The launch of a local brand of clothing is not much to talk about particularly when there are many other brands in the market. However the launch of MAS Holdings brand- amantÚ-, a range of intimate wear or lingerie, last week in Colombo is a time to reflect on the progress of the garment industry [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: From tailor-shop to own brands

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The launch of a local brand of clothing is not much to talk about particularly when there are many other brands in the market. However the launch of MAS Holdings brand- amantÚ-, a range of intimate wear or lingerie, last week in Colombo is a time to reflect on the progress of the garment industry over the years. amante’ was first launched in India and just now in Sri Lanka.

Some years ago when large manufacturers were asked as to when Sri Lanka will migrate to becoming makers of its own brand of clothes from being a mere tailoring shop, producers were not too confident in making their own label. “How can we (Sri Lankans) break into an international market that has top brands like Nike, Next or Marks & Spencer and compete with such brands? That’s a tall order,” said one big manufacturer. That negative approach and lack of confidence is rapidly changing and at least three companies – MAS, Timex & Ferguson Group and Hameedia – have gone into international markets across the world with their own brands.

The transformation is interesting when tracing the progress of the garment industry from the 1960s where Hentley Garments was the first local company to export its locally-famous shirts shirts to Russia, US, UK, Canada, Hungary and Sweden. This was also the time of scores of handloom centres emerging in villages and cities making the fabric for local manufacturers, a major source of employment for young people. There were others like Bernard Boteju, Velona, Bentley Industries, Lanka Weaving Mills, Ceylon Dia Shirt Company, Candy Garments, Seylon Knit-Wear Industries, Noortex Garments, Maxims, and DM industries producing clothes for export and also selling in the local market. The families of the Amaleans and Omars’, now running the biggest garment factory chains in Sri Lanka – MAS Holdings and Brandix -, were also in the textile business and operating shops in Pettah, then the grand old business district for textiles and sarees. All that changed in the early 1980s with the regime of textile quotas by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and Sri Lanka joined a host of countries that became tailor shops for big global brands. As time progressed and manufacturers (stitching other brands) expanded with improved technology, the development advanced to upscale production levels. The end of textile quotas in January 2005 may have led to many small factories closing down and these units being acquired by the bigger factory chains.

However it also helped these larger producers to move upmarket and not depend on quota-restricted orders. It also led to a different dimension in the development of the garment industry and soon the world was talking about Sri Lanka being a producer of the best quality garments for any international brand. The country also won plaudits as a high quality lingerie manufacturer. With that too, came – and finally – the decision to create Sri Lanka’s own international brands. The end to WTO-specified garment quotas in 2005 didn’t mean the end of the road to the industry; it rather transformed the big manufacturers from stitching mass-market clothes to upmarket, pricey garments. Sri Lanka failed to win a second round of GSP + concessions from Europe but the garment sector also survived this uneasy development though some industrialists are concerned that a drop in exports to Europe implies that the loss of this key concession is kicking in, only now. Local factories have produced clothes for brand names like Marks & Spencer, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Abercrombie and Fitch, Ralph Lauren, Speedo, Nike, Victoria’s Secret, YKK, Triumph, Kellwood and many more over the years proving Sri Lanka’s sewing, management and human resource skills are among the best in the world. The local fashion scene is buzzing with new labels from big manufacturers and small ones. There is also the niche labels produced for a smaller, more affluent clientele – all of which bodes well in the development of the garment industry.

The emergence of Sri Lankan labels in the international market competing with the likes of Nike, Adidas or Marks & Spencer is a very progressive development in the industry and takes Sri Lanka to a much higher level. While ethical production is the order of the day, and demanded for, by the big labels, the struggle between management and workers through unions, for what is called a ‘living wage’, continues unabated. Wages is a sore point in any sector and eventually worker representatives and management need to strike a balance between a decent wage and decent profits. No producer can survive on very marginal profits with costs rising all the time; on the other hand, workers also need a wage that is consistent with the demands of daily life. Managing these needs is the order of the day and both sides eventually have to compromise rather than confront. With Sri Lanka’s ‘tailor-shops’ emerging as producers of their very own labels in a highly competitive international marketplace, one hopes this positive development will pave the way for a smoother relationship between workers and owners. Workers should also share in the success of Sri Lanka’s own international labels.




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