Making a business of a passion for fashion

Colombo Fashion Week is an occasion for the capital’s beautiful people – as well as the rest of us – to get glammed up to watch skinny women strut about in pretty clothing. But how does fashion work as a business in Sri Lanka?

By Echelon.

Published on May 07, 2013 with No Comments


There are the people who, while watching a fashion show, remark on the freshness of the approach of the designer, the cohesiveness of the collection, and the wearability of a piece. They’ll look at whether the fabric is cut to a woman’s body, at the hang and weight of the fabric, and reflect on the difficulty of the pattern. And finally, they’ll consid

(a) Why aren’t the models smiling? Do they need a cookie? and
(b) (upon the presentation of a particularly extravagant, unwieldy and reach-for-the-moon piece featuring models wearing, say, pink stockings over their faces and footwear made of bacon): Who would ever wear that – really?

Those who focus on these sorts of questions may also be more inclined to wonder whether a small, not-rich country like Sri Lanka can support a fashion design industry. To that query, at least, the fact of Colombo Fashion Week – which saw its tenth anniversary show in early April – is in itself an answer.
(If you’re wondering about (a) and (b) as well, read on.)

The Economics of CFW
Until recently, Colombo Fashion Week (CFW) was, according to its founder and driving force Ajai Vir Singh, a not-for-profit effort. Not long ago it became a bit more formal, but, Ajai says, “remains a developmental project” – which is paying more attention to sustaining itself and becoming a bit more formal in its structure and objectives. “The whole focus now is that everything that we earn should be more efficiently and effectively plowed back into the business throughout the year. Before, we moved from project to project. This shift will help us in developing projects throughout the year.”
CFW makes a living for itself in a few ways. Sponsors are a major source of revenue: It’s not for nothing that the words “Colombo Fashion Week” are inevitably and invariably preceded by the high-priced letters “HSBC ”, the global bank that is the title sponsor of the event. Other sponsors present collections at the show, or have flashy stands outside the ballroom. Ajai, who was in advertising before he leapt into the world of fashion, describes CFW as a “marketing solution” for sponsors. It’s also one of the relatively few targeted ways to reach the wealthier segments of Colombo society.

CFW also makes money when participating designers make a sale to buyers who they meet through CFW. The take, of around 10% of the sale, is quite reasonable: Many of the designers who show at CFW have little access to buyers, who generally are representatives of regional or international retailers. “Without Colombo Fashion Week, I would have access to far fewer buyers,” says one designer. “CFW connects us to a larger market, and streamlines the whole process.”
Beyond the transaction angle, CFW’s other services – at least for designers still finding their footing – are invaluable. CFW connects buyers to designers, helps designers move their product up towards international standards, works with designers to upgrade their marketing and presentation, trains designers on how to appeal to the retail market, and generally gives designers the tools for getting on the radar of buyers – which is the holy grail of fashion designers. In many other cities, fashion weeks are run by event companies that have no interest in fashion per se – and these other types of services provided by CFW are available only through high-priced middlemen and agents.

The process seems to work. Designer Sonali Dharmawardana, who specializes in batik, was sufficiently well-established a few years ago to have shown her work in France, the United Kingdom and Malaysia and elsewhere. But she hadn’t gotten much of a toehold in Sri Lanka. Then Ajai called her, and suggested she make her case to CFW. “They gave me constructive criticism, and gave me pointers about how to present myself and tell my story,” she says. The most recent show was the third time that she’s shown at CFW.

Finally, the financial viability, and sustainability, of CFW is abetted by the fact that much of the manpower that makes it happen is free. Barbra Young, an Australian expatriate who is the retail/designer liaison for CFW, explains: “All the people you see running around at Colombo Fashion Week do it because they want to. I believe in what I’m doing, and I believe in these designers.” She has a long background in fashion, but works for free for CFW.


Glitz vs Do-Good
When the question of money comes up, Ajai is a touch uncomfortable. It doesn’t seem like he’s in it for the money, and confesses that he’s “terrible” at business. Even though he’s the kingpin of a fashion week and has a handful of successful fashion brands himself – one of which, Arugam Bay, showed at CFW – he downplays the glitz of it all, too. He manages to make CFW sound more a vehicle of philanthropy, rather than a way to sell clothing. “There’s the glamour and the nice-looking models and the red carpet… but there’s also the development side of fashion, where… it could create livelihoods, and it could help give some form of identity to a lot of youngsters to help them develop professionally,” he says.
Along those lines, the theme of this year’s CFW was youth. “There’s enough glamour. We’d rather go for a more meaningful milestone,” he says. The youth focus was “so that the next generation of designers will come out to carry the mantle.”

