The owner of one of the leading lifestyle stores in Colombo, Shanth Fernando hits out at ‘copycats’
Paradise Robbed
By Feizal Samath
His desk is cluttered with papers and books but a dainty coaster tucked in a corner makes the difference. "I prefer clutter. I like it that way. I don't like places that are neat and tidy," notes Shanth Fernando, fast becoming Sri Lanka's connoisseur of lifestyles.

Way back in 1984, Fernando - then an importer in Australia of lifestyle goods - was going in a taxi along a Paris street named 'Rue de Paradis' (translated …Paradise Road), realising then what a nice name this would be for a lifestyle store. "In Australia there was this shop called 'Country Road' named after the song by John Denver, which I thought was a great name for a store," he recalled.

Many years have flowed under the bridge since Fernando returned to Sri Lanka - after living 16 years abroad - and launched Paradise Road at Flower Road in 1987 as Sri Lanka's first lifestyle store, working hard to create "Paradise Road" as a well-known brand amongst locals and foreigners.

From Flower Road, the store moved to Dharmapala Mawatha just near the Town Hall and in the years after that a studio, an art gallery and an upmarket restaurant were added to the Paradise Road profile. Any plans for future investments? "Depends on my spirit," responds the suave entrepreneur cheerfully while asking a store employee to put some relaxed and vibrant music on the PA system instead of a "mournful" CD when it is a bright and sunny morning!

However the man, some people see as arrogant and unfriendly, has sought to come public with his life and work; not to seek publicity for himself but out of a sense of bitterness after competitors began copying his work and selling Paradise Road replicas in their stores.

"It sounds like sour grapes but when you see someone bastardising your products, you get very, very hurt. Here is something that you worked all your life for, creating, innovating and hey presto … someone else comes along, makes the same thing and puts their name on it," he told The Sunday Times - his chirpiness turning into frustration - while dealing with his first ever newspaper interview.

What annoys him most is that competitors are not only stealing his ideas wholesale but going after his suppliers with bigger commissions. "This is a problem in Sri Lanka. I am not saying everybody should buy from me. But why can't we all have a vision, an identity or innovate?"

Fernando said a country wouldn't be progressive if designs are copied and sold under different names. "Imitation is flattery but duplication is obscene," he added, citing a quotation among many he has 'borrowed' over the years from famous authors, artists and thinkers.

"I am hurt because this is a country with tremendous potential where everybody should have his or her own vision and identity," he added. As a schoolboy, Fernando was a lover of art and a painter guided by his mother who once took him to famed artist George Keyt for advice. He won the art prize right through his school career at S. Thomas', Mount Lavinia. He finished school soon after the A. Levels when his father died while earlier losing his mother at 15 years. He joined Grants Advertising for a short period as an artist but was bored with the job.

"My inheritance was virtually eaten up by the government which nationalised seven of nine properties I owned. I had to look after myself," he recalled. He then worked at a guesthouse as manager at 20 years and went on to open his own guesthouse at Mount Lavinia a year later, which today would be pegged a boutique hotel with five rooms.

He joined Hotel School and proceeded to the Netherlands in search of greener pastures and adventure, working in hotels there and later joining his sister who had migrated to New Zealand.

Three years later and bitten by the travel bug again, he moved to Australia. He met his wife while living in Europe, spending his last five years overseas as a businessman dealing with Sri Lankan merchandise. He also designed toy products for Magpek Exports Ltd in Sri Lanka, travelling to Colombo regularly.

His connection with Magpek was the one that led him to his homeland. "Designing is a god-given talent which I have fostered and that has brought me to what I am today. I firmly and strongly believe my success has been due to me developing people to produce goods that are marketable," he added.

Fernando says all those who have worked for him as suppliers, "are people who have knocked on my door with talent and needed a helping hand”. He has been providing designs to them to produce, raising their earning capacity to Rs. 50,000 and in some cases Rs. 300,000 a month in turnover across the country - Kandy, Matale or Dambulla - when they once barely made Rs. 2,000 - 3,000 a month.

The lifestyles designer, who is actively involved in designing all the products sold at his two stores, works with wood, metal, clay, cement, steel, brass, iron, ceramics, incense, candles, wax or fabrics.

Returning to Sri Lanka in 1987, he found a vacuum for a good lifestyle store with Barefoot being the only shop selling home ware. "Barefoot was doing a good job but was working in only one direction," he said. "I have a lot of respect for them. I even sold their products in Australia."

What was different in his first store? It was a very black and white store working with metal, candles, terracotta, antique furniture, totally white ceramics and porcelain. Wrapping paper was the only coloured item at Paradise Road while black and white still remain his store's identity.

Some 95 percent of the items at the Paradise Road store at Dharmapala Mawatha are created, designed and made in Sri Lanka. Fernando does a lot of travelling and research, visiting international trade fairs and spending a lot on costly lifestyle magazines. With every overseas trip, he brings back ideas and transforms them into local products with changes to suit local needs. "I do a sketch of every design and ask local craftsmen to turn products out of them using their skills and talent. So it's a two-way process."

The Paradise Road clientele is a mix of foreigners and locals. Price is not a deterrent for a customer if a product is good and attractive. "We have cupboards that sell for Rs 250,000 and some foreigners have shipped them even to Switzerland. Chinese antiques have been bought from me and exported. This is mainly because I chose the antiques myself in China, in a particular style and got them restored before bringing them to Sri Lanka."

His office, studio, gallery and restaurant at Alfred House Gardens near the British Council in Colombo are located in what was once the office of the late Geoffrey Bawa. The world famous architect entrusted his building shaded by a row of trees to Fernando who wanted to run a gallery. Paradise Road Galleries is a platform for young and mature artists from Sri Lanka and overseas.

Fernando claims success as a restaurateur too, saying his restaurant is one of the more successful ones in Colombo. It has been featured in many overseas magazines. He is essentially a workaholic and wants to succeed in whatever he does. People see him as arrogant but he says he doesn't mind being called "names" because "by living my private life I have the space to accomplish what I want in life”.

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