Ruwanthi Gajadeera is an up and coming young fashion designer in Sri Lanka. She has been making waves in sustainable fashion, both in Sri Lanka and internationally too. She has even won accolades and awards for her environment-friendly fashion creations. In a recent interview with Prothom Alo' Sheikh Saifur Rahman, she talks about her career, sustainable fashion, her dreams and her plans for the day ahead.

So you are a landscape architect, or rather used to be. In Dhaka too, I have seen several architects who have turned to fashion designing or furniture designing or even jewellery designing. So what connection do you find between architecture and design?

I was an architecture student actually. I was in the first year and it was very hard. But I was doing very well, I was the first in my batch. It was going very well for me but after I did a few projects, I realised that this didn't really make me happy. I used to go to the library all the time because I love to read. Our university also had fashion studies, so there was a section with all the fashion magazines– Vogue, Elle and so on. One day I took up a magazine and read it. Then I started doing that every day and by the end of two weeks, I had read all the magazines in the fashion section and I wondered, why am I so interested in it?

There was a workshop at the Academy of Design (AOD) and decided to go for it. We had this styling workshop and I realised I am really good at it, at sketching. As an architect, your sketching is supposed to be good and I realised I can sketch as well. This made me happy. All of a sudden, I stopped studying architecture and I joined AOD and started studying fashion.

Sri Lanka's up and coming young fashion designer Ruwanthi Gajadeera

What was the reaction of your family?

I was in the state university with the reputation of being one of the best universities in Sri Lanka. It was free education. It was a shock for my father and his first reaction was, "NO. You have your whole life laid out for you. Why will you change it? Fashion isn't even a big thing." They asked if I was sure about it because no one in my family worked in fashion. But I said, "If I don’t do this, I will regret it in the future. If I am not going to do this, then I am not going to study at all!" I was being naughty!

Ruwanthi Gajadeera

You were quite adamant!

Yes, you could say that. My mum got on board with it first. She is my role model, a very brave woman. There is a huge impact that comes from your mother, because you look up to her. She said, "Okay, I support you. Let me talk to your father and see." And then my father said, "Okay, whatever makes you happy, I am going to support you." So they ended up financing me and I started AOD.

When did you decide that your fashion career will be sustainable fashion? Why did you choose this?

In my first year at we were given this jean project. I thought, why not think out of the box. Everyone was buying new fabric, cutting it and putting it into the bin. I thought, why not use this and incorporate different types of fabrics. I took these and asked them to donate their old jeans. Then I created these jeans and got really good feedback. I thought, I am really good at it, so why don’t I do something with patchwork? I researched more into sustainable fashion then and I realised that if I am going to be a fashion designer, I want to be a sustainable fashion designer. That’s how the seed got planted in my head.

That's great. I have seen the beautiful photographs you submitted for Redress.

Redress also had a really large impact on me. I was in my second year. One of my tutors from the UK introduced me to Redress. I attended a few of their webinars. I realised there are so many new avenues. It was about sustainable fashion. When I was in my first year, there was cotton fabric, off-white garments, very boring. Then I realised, once you learn what sustainability really is, the range you can design is endless. There are so many ways of being sustainable. It can be recycling, it could be outcycling, it could be coming up with a new innovative fabric which is sustainable, it could be efficiency, it could be anything.

I realised that I was limiting myself. Being sustainable really makes me more creative because I have already sourced my things and I am trying to create something with existing materials. It makes you think in many creative ways and in many cycles. It makes you more creative and also more eco-friendly. So you are ticking two boxes at once.

Ruwanthi's graduate collection

When you decided to become a sustainable fashion designer, what was the reaction from your colleagues, friends, classmates or even your teachers?

In my class, it was only me who came up with this. I was using old clothes and they would look at me and say, are you sure you want to do this? And I said, yes, I do. I am sure. It's a really big trend in all these western countries. Asian countries have this mindset, if it's been used before, you tend to think of it as this inferior thing, that poor people use it.

So that was their reaction -- I don't want to wear it because someone else wore it. That was the whole mindset. I really wanted to change this. My lecturers at AOD were really supportive. They said, yes, that's a good idea and it's going to come up in the future. And in the pandemic, if you look up about fashion, there won't be anything without the word 'sustainability'. The pandemic has really changed the way we look at things. We really need to utilise whatever resources we have around us. You can't just be waiting till your shipment arrives. You can't even go to a store.

