How I Did It – Ajai Vir Singh

Our new series dedicated to entrepreneurship

By Avanti Samarasekera.

Published on March 16, 2015 with No Comments


The odds were against him. He was in a foreign land, venturing into uncharted territory and nothing was going his way. Where most people would have thrown in the towel and moved on, Ajai Vir Singh could not.

If you want something done, you have to do it yourself. This statement stands true of Ajai. When he started Colombo Fashion Week (CFW) in 2003, he thought he was on to something big. Sri Lanka had seen architects in the calibre of Channa Dawatte and Geoffrey Bawa, and photographers like Dominic Sansoni. Surely the creative juices were flowing in this island nation. This was Ajai’s logic when he first conceptualised CFW, 14 years ago.

CFW would play host to fashion designers, buyers and aficionados who would gather to be a part of the ultimate business meeting. Designers could showcase their best collections, international and local buyers who show an interest in the designs could strengthen ties with designers, and fashion aficionados could take the message across borders. But what he encountered would have set back even the most ardent entrepreneur.

Sri Lanka was at the height of its 30-year civil war. Fashion in Sri Lanka was several years behind the rest of the world at the time. Those that were aware of brands and designs were scarce, and whatever was seen around Colombo was purchased from overseas. The designers that Ajai had banked on didn’t exist. Retailers weren’t ready or keen on showcasing Sri Lankan designs in their shops. And media exposure meant being featured on page 3 in the local newspaper. Disheartened but not discouraged, Ajai tried again. CFW 2005 (they skipped 2004 due to the Tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka’s coastal areas) saw similar designs, a few returnees and no recognition. So he decided to try again. No result. This went on for a few more years. “I didn’t have the strength to go back to my table after one fashion week to start again, because there was no result,” he says. But where most people would have given up or moved on to the next big thing, Ajai stuck by his vision. Looking back, he says it was probably his hunger that drove him during those “dark days”.

Although he opened up a whole new industry and opportunity in Sri Lanka, Ajai and CFW received no recognition. People were just not interested in Sri Lankan designs. “My aim was to make people wear Sri Lankan labels with pride,” he says. It was years before CFW saw any recognition in the local media, despite being backed by Yolande Aluwihare – perhaps Sri Lanka’s only noteworthy designer at the time.

Even when there were designers, they were inconsistent. In its initial years, CFW saw a 100% fallout of designers. They would do two collections and then disappear. The next year would feature brand new faces and a whole different concept. The designers who did stick around for a few more shows were complacent and merely tweaked their collections from the previous year, with little or no thought of incorporating the latest international trends. “They were aiming at the Sri Lankan market. I’m always thinking of the world.”

The battle to the top was far from over. Manufacturing world famous brands like Nike and Speedo meant that Sri Lanka’s fashion industry was overshadowed by the apparel sector. While apparel giants MAS and Brandix sourced material from overseas, the fashion industry saw a lack of specialized fabrics that designers could use for clothing. This meant Ajai now had to source material for the designers, in order to be featured in CFW and get recognized globally.

“God was good,” says Ajai. Thus far, CFW had seen gloomy skies, but CFW 2007 saw a ray of hope in Batik queen Darshi Keerthisena. “I always tell Darshi, thank God u came around!” In the same year, renowned models Jacqueline Fernandez and Adam Flamer-Caldera walked the catwalk. From then on, all eyes were on Ajai and CFW.

Anyone in their right frame of mind would probably not leave a stable job to dive into a completely new venture in a foreign land. Ajai is perhaps an exception to that rule.

Ajai first arrived in Sri Lanka as part of Grey Advertising. But advertising was never his passion. Setting his sights much higher, his interests were far more fashionable than brands and promotion. Sitting in the Echelon office, Ajai comments on an ornament that lies close by, saying that his mind constantly wanders to the fashion and colour in things that most people see as mundane. This is what led him to venture into fashion, a path he says he would have taken eventually, in Sri Lanka no less. “There was too much of it inside me. Now it got expressed.”

Today, CFW has two seasons – spring/summer and resort wear. Internationally, any fashion show has two main seasons – spring/summer and fall/winter. These seasons mark peak periods for designers who thrive on designing appropriate collections. In addition to these two collections, they also showcase four smaller collections during the course of the year. This is the format of a successful fashion industry. But following such a format proved difficult in Sri Lanka. For one, Sri Lanka enjoyed summer all year round, and lacked a fall/winter season. Ajai and crew were forced to get innovative and conceptualised a resort wear show, perfectly suited for coastal Sri Lanka. This led to Sri Lanka becoming the first fashion week to have resort wear. A year later, Miami and Paris followed suit.

