The idea of being environmentally friendly and sustainable when it comes to fashion and clothing is quite a new thought process for us here in Sri Lanka. What is great however, is that there are many initiatives being launched to address this problem and The Saree Library is a perfect example.
The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke with Afrah Saldin, the owner of this venture, to learn more about it and how it all came to being.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I studied interior design and that’s my passion. I worked at Surath Wickramasinghe Associates (SWA), which is an architectural practice, for almost six years before I decided to start my own venture. I now run an interior design consultancy called ASID, which I started a few months ago. I am also the Director at Saladin International Enterprises (Pvt.) Ltd., a metals business established by my father. So you could say, business was bound to become a part of who I am at some point.
With a background in interior design, what made you decide to start The Saree Library?
Although one may not directly see a connection between interior design and The Saree Library, to me, the link between the two is creativity and business. Prior to The Saree Library, I also co-owned a business called Stickfigure Peace, that specialised in custom-made flower crowns. Trends come and go, and unfortunately that business could not stand the test of time. Ever since the business venture ended, I knew I wanted to move on to a new chapter.
Being a designer also led me to design The Saree Library home studio in an affordable and simple way. I always wanted to colour my life and never wanted to be a one-trick pony, which is perhaps why you can find me meddling in a lot of things! Through The Saree Library, I find that I am still able to be creative even when helping customers style their sarees, and that’s something that I truly enjoy.
Share with us your story of how The Saree Library was formed.
The idea came about while being attached to an office for almost five years. When you work at an office, you’re invited to several colleagues’ weddings attended by the same group of people. Being the typical girl that I was, and I’m sure many other women would share the same plight, I would often avoid wearing the same saree more than once to weddings attended by the same crowd of people. Five years and a string of weddings later, I had collected over 20 new sarees of my own.
But, as you grow older, your priorities shift and you end up wanting to save more and spend much less. That was when I began to entertain the idea of borrowing sarees from friends, but that too left me feeling uncomfortable. Borrowing clothes was a habit to be shared with really close friends or family. I couldn’t ask just anyone at work if I could borrow a saree because after all, some sarees don’t come cheap, and it would have been unfair of me to ask to use it for free.
That’s when the idea popped into my head; I used the 23 sarees that I already owned to open The Saree Library page on Instagram in July 2019. It was a unique way for me to help other girls like myself gain access to more sarees without having to break the bank on new ones.
While there were many rental outlets for bridal wear, there was no market for occasion-wear sarees in Sri Lanka, and this is why the concept excited me at first. Word of mouth did the rest, and we are immensely grateful to our 3,500 or so strong collective following garnered on our social media platforms.
How does the process work?
The customer would usually send us a message on either Instagram or Facebook, or call us. Once the saree’s availability is confirmed for the date required, we send them an online order sheet to be filled out with their particulars. We then send them an e-invoice for payment (which includes a 30% refundable deposit) as well as a saree rentals policy which needs to be signed by them to safeguard the sarees during the rental period.
This again is done via an online service provider for digital signatures, avoiding the need for paper waste. Once we receive the payment, we release the saree for cleaning to Jet Wash, our laundry service providers, who have strictly ensured us that the sarees are cleaned as per the safety guidelines.
Our courier service, Prompt Xpress, handles the deliveries to and from the customer and also adheres to the current safety standards. Once the saree is returned to us, we ensure it is in good shape and send it back once more for cleaning. We then refund the deposit back to the customer.
There is a stigma around borrowing clothes and wearing second-hand clothes in Sri Lanka. What are your thoughts about that and how have you managed to overcome this challenge?
I think the main reason for that is that we have an extremely superstitious culture. We sometimes associate tangible things to one’s fortune or misfortune. Say a bridal saree is worn by a woman who is married no more; there would be some hesitation to rent that same saree for one’s own wedding.
Oftentimes, these are sentiments shared by the older generation which then get passed on to the younger generations. I don’t agree with this kind of mindset. I think sharing clothes responsibly brings women together in many ways; it empowers and forms a strong bond of sisterhood, strength, and confidence no matter what the circumstances may be. Sarees especially, have no size or shape and it’s a one-size-fits-all kind of garment, which to me is really the beauty of it.
Society also uses clothing to represent class and status. Therefore, wearing second-hand or borrowed clothing would often give the impression that you don’t have the means to buy them new. Again, this sort of mentality really needs to change. Borrowing or buying second-hand are concepts that are now becoming more relevant given the current environmental context. More and more people don’t want to waste money anymore or consume unnecessarily as they did before. I find that more young people are supportive of these new concepts much more, but I am also starting to see many older generations embrace such concepts and I couldn’t be happier.
I believe that The Saree Library has in fact made renting fashionable, and from what I’ve seen with our customers, they are proud and not ashamed to say that they support a conscious local renting business like ours.
How do you think The Saree Library contributes to sustainable fashion?
Being sustainable can mean many things; one is being able to truly utilise what you already have and get the most out of it before going into a state of disrepair. We truly live by this sentiment at The Saree Library. We currently have over a 100 pre-loved sarees in our library, most of which are owned by women who have temporarily donated them through what we call the “Suppliership Initiative”. This allows them to rent and earn profits on their own sarees that have gone into a state of neglect. These are sarees that would otherwise sit in closets for years on end after merely one or two wears, and then end up nowhere with really not much benefit or much use made out of it.
If your sarees are rented through the platform, we share 50% of the profits with you. In many ways, we encourage this idea of circulating clothing responsibly for as long as we can share them among multiple users, which increases the useful life of a saree, thereby making the entire process sustainable.
If a saree gets damaged to a point it cannot be used, it is donated to the Sari Connection – an organisation that uses old sarees to produce new merchandise, thereby once more prolonging the normal shelf life of a saree.
How has your business been affected by Covid-19? And what are some of the steps you have taken on the road back to normalcy?
With the outbreak of Covid-19, we put all our orders on hold given the unique nature of our business. We are in the process of fine-tuning the details to meet better safety requirements for our customers, service providers, as well as ourselves, and are currently working on a set of guidelines that our customers would be required to follow during the rental period.
Prior to Covid-19, we used boxes to store and deliver our sarees. However, given the current situation, we are currently working on a reusable bag which can be cleaned before and after every order. The nature of the business might also have scared off potential customers, but we assure them that the sarees, once received, would be impeccably clean and ready to wear. I encourage potential customers to support us, and opt to rent out sarees through The Saree Library for a fraction of their original purchase prices.