Now that I have graduated, I realise first year students are all doing some sort of sustainable element. I have this Instagram account open to all new fashion students and anybody who is interested in sustainable fashion, message me and ask me, how do I do this? How do I make this sustainable?

I see a lot of change and a lot of enthusiasm towards sustainable fashion and I think I must have had some impact in the college. I even put a box up in front of the AOD for people to put garments there, whatever they throw out. They knew me as the girl who collects left over clothes, left over fabrics. In the middle of class they would come and give me bags of fabric scraps. I think that really started this revolution in the thinking pattern.

Do you think you are the first one who started the sustainable fashion movement in Sri Lanka?

No, there are many other designers, like Lonali. She is also an alumnus of AOD and a few other designers. But there are many who talk about it a lot, but fully dedicating oneself to sustainability as a student, I think I was the first to start it at college.

How would you describe the word 'fashion'? What is fashion to you?

Fashion to me is a form of art. For example, if you take a pair of trousers or a shirt, and give this to 10 different people, the way they would style it would be totally different. You put your essence into what you wear. So fashion is really a form of art for me. It is a way to express yourself, about what you want to be. And your choice of garments, whether it is sustainable, also defines who you are.

Ruwanthi 's creations on the catwalk

If you talk about fashion, there is creativity on one hand, and then there is mass production for the people. Which do you like, to create or transform your creativity into mass production? After all, that is necessary too.

To talk about reality, factories also create a lot of employment and the whole economy is around it. But for me, I want to be a designer as well as a person who looks into production, so I don't want to just get limited as a designer who sketches. Then I would just be stuck with my sketches. I want to be a practical designer who looks into production. With my sketches I would be looking at garments and trying to bring change in the production, so that in the long run, you can apply all those techniques to production for a much more sustainable outcome.

Ruwanthi Gajadeera

Do you design for women or are your designs unisex?

Most of it is unisex. I create these t-shirts and pants and most of my patterns come from menswear, and both the genders can wear it. I support fashion which is gender fluid because you shouldn't really restrict yourself. It just puts you into a frame, so I like to design very gender fluid garments. But I have dresses and coats I design for girls as well.

The human figure is quite different between and man and woman. Which one is easier for you to design?

I create a lot of oversize looks so that it can be worn by everybody. Size limitation is not there. I am trained to be a women's wear designer, but I am comfortable designing for both men and women.

Is it possible for a greater number of people, the larger community, to wear the garments which you design?

Right now I would say, the garments which I created for that particular collection has a lot of craftsmanship and a lot of details going on. So I definitely think that collection can't be replicated. The whole purpose of the collection was to be a very timeless, beautiful collection. But the garments in future I plan to come up with more geometrical cuts so that in the production process it will be easier to be applied in mass production. That is what I am working on.

Concept board for the Redress collection

Tell us something about the Redress competition.

The Redress competition is the largest sustainable fashion competition in the world. It really helps students and young designers to rethink about fashion in a more eco-friendly sustainable manner. Their main objective is to save the environment and come up with new solutions because the fashion industry is one of the largest environmental polluters in the world. What they are trying to do is educate the new generation because in another 20 to 30 years it will be us who will be designing. If you really start with students and at that level, in the longer run you can create this massive change. I also learnt a lot from the competition. Redress is doing a great service for sustainable fashion.

What was the inspiration for making the collection for Redress?

The inspiration was many things. The biggest inspiration was when I took this trip to Japan and visited the museum in Tokyo. That museum has this patchwork kimono. That kimono really caught my eye because it was passed down five generations. It was patched up and was one of the most sustainable garments. It really inspired me. It you create garments which are timeless, the sustainable aspect will be there. A lot of my energy and character will be in the garment and it will be passed down to the next generation. So producing a garment with high quality and longevity was one of my main objectives. Through this collection, I executed that. I used very strong threads and fabrics like denim because like pair of jeans, you can even pass it down to your children if it is made properly. So that was the whole idea, coming up with a garment that will be timeless.

The collection is called ‘kæli’. ‘Kæli’ means pieces put together. My graduate collection is also part of 'kæli'. That is like a more evolved version of Redress. Redress is my first collection. It is developed from the same concept which came from Japan. Since it is a lot of pieces put together, I thought of calling it ‘kæli’.

