Building a brand from the ground up is never an easy task. Even more so if your brand is in a field that people don’t fully understand. Sustainable fashion and circularity are now key words in fashion, but eight years ago, this was most definitely not the case. It was amidst this landscape in 2012 that the owner of House of Lonali Lonali Rodrigo launched Lonali, Sri Lanka’s first upcycled fashion brand.
Rodrigo was recently recognised as the Upcoming Woman Entrepreneur 2020 at Women in Management’s “Top50” Professional and Career Women Awards held last week, in recognition for her work as an entrepreneur driving sustainable living.
In the eight years since its formation, Lonali has progressed to become Sri Lanka’s pioneering sustainable lifestyle brand. Working with apparel industry waste, Lonali works with factory offcuts and excess fabric, reworking these pieces of waste to create a range of fashion and lifestyle accessories.
Tell us the House of Lonali story and how you got interested in sustainable fashion.
My interest in sustainable fashion stems mainly from the passion I have towards the environment. Even as a child, I was always someone who cared very deeply about people and animals. When I became a designer, I was always thinking about how I could contribute to the environment.
At the time, climate change was absolutely not a buzzword, but I was still very mindful about how I could contribute to a better world. Being in a country like Sri Lanka, which is such a powerful apparel manufacturing hub, I saw a lot of waste being generated, and I also saw a huge gap in terms of what was being done with this waste, and I began thinking about converting waste into something sustainable using design.
I started House of Lonali as a business and social enterprise because I saw this waste from the apparel industry and saw a lot of value in it, as well as the skills we have in Sri Lanka. I put design thinking in place to upcycle this waste and make beautiful products.
House of Lonali started eight years ago with fashion and womenswear, and we have now become a lifestyle brand which has womenswear, menswear, kidswear, accessories, stationery, and even interiors as well.
You were recently named Upcoming Woman Entrepreneur at Women in Management’s “Top50” Professional and Career Women Awards. What was that like?
It was amazing being recognised for the work I do and for the brand I’ve spent so many years building. This kind of extra recognition not only gives me fuel to carry on, but also builds awareness of the vision of House of Lonali and the world we’re trying to build.
What’s next for House of Lonali?
At House of Lonali, we have an offering for everyone. Not just fashion, but a whole range of products to make your lifestyle more sustainable. House of Lonali also works with corporates, consulting them on ways to upcycle their waste and do their bit to protect the environment.
We want to work with more corporations on upcycling and sustainability and create amazing products for them as well. We’re also focusing more on working circularity into House of Lonali as one of our core values and help our customers become even more conscious, responsible, and empower them to make a stronger impact.
What would you say your biggest challenges were as a young entrepreneur?
I started House of Lonali at the age of 25, basing the brand Lonali on what was an entirely new concept at the time – sustainability and upcycling. The biggest challenge over the last eight years was changing people’s mindsets and making them understand why it was important to make a change and be conscious and responsible. While building this movement of change has been very challenging, over the last two years, the response has been very positive. People are starting to understand how their purchases and consumption really impact the environment and the people around them.
As an entrepreneur, managing the financial, marketing, and production sides on your own is always a challenge, and it was something I had to figure out every year. Every year has brought with it something new with its own challenges. Entrepreneurship is a journey where you kind of figure things out as you go and keep moving forward.
What’s the most rewarding part of being an entrepreneur for you?
As a designer, I am always very happy when I see a client wearing one of my dresses. seeing a client wearing my dress as a designer. But another thing that is really rewarding is not just seeing the product, but also being able to connect the maker of that product with the wearer. I often show pictures of clients wearing Lonali to the maker, the people who stitched the clothes, worked on the prints, and so on.
When the makers see the products they’ve worked on being worn by clients, it puts a huge smile on their faces, which is something I find very satisfying – that journey of sharing stories through products.
Collaboration is a big part of House of Lonali’s DNA. Why do you feel it is important for businesses to collaborate?
I’ve always believed in collaboration over competition, and this is something I have incorporated into my practice with House of Lonali. I’ve worked closely with many amazing people, and through collaboration, we’ve been able to learn from each other as well as solve problems.
As a small brand in the apparel sector, I’ve collaborated with apparel giants on repurposing their waste, the education sector on building awareness on sustainable fashion, and also with my colleague brands who work towards sustainable lifestyles. I’ve never thought of these brands as my competitors.
I’ve also worked with a lot of corporations sharings skills and expertise. A company might be very successful in its own area, but when we collaborate, we bring in sustainability, design, and what we’ve learned, to build huge impact and drive sustainability in Sri Lanka.
What message would you give other young entrepreneurs trying to effect change?
Firstly, I would think it’s important to consider carefully if you’re actually an entrepreneur. Being an entrepreneur is not for everyone. It’s a lot of hard work. You don’t necessarily need to be born an entrepreneur to become one – it’s a skill you can build – but you have to decide if you are that type, and if it’s for you.
Then, if you have a great idea and want to innovate, you need to make sure it’s something new. Innovating is very important. One you’ve got your idea, you need to validate it. If your product already exists in the market why do people need your product? Ask that question and validate your idea. Make sure it solves a problem or helps society or the environment or has some other value and is appropriate for the current time.
To be an entrepreneur, you need a lot of focus, drive and belief. You need to believe in yourself and make other people believe in you and your vision as well.