“What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today, when human contacts are so quick. Fashion is instant language. Miuccia Prada”
All of us are aware of the “glamorous world” of fashion. Some of you may even profess to be knowledgeable about fashion designers; with names such as Vera Wang, Alexandar MC Queen and Ralph Lauren coming into mind. On the other hand, for some the profession of fashion designers is synonymous with extravagance only the privileged can afford or equivocated to eccentricity only the experimental will understand.
This could not be further from the truth, The industry of textile, clothing, and footwear and luxury fashion) is currently worth at least 1.5 trillion dollars as of 2016. In reality, in an ever changing market, the job of a fashion designer can be just challenging and emotionally and physically draining as that of a more traditional occupations such as an engineer or pediatrician. So why do we label this occupation as “easy?” Fashion designers are just like any other business entrepreneurs as they are often self-employed. So why do we berate fashion design students as having “no job prospects?”
A great part of the problem is asymmetrical information. We all are consumers, whether willingly or unwittingly of fashion and style. Unless you walk around naked, you very much are a consumer! But none of us actually know about the lives of fashion designers or the lives of undergraduate students aspiring to be fashion designers. Luckily, I was blessed with the opportunity to interview students of AOD International Design Campus in Colombo, affiliated with the University of Northumbria. The University of Northumbria is world renowned and is considered one of the top 10 fashion design degrees in Europe. So, if you would like to open your mind to the actual lives of aspiring fashion designers in Sri Lanka, please keep reading!
Sarah Afzal– She is currently a first year student studying for her BA(Hon) Fashion Design and Textile.
What is other people’s reaction when you tell them you are an aspiring fashion designer/ fashion marketing student?
I was always trying to figure out flattering designs and clothes on other people. I loved the idea of making other people look good. So I thought, why not make a career of it? My dad was really chilled out about it because he realized I was really interested in it. My mother was not so enthusiastic. Her main concern was “what would other people say?” She thought that accounting would be a more suitable option. But I realized after a levels I just couldn’t do something I was not interested in. I needed to study fashion designing. Luckily when I came to Aod for an interview and receptionist talked to parents she actually explained how industry works and what fashion designers have to learn and do. I feel this did not just help me but helped my family feel better about the decision to pursue a fashion degree.
What are the main influences on your personal choice of style?
I love Alexandar McQueen and John Galliano. I really feel that they thought about each and every single detail in each garment and how it adds up to one final concept. Alexandar McQueen is well known to have been heavily influenced by birds. He had actually loved bird watching at a kid. I feel this is quite cool because he was not focused on whether it would sell or not but stayed true to his concept.
Could you share any memorable experiences you have had with fashion designers/ at runway shows/ in the classroom?
Well, I never thought I would be able to see an actual professional fashion show. The whole idea of working with models on the runway was new to me. So the first time I was allowed to do that it was honestly quite overwhelming. When we went to Mercedes Benz Fashion Show at first we were thinking “What is happening!” Definitely, it was a great experience.
Another interesting experience was this project where we got to make a portfolio. My portfolio was about taking inspiration from religious idols from different religions.
Recipe for successful designer?
A successful designer should be open minded for a start. You can’t just stick to the same concept because everyone at AOD will motivate you to think differently and outside the box. They actually make you very confident as you have to make your own decisions. For everything different lecturers and advisors would have completely different opinions and in the end you have to choose what feels right to you. I mean that’s a life skill. If you can’t make your own decisions you can’t do anything by yourself. Even if you aren’t a fashion designer.
What was your portfolio about?
Mine was mostly about idols of different religions because we have different religious issues communally happening so I thought this would be a meaningful project for me. I went to a few Buddhist temples and few Hindu temples and took pictures and interpreted idols and sketches.
How do you stay up to date with fashion?