Ruthani with her models

So what is your next plan, what do you do next?

I will definitely look into new innovation textiles. There is already the handloom technique which I am interested in and I have used handmade textiles in my garments which I made myself. I am thinking of how to include this textile industry because this industry will die out in Sri Lanka in a few decades if we don’t do anything about it. It takes a lot of time and energy and financial capital, so people who look into it, drop it in the middle and go on to their own brands. So I really want to stick to the idea of doing this handloom and traditional crafts in an innovative way which I can optimize and change the fabrics so that I can use these on a commercialized scale.

Which textile or craft are you using? What traditional textile?

It is handloom, made manually. One such handloom is called ‘dumbara’. It is more than 600 or 700 years old. It has patterns of elephants, snakes, an idea of storytelling. Few of these designs have lost the way at present because that craftsmanship is passed down generation to generation. So a few of these techniques have been lost. I want to preserve this. I want to look into these sectors. Dumbara is fully handmade and made of cotton but there semi mechanized handloom too.

Handloom creations in Sri Lanka, are mostly limited to bed sheets and cushion covers, but I really want to change that mindset to creating fabric which is profitable and which you can use in everyday life, in pants, for example. There is a lot of potential for handloom in Sri Lanka and I really want to look into that.

Ruwanthi Gajadeera draped in a sari

Other than handloom, what other fabrics do you want to work with, put into your designs?

I would say denim. I have worked a lot with denim and my current collection is also with denim. There are so many varieties which are available now and they have come up with a lot of denim treatments which are sustainable. There are laser printing and laser bleaching methods. It saves a lot of water and energy because denim production is reputed to be one of the bad industries. So if you try to revolutionise an industry like that into industrial products and I would love to work with that.

In your designs, which comes first – inspiration, fabric, or design?

I would say the first thing would be the idea, that is the inspiration. Then I look at the fabrics and then I go into design. If I am to create a sustainable product, I need to know what my sources are and what I can get my hands on. If I have only a metre of one fabric and two metres of another fabric, I think of how to utilise what I have in a way which will not create any waste. I can keep some of the fabric for something else too so that I won’t lose any fabric in production. So one of the main steps would be sourcing, which comes up after the inspiration.

Which are the elements that inspire you, the catalysts to be inspired? Is it nature, or anything else?

I would say nature because everything is derived from nature. It is the source of everything. I get inspired a lot by nature. And also the Eastern culture, towards Japan and Sri Lanka, India. I get inspired from anything that is close to nature, a simple way of life.

Is designing an outfit like writing poetry?

I would say it is like painting something. It is like your own painting. You really think about it, you think about what you want to express and designing a garment would like creating a painting on my own canvas.

Do you think that you are using your canvas to make people aware, raise their awareness?

Yes, that is my way of communicating and giving out a message.

From now on, what message do you want to give people, in your country or outside your country?

As human beings, if we do not really turn back from our toxic ways of living, we are going to end up in a terrible place. We are already a little late, but even if we do it now, we can change. It is time to be sustainable and change your lifestyle and minimize using plastic. It is actually a way of life. Just because you buy something sustainable, but come home with a lot of packaging, use water bottles every day and throw them out, that doesn’t make you a sustainable person. It won’t do to just follow it as a trend. It does not man just buying things sustainable, it also means being sustainable. If you are an older person in the family, you must show the others how to protect the environment, not to litter, buy local, preserve nature, plant trees. If you give out the message, they will also think like that. It is very hard to change the world but as an individual, you can really start changing your lifestyle into being a sustainable person.

How many of your friends and colleagues think in the way you think? What is their notion right now?

They say, it is not possible. You can’t be sustainable all the time. They say, "Do you think people will want to buy your garments which have already been used by someone?" We need to get rid of that whole negativity and mindset. That should come from your own chain of thoughts. From the beginning of my journey I have been smiling and saying, somehow I will find a solution to this. I know it is not 100 per cent sustainable, but at least I am not just going out there and designing out of the blue, without thinking about the consequences.

If you are very cautious about what you are designing and if you can make the tiniest change, that can have a massive impact. I am not talking about gigantic changes, but every day if you take a small decision as a person, that is important. That is the message I give my friends and everyone. That idea will change the world some day. Even I don’t say I am a 100 per cent sustainable person. I have electronics too, but I am trying. That is my message to them. I have actually been able to convince people to give up their bad habits, take a fabric bag to the store, cut down personal use of polythene. It is possible if you try – that is my message.

