Ajai Vir Singh is an Indian turned Sri Lankan. For proof you only have to look back to 2003, when he launched the Colombo Fashion Week. Ten years and many successfully launched designers later, you could say Ajai has played a big role in revitalising Sri Lanka’s once flagging fashion industry. Sri Lanka is his [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

A ‘crazy’ idea that’s taking our fashion places

As the HSBC Colombo Fashion Week’s Resortwear show goes to Galle, the man behind it all, Ajai Vir Singh, talks to Duvindi Illankoon

Ajai Vir Singh is an Indian turned Sri Lankan. For proof you only have to look back to 2003, when he launched the Colombo Fashion Week. Ten years and many successfully launched designers later, you could say Ajai has played a big role in revitalising Sri Lanka’s once flagging fashion industry.

Vision for fashion: Ajai Vir Singh. Pic by Ranjith Perera

Sri Lanka is his adopted country. It’s where he fell in love, married, had children and changed several destinies. Does he ever think of what he left behind in India? Not really. “I’ve always seen CFW as my way of giving back to Sri Lanka.”

Fashion is in Ajai’s blood-he doesn’t really have an explanation for it apart from being fascinated by it since childhood. Growing up in India, he had some strong exposure to cutting edge design and that curious blend of East-meets-West fashion. Ajai came to Sri Lanka as an advertising professional but soon found himself a little bored by the business. “My heart wasn’t in it,” he says. Well the heart wants what it wants and Ajai’s wanted to do something about the unharnessed potential the country’s fashion industry had. And so, in 2003, he launched the first ever Colombo Fashion Week.

No one would argue that the man doesn’t know his design-Ajai is the creative vision behind the successful Arugam Bay brand, menswear line Stringhopper and ethical brand Conscience. These intrinsically Sri Lankan names are something he takes a lot of pride in. “I ask my CFW designers this question all the time-why on earth are your labels so Western? Take some pride in your name and heritage. To me these are international names.” 

Not many Sri Lankans thought so, though, when they started CFW back in 2003. “No one really gave us a chance, you know?” he remembers. “There were all these people saying ‘a fashion week in Colombo? Are you crazy?’ But hey, everything has to start somewhere.” To be honest Ajai doesn’t really blame the sceptics. He started Colombo Fashion Week at a time when Sri Lankan labels were only something to applaud but not wear, and there were no design schools churning out young promise. That first show had six designers (three local, surprisingly impossible to get) over a two-day period. It wasn’t an overnight success but it was definitely a start.

A decade later, Colombo Fashion Week has made its presence felt in South Asia. Over the years Ajai, together with trusty business partners Dirk Flamer Caldera and Prasad Bidapa has developed CFW into something any Sri Lankan would be proud to call their own. Every year the premise of the show grew exponentially and after a certain point it was the designers who were calling the organisers instead of the other way round. Today you can apply to showcase your designs at CFW; there’s a panel made up of several influential fashion designers who decide if you meet their standards.

Acting frequently in an advisory capacity you’ll also find Bibi Russell, a Bangladeshi designer renowned internationally for her work with local craftspeople. Bibi has been a constant presence at the show for the last few years along with Spanish heavyweight Agatha Ruiz De La Prada and designers like Rizwan Beyg and James Ferreira. We wonder what the allure of something like Colombo Fashion Week is for these internationally acclaimed designers-after all, they are exhibiting for what is still a local audience. Ajai says it’s a matter of knowing potential when you see it. He knows that CFW is still small fry in comparison to its Indian and Western counterparts-but it’s only a baby still, after all. “Designers like Bibi know that CFW can only get bigger and better. They’re happy to be on board.” Last year Ferreira launched a collection with Cotton Collection-opportunity for these designers can be found closer to home as well, says Ajai.

It’s not all about the glitz and glamour of the three-day event for the designers though. The invite-only show is made up of a percentage of local and international retail buyers who decide if they want to work with a particular designer after the show. As with any fashion week, this is the main premise. Fashion designers have to make money too, Ajai laughs. This is why he launched the CFW Resortwear show last year-“I don’t want our designers to settle into doing only a collection a year,” he explains. With this show (to be held on October 5 and 6 in Galle), he’s offering two business peaks for the designers. One is with the mainly Western premise of the main show and with this, an opportunity to create and showcase garments they were literally born to design. After all, who better to design for warm weather than someone who’s lived in it all their life? 

Last year’s show was in Negombo and this year’s will be in Galle. One show will be held on a street inside Galle Fort. The nightmare of the logistics is something he happily leaves to Chief Coordinator Roshinee Rajasingam-Wijeratne and her trusty team. His job is to wander around Galle trying to come up with even more impossible locations! But with the picturesque backdrop of the old Dutch church and the magisterial courts behind them, the audience should have something exciting to look forward to. (fun fact-this year’s logo is a cockerel and Ajai says this is symbolic of Galle. Apparently when the Portuguese landed in Sri Lanka they heard a cock crow and ‘Galle’ is similar to the Portuguese word ‘galeto’ for the bird).

CFW will also conduct a ‘Local Textiles and Crafts in Fashion’ workshop in Galle for 100 local craftspeople and designers. This developmental side of fashion is important for Ajai-he’ll even pick that over the more glamorous end. Ever since he started CFW his focus has been on taking local fashion international and creating pride in Sri Lankan labels. Does he think he’s been successful? “That’s funny, just the other day I was thinking about this. Deneth (Piuma, who won 2012’s Gen Next Award) is in Paris at the moment and Darshi (Keerthisena) is very well known for modern Sri Lankan batik. Both of them were launched at Colombo Fashion Week. We have design schools in Sri Lanka and boutique stores selling exclusively Sri Lankan labels.” So that’s a ‘yes’ then!

Over the last few years the show has expanded from two to three days to become more of a fashion week, and to accommodate the growing number of promising young designers. Even the resort wear show has gone from one day to two (and will have 15 local designers onboard!). All this makes Ajai a very happy man. It was only back in 2003 that he had to cast the net far out in the hope of young talent and now he has more than his share to contend with. He is only happy to revise his earlier statement about Sri Lanka’s fashion industry; with more designers-young and old alike-than ever choosing fashion as their medium, the only way for local fashion is up. And Ajai knows it.

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