Karen sends us loads of emails! She basically decrypts a fashion runway line. For example, pretend we are watching the Balmain fashion show. She would send us the show in two parts. In the first part the clothes have a lot of sequins or a metallic feel. The next part she sends us will focus on the different fabrics used. Karen helps us a lot in that way. We are always checking our mails. If there is show, she will be watching it and will send us a link. But that doesn’t mean we are spoon fed. We are expected to be independent and analyze fashion shows better. I sometimes feel when we are not at AOD, we are constantly on fashion websites! I am always on fashion websites . I particularly like browsing for new updates. I know what’s happening.
What do you feel about Sri Lankan street fashion?
I think you can describe it in one word: safe. We think it’s very safe to wear what everyone else is wearing. We seem to think if we look alike we look good or it we look matching then we look appropriate. It’s a cultural problem. If we dress too boldly then we are afraid other people will talk about us. I think we are scared of the attention! We don’t want to be seen as attention seeking or trying too hard.
What is the best lesson or piece of advice you got at AOD so far?
In an introduction lecture we were given a portfolio not by the lectures but by the graphic design section. There was one slide which said “there is no miracles here.” This really impacted me. Of course -there are people who think they can just get any grade without putting much effort into it. But most of the time you have to be really motivated to work and most of us have realized this. It certainly motivated me!
Do you feel that stereotypes people have against fashion designing will change in the future?
I think there is a slim chance of that to be honest. A lot of people after discovering I’m studying fashion designing tell me “What’s wrong with you! That is not even a job!” that is a stereotypical idea of Asians in general. In western countries it is not as bad. But I feel if there are more designers and if the fashion industry evolves more then it may be possible.
How do you feel AOD will prepare you for your future career?
The most important way will be through contacts. Wherever we go, Karen continuously introduces us to new people. There are so many new faces. When you get to know them, you can get really strong contacts. Karen pushes us to do that. She even tells us “Go to parties. Go to social events. Talk to new people! “
AOD is involved in character building as well. When I came here I was not talkative. I was shy to talk to people and had low esteem. However after being told to go out and learn to move with people I don’t just hang with one clique. That really helped mold me as person and also as a designer as I need to have a strong personality and communicate with those around me.
Anuththara Rajapakse–She is currently a second year student studying for her BA(Hon) Fashion Design and Textile.
What motivated you to study fashion designing at this institute?
I was always into manga and I used to draw all the time… even during class! At first I was planning to do a science related degree such as marine biology. But as I grew older I realized I would not be too happy doing that. I thought hard about what I wanted to do. A lot of people suggested AOD and perhaps to pursue fashion designing. AOD was an affordable option where I could still earn a recognized degree from the UK. I did consider LIFT however ultimately AOD had superior resources and facilities
What were people’s reaction when you told them you wanted to study fashion designing?
A lot of people have different reactions. My parents were happy with the decision and so were my friends. But some people would say something along the lines of “Oh you went to CIS and now you’re just going to be a fashion designer and just sit and sew all day”. It’s quite narrow minded but you learn to develop thick skin towards such judgmental comments. It is better to let them have their own view instead of trying to convince them that you are doing is worthy. Because in the end of the day you know you are doing something worthwhile.
What influences your personal sense of style?
As someone who likes anime I feel that East Asian style really influences me. I take bits and pieces of the style which really appeals to me. It’s a shame that we live in a tropical country. I really have a fascination towards winter wear such as boots and gloves. However, I don’t get a chance practically to explore this through my clothing choices.
Do you have any memorable experiences during your time at AOD?
I have many good memories at AOD. The most memorable would be the Hong Kong trip. It’s a places where so many different street styles can be observed because it is a tourist destination. It is also quite a commercial area so there were designer stores such as Chanel and Dior and we were able to go look at these stores. Overall they very study focused trips but we managed to have a lot of fun as well.
We also have to learn about different application as there is many ways of printing and pattern making. We are taken to places like Hidaramani, MAS Holdings, and Linear Aqua where we go for to visit the factories and gain better understanding of suppliers. We went once to Screen Line Holdings to see screen printing. This was pretty amazing because Victoria Secret is their main customer.
