to our official website and find out the details of the program. If you’re a fashion or lifestyle entrepreneur, brand, business or professional of any sort, consider our business agenda which focuses on delivering some incredible business-fronted insights. We look forward to seeing you there.