How Designers Get By
If glamour paid, those young designers could aspire to be rich. Since all the glamour in the world plus three hundred rupees will get you a cup of coffee at Coffee Bean, though, they can at least take solace in doing something cool for a living: For some people, being paid to design clothing is like getting paid to eat as much ice cream as you like without needing to think about calories, ever.
Glamour aside, there’s still the question of putting rice and curry on the table. To do that, designers in Sri Lanka – even those with a talent to spare – face a number of challenges.
For starters, the fabric that local designers use is imported. Buying retail locally means that designers don’t get the volume discounts available to bigger buyers who are able to go directly to the source in, say, China.
Sri Lanka produces fabric, but only on a relatively small scale. The key market for Sri Lanka’s four main fabric manufacturers is domestic garment manufacturers who face quick turnaround times, and can’t wait for fabric arriving from the slow boat from China to complete an order. So domestic fabric – even if it were the type of fabric suitable for high-end fashion – wouldn’t be price competitive with imports.
Labour is the other major expense for designers. Garment industry workers in Sri Lanka on average earn around $110-150, depending on level of expertise and the region of the country. (That’s twice what an equivalent worker earns in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and more than twice what a garment industry labourer in Yangon, Myanmar makes.) As the industry has consolidated and become more efficient, garment sector employment in Sri Lanka has fallen by more than half in 2006, to about 270,000 people in 2012, or 3.6% of total employment.
(Other costs of doing business in Sri Lanka are substantially higher than elsewhere. For example, water prices in Colombo are five times those in Dhaka and more than twice those in Danang (Vietnam). Electricity costs more than twice that in Beijing, Jakarta (Indonesia), and Hanoi (Vietnam) and three times that in Dhaka.)
In theory, the large pool of workers who used to be in the garment industry should allow for a large pool of qualified seamstresses to work in the small-scale operations of Sri Lanka’s low-volume fashion designers. In practice, though, the pool of potential employees with the required eye for detail and care for the final product who are qualified to produce the type of clothing shown at CFW is extremely small. Those who make the cut can easily earn three times the income of their garment industry counterparts. Scaling up volumes – say, to meet a big order – can be a real challenge for local fashion designers, given the dearth of qualified seamstresses.

Since many of Sri Lanka’s designers are still in the process of making a name for themselves, they sell their wares at a relatively low margin to entice buyers, Barbra says. Putting a finger on what’s left over for the designer is difficult to quantify, given the vast range of fabrics and different processes employed by fashion designers. But it’s clearly not much.

The Next Step
Even once they’ve tackled these challenges, there’s the not-insignificant question of a market. CFW is a connection to global buyers that would be difficult for individual designers, particularly those just getting started, to tap. And that’s partly why buyers are interested: They go to CFW because “it’s a fresh point of view,” says Barbra. “Designers here aren’t spoiled by other influences.”
Ajai points to the domestic retail market as the next horizon for Sri Lankan designers. Just a handful of shops sell clothing made by local designers. “If the stores in Colombo that sell surplus garment industry production would allocate just a quarter of their space to local designers, the market would open up,” he says. “The infrastructure is there. We just need to get local designers into those stores.”
With more outlets for sale domestically, and increased local demand, Sri Lankan fashion designers might be pushed to stretch themselves a bit, Barbra says. “Now some of them do only a resort and spring/summer collection, and are comfortable selling from that all year. We’d like them to do four or five collections a year.”

The AnswersAjai_quote
Why don’t models smile? They’d look more pretty, yes. But by smiling they’d also draw attention to themselves, and away from what they’re wearing, one designer suggests. “The smile might not be what the design is saying,” she says. “The personality or beauty of the model shouldn’t overpower the design itself… people watching the show might forget what the beautiful girl was wearing.” In some ways it’s like a wedding: The bridesmaid shouldn’t outshine the bride. What about the boa-constrictor American Indian headdress kind of outfits that walk down the catwalk that no sane person would ever wear? A semi-facetious thought from another designer: “One word: Japan. Have you ever seen what people wear in Tokyo?”

And there’s a more technical explanation, too. Many designers put one collection on stage that may be fanciful and (frankly) ridiculous, and maybe even intended to astound with its eccentricity. But then they’ll have another collection back stage, similar in style but toned down, that they show to buyers to sell. After all, fashion design is, in the end, a business.


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