Among the resort wear collections is Arugam-Bay, Ajai’s personal beachwear brand. With his eye on the international market, the brand was targeted at competing with the Billabong, Quiksilver and Havaianas of the world. The rationale is to go big or go home. His second brand, Conscience, is an eco-friendly venture. Fabric for this collection is sourced from an organic cotton farm in India and is woven using traditional methods.

Having made a name for itself as the voice of the fashion industry in Sri Lanka, CFW now acts as a platform for many home-grown designers. However, Ajai limits the number of collections featured at CFW. “This is one way I keep them on their toes.” CFW has also reached out to universities to weed out talented youngsters through CFW Day and Bright Sparks shows. And if there is an exceptionally talented designer who is struggling, the CFW Fund will sponsor their first collection. It is this dedication to uplift the next generation of designers that has brought to the limelight the likes of Kanchana Talpawila, Sonali Dharmawardena and Dimuthu Sahabandu. Dimuthu’s designs that were featured at the IPL fashion shows were even selected and worn by Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone.

The road Ajai started on was not an easy one. Today, by default, CFW has the mantle of being innovative and pushing the industry. Having fun and helping designers sustain their business also goes hand in hand. For Ajai, it’s about offering the whole package. CFW is not an entertainment event, there is a lot more that goes on behind the scenes. For Ajai and his crew, preparation for each CFW starts the moment the previous one ends. From rounding up designers, sourcing the necessary material, ensuring media exposure for their work and making sure that every detail is up to standard, it’s all about creating a nurturing and thriving fashion ecosystem in the country.

avsFor Ajai, if countries like India and Bangladesh can do it, so can we. It’s all about making our mark in the world. For this reason, he does not allow sarees at CFW. His reasoning is that an international audience would not relate to sarees, so it becomes irrelevant. However, if a Sri Lankan designer were to put out a cocktail dress in authentic batik, it would hit the nail on the head. CFW is also working with the Textile Development Board of Sri Lanka to create specialized fabrics. Adding Sri Lankan elements to fabrics that are already available would bring in a distinctive Sri Lankan flavour that would not be available elsewhere.

But merely showcasing designs will not help. Ajai is also keen on sustaining the designers that he brings in to CFW. “They need to sell their designs to make a living and to fund their next collection,” he explains. Taking on this challenge as well, CFW has now partnered with Trunk and Aashikii to showcase Sri Lankan designs at the stores. Marketing fashion designers is also a big deal today. High-profile PR firms work around the clock to help designers build their image among the fashion community and the general public. Sri Lanka is a step behind in this regard, but perhaps not for long. Ajai and crew have enlisted the help of a former editor in chief of Elle India to groom fashion journalists in Sri Lanka. 2015 is also earmarked for the visit of a PR firm from New York to work with Sri Lankan designers.

CFW’s audacious goal is to make a mark internationally by 2016. The first step to achieving this was binding ties with other international fashion shows. Given Sri Lanka’s standing in the world at the time, this was not an easy task. But, as Ajai found out, other fashion shows were also on the lookout to branch out of their own countries. Russia Fashion Week was the first country to sign a reciprocal agreement with CFW. This meant that Sri Lankan designers would be featured in Russia’s Fashion Week, while Russian designers would be showcased here. This encouraged local designers as it gave them the opportunity to showcase overseas. Following the success of this MOU, CFW went to sign agreements with Miami, Dubai, Malaysia and Pakistan. This international exposure led Ajai to be recognised by the Commonwealth Fashion Council, who invited him to be a founding member. “Accepting this opportunity gave me access to the 53 commonwealth countries,” Ajai exclaims, even fashion bigwigs like India, Australia, South Africa and Canada.

Despite all his hard work and dedication, Ajai is still facing adversity today. “I’ve noticed that pride comes quickly in Sri Lanka. You do three collections and you think you are Giorgio Armani. It took him 40 years to get to that level,” he exclaims. Ajai is keen on working through this. Hence, his latest idea, Project 7. “We picked 7 designers and worked intensely with them. We hook them up and looked at how they view the ideation process, collection planning, fabrics and colour – and basically brought out a point of view from them,” he explains. Having recently seen the final designs, he says he is now confident about the level of design to be showcased at CFW 2015.

For Ajai, it was a journey of faith. This faith has paid off as, today, Fashion TV has recognized CFW as one of the best in Asia.

Working hard from day one, Ajai says he didn’t even notice 12 years go by. CFW is today one of the only three fashion weeks in Asia that is over 10 years old. But through all the hardships, CFW celebrating its 12th anniversary this year is testament to the fact that Ajai did it!


No Comments

There are currently no comments on How I Did It – Ajai Vir Singh. Perhaps you would like to add one of your own?

Leave a Comment