We had the heritage project where we learn about pattern making techniques specific to Sri Lanka such as Batik and Beeralu. We went to Dumbara in Kandy. For that trip we looked at all the batik and handloom. We were taught about the process of batik. We went to small villages where these handloom crafts have been carried on for generations. We also went to Galle which is known for the craft of lace making and Beeralu. Beeralu actually originated from Galle so this was a valuable experience.
Unfortunately, people don’t really understand it’s an expensive process or how time consuming it is. They assume that places such as Barefoot and Selyn are just selling for a high markup price but honestly they need to in order to stay in business with all the expenses.
What do you have to say to anyone who believes that fashion designing is an “easy degree”?
It’s so not true! It is a different field and cannot be directly compared to other fields such as architecture or engineer. People seem to have this perception it is merely about stitching clothes or drawing in an art book. They never realize when they go to fashion shows just how much work goes to creating a collection.
We must keep a portfolio which usually will span over 200 pages each filled with tiny details and changes in design process. It is not an easy process as you must continuously be creative and at same time constantly be methodical in the manner you work. We frequently have submissions to make and there is always a new project to be completed. We can’t just write an exam and say we are “done” for the term. There is always more work. Furthermore, anyone who judges fashion will know that it is extremely subjective. You have to work extremely hard to stand out from the other talented people around you. So no, it is not as easy as some may think. Just like any profession there are obstacles we have to face too.
What would you like to do in the future after AOD?
Maybe gain experience and open my own fashion line. What is great about Sri Lanka is we are quite rich with crafts and we have the ability to interact with artisans. I don’t have any concrete plan, but through the heritage project I have now learnt the value of sustainable design. It’s important to interact with the market. But that does not just mean the customers that also means the suppliers. If we do not support traditional clothing techniques such as batik, it will become a dying art. This is true for any culture in the world. If I could help in some way that would be an added achievement as a fashion designer. However, I will probably do my masters and then decide exactly what I want to do in the future.
Tharshana Wijesinghe- He is currently a third year student studying BA(Hon) Fashion Design and Textile.
Why did you want to become a fashion designer?
I started doing art in school as well as other creative subjects such as drama and dancing. Throughout my time in a government school I kept thinking to myself “What can I do to make sure all the things I love will continue to be part of my life?” Fashion is performance. I feel this is what drove me to want to study fashion designing. AOD is a place you have a lot of freedom and you don’t limit yourself. I heard about AOD from one of my friends and so I dropped out of school so after going after various other pursuits I finally ended in AOD.
What is people’s reaction when you tell them you want to do fashion designing?
Most people don’t really understand. The first thing they ask is, “Can you earn out of fashion designing?” But my parents have been very supportive. They didn’t really understand in the beginning, but once I actually started doing my work they stood by me and so have my friends. It is especially easier in Colombo as a lot of people actually know what AOD is. But I still have to explain to everyone else what AOD is and what I have to do.
You are the first male fashion designer I have talked to today. Although some of the top global fashion designers are men do you think there is a stigma towards male fashion designers in Sri Lanka?
It is very much stigmatized. I mean for me I grew up with art and design. Everyone knew I would become a fashion designer. But even now when I tell people I am a fashion designer they ask me “Is it okay?” At school, particularly being a government school, I had to go through a lot of obstacles. But here at AOD the lecturers and the girls accept you for who you are. It’s an amazing feeling
What advice would you give those out there who are thinking to pursuit fashion designing but is not sure?
I think you need to complete your advanced levels before you pursue fashion designing at AOD. I think you need that knowledge and when you get here you have to be very open minded and you have to communicate with everyone. You have to have a very good relationship with everyone you’re working. You have to be passionate but at the same time very humble. Most of all you need to be willing to work EVERY SINGLE DAY. Especially as you have to constantly travel and explore the world, gain inspiration from it, there is not a single day where you are not actually working.Karen once told us that fashion is your partner and you have to be with your partner 24/7. Every day I go on Instagram, on pin interest, tumblr. You have to stay constantly updated, whether it be internationally or in Sri Lanka. Therefore you need to devote your time to fashion 24/7 otherwise you cannot keep up with your partner!
