Sri Lanka and fashion have a deep relationship, and in recent years, our fashion industry, from the big apparel manufacturers to small independent labels are all paying more and more attention to fashion that has purpose, and fashion that does not harm the planet.
The fashion industry is widely believed to be the second most polluting industry in the world. According to United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) figures in 2019, some 93 billion cubic metres of water – enough to meet the needs of five million people – is used by the fashion industry annually, and around half a million tonnes of microfibre, which is the equivalent of three million barrels of oil, is now being dumped into the ocean every year. As for carbon emissions, the industry is responsible for more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
One of the main reasons why fashion is such a resource (and waste) intensive industry is because of one its most dominant business models – “fast fashion” where the mass consumer is offered constantly changing collections at low prices and encouraged to frequently buy and discard clothes to keep up with the latest trends in the fashion world. Fast fashion is a relatively recent phenomenon, and many experts believe the trend is responsible for a plethora of negative social, economic, and environmental impacts and, with global clothing production doubling between 2000 and 2014, it is crucially important to ensure that clothes are produced as ethically and sustainably as possible.
One Sri Lankan designer brand that has actively moved away from the model of fast fashion in a bid to drive less wasteful fashion is the brand Anuk, founded by its Creative Director Samadhi Weerasinghe. Anuk is a contemporary, ready-to-wear brand that uses the finest fabrics to create simple, timeless pieces that push beyond the traditional fashion seasons, to create pieces that can become the cornerstone of any discerning woman’s wardrobe for years.
Recently, Anuk was one of the brands to be part of the Lankan Angel Network’s I Am Her: Her Brand programme with Women In Need (WIN) as the Impact Partner – a programme that looks to empower women through entrepreneurship and looked to women entrepreneurs and leaders to tell the stories of their brands.
Brunch sat down with Samadhi for a chat on how Anuk came to be, and how she, as Anuk’s Creative Director, drives the brand to move away from fast fashion and build a more sustainable fashion environment.
The Anuk origin story
Samadhi, who has an economics background and works in the apparel industry, began Anuk about five years ago, to address what she saw as a gap in the market. “When I came back from university, I felt that there was a gap in the market for the kind of clothing that Anuk would go on to produce, and that was sort of what started it all,” Samadhi explained, adding: “I don’t have a formal background in design but I was always interested. I didn’t know where to start, so I taught myself as I went along.”
The gap that Samadhi saw in Sri Lankan fashion at that time (this was 2015) was for clothes that were a mix of formal and casual. Versatile clothes that could be worn anywhere and switch daywear to nightwear with ease. “At the time, things were starting up everywhere, there were more resorts and cafés opening, and outings taking place,” Samadhi shared, noting: “It was the height of post-war development and there were a lot of tourists coming in who didn’t have a place to purchase clothes. There weren’t as many brands then as there are now, and the market was a lot more linen and cotton-based. There weren’t a lot of brands selling silk or formal versatile pieces that could be worn to work and then can go on to be worn for drinks after work or a cocktail. There were only the very formal brands who customise formal wear, but no ready-to-wear off the shelf brand.”
After a lot of research, Samadhi knew what market she was trying to capture, and Anuk was born, and after its first collection, she realised that she was looking to create classic quality pieces that could be worn comfortably for five to 10 years as opposed to clothes that were meant to be replaced after a few months. This was what led to her deciding to make Anuk a seasonless clothing brand.
This move was emphasised by the aftermath of Anuk’s first collection when Samadhi saw just how much waste fashion produced, and her knowledge that there was a better way. “I started to change the way certain pieces were made so that there was less waste produced and the garments got more wear out of them. It was a process of trial and error.”
Being seasonless in the Sri Lankan context
Sri Lanka, being the many-splendoured land it is, is known for being (largely) sunny all year round, which means the traditional fashion seasons of spring/summer and fall/winter don’t really have any impact on Sri Lankan fashion. In this context, how does a brand like Anuk stay seasonless?
Again, this was through trial and error, and eventually, Samadhi found her alternative fashion calendar, releasing two collections a year, one in April ahead of Avurudu, and one in December for the festive season. “I don’t necessarily change fabrics the way global brands do for spring and fall, but focus more on the mood for that season.”
Explaining further, Samadhi explained that her newest collection, which launches tomorrow (27) at the retail store PR, is a bit more flamboyant than Anuk’s other collections, taking a cue from the local (and global) mood brought on by Covid-19. “Right now, or rather, when I was designing this collection, things were looking good on the Covid-19 side of things,” Samadhi said, adding: “And I felt that with this new collection, everyone needed a bit of drama, because they’ve been cooped up for the past two years, but now borders are reopening and people are reuniting with their loved ones. So, this collection tries to be more flamboyant in a way, but can still be worn anywhere. It’s the little things that inspire you, and I felt people would want a little bit of spark after being cooped up at home.”
On staying seasonless from a broader macro-perspective, Samadhi shared the view that all designers and brands in Sri Lanka are very inspired and influenced by what is going on creatively in the wider world, especially in the Western world, which is part of what contributes to fast fashion locally, catering tot these global trends in order to keep customers interested. She shared that when it comes to Anuk and trying to keep the brand seasonless, she strives to see what her best-sellers are, what her consumers are asking for, and balancing these two to create pieces that appeal to her customers while also keeping them coming back. “I think it comes down to a mix of inspiration and customer demand.”
Fast fashion and Sri Lanka
As a country, Sri Lanka is known for being fairly responsible. We’re not prone to wasting, and even with our clothes, we tend to wear them till we can wear them no more or give our old clothes to someone else when we buy new ones. So how does Sri Lanka fare when it comes to fast fashion?
Samadhi explained, that yes, while we as Sri Lankans were generally more responsible and would re-wear our clothes and be more careful, the impact of global fashion and fashion trends on the Sri Lankan consumer cannot be underestimated, and over the last five to 10 years, fast fashion has indeed become a problem in the Sri Lankan context. This is partly because, globally, prices of clothing have dropped over the last few years, making keeping up with fashion much more affordable, and therefore encouraging more and more buying, and by extension, more and more discarding. The introduction of environmentally harmful fabrics like polyester and their affordability also adds to this.
Another key factor that promotes fast fashion, and thereby affects the Sri Lankan consumer, is social media, with Samadhi saying that it is very easy for Sri Lankan consumers of all market levels to be influenced by fast fashion when they look at the global fashion landscape on social media.
“It comes down to the fact that we’re influenced by global brands,” Samadhi said, sharing her thoughts on this trend. “Of course, we’re being influenced a little later than the rest of the globe, and actually, if you look at countries like the UK and the US, we’re far more responsible country because we’re an island country, and we understand that our resources are limited, and lots of businesses are being more responsible and sustainable, but with social media and things like that we tend to follow the global example.”
The key to overcoming this is education and awareness, with Samadhi explaining that we need to educate ourselves about the impact our choices have on the environment and the people around us and making active purchasing choices to stay responsible.
Vision for 2022
Sharing her hopes for 2022, Samadhi said that prior to the pandemic, she’d been looking at taking Anuk to international retail at small boutiques abroad, but the pandemic brought such plans to a halt, and so, she’s looking forward to exploring taking the brand global again. She also expressed her hope that Sri Lankan designers would give more thought to responsibility in the new year. “I hope there are more designers who will understand and bring awareness to what we can do as a country and as a nation,” Samadhi said, adding: “We’re a very talented country, our quality and our workmanship is very good. It’s just a matter of working on that and coming up with more original ideas.”