When you sit across from Ajai Vir Sing, it’s quickly clear – when he talks style and fabric and collections, and once you notice that he’s much better dressed than your average Y chromosome club member – that fashion is the driving force of his life. The funny thing is that his compact, bottom-line-now attitude suggests that he could just as easily be up to his eyeballs in something more grounded and less airy (no offense meant to fashion people!), like selling real estate, running a café, or importing stereos.
Ajai doesn’t seem like a fashion guy at first perhaps because, well, that wasn’t what he was at first. Ajai came of professional age in the world of advertising. A native of New Delhi, Ajai first came to Colombo in the mid 1990s as an executive with global ad firm Grey Advertising. “Advertising was my day job, but I always had a passion for fashion,” he says. “Even as a kid I was very conscious of what I wore.”
That passion drove him to eventually leave full-time advertising, and to set about laying the foundations for the development of the Sri Lankan fashion industry.
Part of the draw was that he saw a lot of potential. “I always felt that Sri Lanka had amazing wealth when it comes to creative industries. Architecture was very well developed, interior design was very well developed… I mean, there was an amazing sensibility in it. There are also amazing photographers out there. I thought that somewhere there is a fashion sense that needs some kind of pulling out and needs to be put together.”
The Problem with Sweaters
An early problem that Ajai encountered, is that although Sri Lanka has a large garment and apparel industry, that doesn’t mean it is a natural hotbed of fashion designer talent. In fact, he says, the fact that Sri Lanka has a large garment and apparel industry has hurt the cultivation of fashion designer talent.
How so? When he started looking at Sri Lanka’s fashion industry in earnest, Ajai explains, “Any young kid coming out of school here with a fashion degree would go into the apparel industry. But that’s not really fashion.” He elaborates: “Years ago, I was asked to give a lecture [to recent fashion graduates]. In their final term, these graduates were designing winter wear. I asked them, have you ever worn a sweater or a jumper before? They said no. I said, then how can you design it? Then I realized that this was a demand that came from the apparel industry… I realized that the natural tendency of people to design what their environment demanded was being killed.”
A first step was to find some designers – amongst those who were not spending their time thinking about woolies – to populate the first Colombo Fashion Week in 2002. But Ajai’s vision was to do more than just put on a flashy show, which is the main focus of the event companies that run fashion shows elsewhere in the world. “Colombo Fashion Week was run going by people who understood how to unearth designers, how to implement the curriculum of fashion schools, how to pick young designers, put them under training with international designers and somehow give them confidence so that they could stand on their own as fashion designers – so they wouldn’t have to go looking for jobs in the apparel industry,” he says.
Ajai and his team soon realized that finding talented fashion designers was only a small part of the puzzle – and maybe even the easy part. The other building blocks of a fashion industry had to be put into place. “Every year, we’ve picked one or two aspects [of the fashion industry] and worked on it,” he says. One challenge facing fashion designers was sourcing fabric. Sri Lanka does not make fabric – which is a bit of a problem if you’re a fashion designer in Sri Lanka.
Then there was the issue of production. The local garment industry wasn’t geared to the relatively small production volumes of fashion designers. Also, retailing was a problem; it made sense to market to a local audience, but there was little understanding of how to best sell fashion in stores. A member of Ajai’s team was charged with conducting training workshops for some of the better-known stores in Colombo, to “teach them the dynamics of fashion retail, because they had not done fashion retailing,” Ajai says.
Ajai and his team sent some of the country’s more promising fashion designers abroad to broaden their exposure. As local designers moved up the learning curve, international buyers were invited to Colombo. “Sri Lanka did not have huge credibility as a fashion destination, so to get the buyers in, it took us a lot of convincing,” Ajai recalls.