Is there any Sri Lankan designers which influence you or who you admire?
Katie Brown and Anika Fernando are awesome! They have great concepts. Even their studios are amazing. It’s not just about their work but the environment that they are working in which I really enjoy.
How have you gained industrial experience?
We gain industrial experience from our second year. It different from what you learn here in the sense it is very serious work. I actually went to Colour Zone. I got to know a lot of people in the industry . Contacts are extremely important. I got the chance to collaborate with a lot of them.
Oshini Perara – She is a third year undergraduate studying for her BA(Hon) Fashion Design and Textile degree.
What inspired you to study fashion at AOD?
My family I think. My sister is also in the fashion field and is pursuing it as a career so you could say I grew up with fashion. My mother is also in the textile industry. Furthermore AOD is the only well-known institute which provides a British University degree so it was a natural choice.
What influences your personal style as a fashion designer?
Im very architecturally inspired. I enjoy very minimal designs and silhouettes.
How has AOD helped you evolve your sense of style?
I had a rough idea as to what kind of designer I wanted to be prior to joining AOD. However AOD has helped me polish up this idea and open up my eye to other perspectives. Before I would have focused on one particular area but now I know to look at other areas and not limit myself when it comes to design. The lecturers are very open minded and that helps a lot.
Do you feel in the fashion industry today they will be more concerned about the grades or the experience you have practically gained in the field?
For me rather than the grade, I want the experience. Obviously there are some people who are more concerned about the grade. For me it is not just about the fashion; Im into architecture, im into interior design, I’m into graphics. I do of course worry about the grade to get through the degree but the main focus is the experience.
What is you final year project about?
I’m doing a full women’s wear collection inspired by men’s wear. That means 1920’s blue collar and white collar wear mixed with Bauhaus architectural elements.
What skills do you feel are necessary to be a fashion designer?
You need to know how to draw, to cut a pattern and sew. On the other hand you need to be open minded and look at a different way without at it from one angle. These are the most important tools.
How do you stay up to date with fashion?
I read a lot online. Magazines! Thank God we have a library that is constantly up to date with their magazines and provides us with latest content. There is a fashion magazine I particularly use called View Magazine which AOD has subscribed to, so that we have a firsthand copy of that.
Considering that Sri Lanka does not have major fashion brand outlets such as Chanel how does AOD provide exposure to that side of things?
We have study tours every year which I have been to and during these study tours we are allowed to go into stores and see the clothes and the fabrics. So we do gain the whole store experience. My most memorable trip was when we got to Hong Kong in December with one of the lecturers. None of us had been to Hong Kong before and so we had to figure out the routes by ourselves. We got lost but we managed to find our way in the end so that was excited.
Is there any lesson which has impacted you personally as a designer during your time at AOD?
Something which Karen told us as soon as we joined AOD was that “If you are not prepared to be married to fashion this is not the degree for you. This is a twenty four hour job.” That really sticked with us. You really must be married to it. It is not a day to night thing. It’s a twenty four hour job. Currently being in the course itself you are constantly working. But there isn’t anything to really complain about. You select the industry for a reason. If you love it, you should be ready to commit yourself to it. It’s upto you to enjoy it.
What would you say people who think fashion is superficial?
Fashion is something which ensures you must be constantly on the run. Whether fashion is superficial or not depends on how you want to commit to it. Different people have different viewpoints. ‘
What are your views on street fashion in Colombo?
I’ve tried to do a street style blog and it was really difficult for me because people are constrained to an extent. You can’t be yourself here. But there is a certain part of society which is very experimental with their clothes and how they dress. I think there are two sides to it. There are people who can afford to buy the bigger brands and afford to dress well. There is another side however who cannot really keep up.
PLEASE STAY TUNED FOR PART 2 OF “Academy of Design”: The Truth about Fashion Designers