Do you consider yourself a fashion activist?

I want to be. I am working with Sustainable Partners Inc. I have a summer fellowship with them. They talk about climate change and the impact, so on. Currently we are taking about space management. I am also doing my MSc in sustainable business management so I don’t think I will ever stop looking at ways to be sustainable – educating people around me to be sustainable. So yes, I want to be a sustainable fashion activist.

After your success at Redress, what was the reaction of your parents?

They were very happy. They are very, very supportive. My mum was encouraging me throughout. My father too. He is a very sustainable person. He plants a lot of trees. There are so many trees in the place I live. He upcycles things. He doesn’t buy a lot of clothes. I use to think he is very stingy when I was young, but now I realise he is very minimalistic and he tries to be the best example for us and it really works. That is the example of being the one to teach your kids to be the change. My father collects agricultural products in the area and sends these to Colombo. He grows medicinal plants and all that.

Don’t you think this is the time to show the West that we always sustainable in practice, South Asia and East Asia in particular?

One of the main topics is that we were always self-sufficient in the past. We tend to always eat local and even in fabrics. From thousands of years back, India, Sri Lanka all these countries had a way of creating their own fabric, making their own food. Today these European countries, like the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries have become pioneers of sustainability whereas we, the Asian countries, have become the culprits. Now is the time to turn back the wheel and go back to the basics. You can’t really go wrong. They eat from leaf plates now, but we use to eat from leaf plates from way back. We need to climb down from the tower and set out feet on the ground. The sub-continental people had a rich history of producing from scratch, they were very creative and strong.

Outside of sustainability, we can talk about a few different things. Who is your favourite fashion designer in the world or in Sri Lanka?

In the world, I have a few. All my designs’ structural inspiration comes from Japanese designers like Issey Miake, Yogi Yamamoto and such because they have more organic silhouettes. I love the kimono. It is such a sustainable garment.

Why do you like the kimono so much? Do you find any similarities with the saris in Sri Lanka?

Yes, definitely. The sari is one of the most sustainable garment. It uses the whole fabric. Kimono utilizes the whole fabric. So in Eastern countries we have always been practicing sustainability from the very beginning. I feel like I can really relate to it and that’s why I like it.

In Sri Lanka I have two favourites. One is Lonali. She is a sustainable designer. Then there is the shop called Amma which is ‘mother’. They use natural dyes in their production.

In the West, there is Stella McCartney because she revolutionised the catwalk by really speaking up against animal cruelty and for sustainability and her products are cruelty free and from sustainable sources. She started that revolution on the catwalk, in high fashion.

Do you have any idea about the fashion map in Bangladesh?

I know that there are a lot of factories in Bangladesh producing garments for the western countries. And there is the Rana Plaza incident. That really shocked me. That sadness and blood is hidden by the lights in the fancy stores in the West.

It is good that people are questioning about where the garments are made, what is the source, and people are really concerned.

Ruwanthi Gajadeera is a fan of designer Stella McCartney

Are you with the Fashion Revolution?

I want to be part of them. Right now I am not part of it but Lonali is. It is not very massive here, but I hope it will be in the future.

Apart from our fashion industry, do you have any idea about our designers who are working here in Bangladesh?

No, I am not very familiar with the Bangladesh fashion scene.

When I contacted you for an interview, what was your reaction?

I was very surprised and also very happy. I felt good.

Now what are you planning?

There is lot to be done in sustainable fashion and I will keep on walking towards becoming a better designer.

What lessons have you learnt during this coronavirus pandemic?

I created all my garments while the pandemic was going on. It made me really think about what to use because in production, if you don’t buy things from out, you can really get stuck because you are not self-sufficient and you don’t have much production in the country. So that was very alarming to me and that is one of the reasons why I wanted to go more into creating textiles here because if it suddenly stops, it will create a big issue of not being self-sufficient.

I learnt to be very grateful for what I have, not take things for granted. We are under third lockdown and there are travel restrictions. So it really made me appreciate what I have. When designing, I take that into consideration – to save and preserve resources.

Thank you so much for the interview

Thank you too