Born in London, Sri Lankan designer Amesh Wijesekera, studied BA Honours in Fashion and Textiles at the academy of design in Colombo, Sri Lanka. After bringing Sri Lanka to the forefront of the fashion world at Graduate Fashion week in London, Amesh was chosen to represent Sri Lanka at the International Fashion Showcase 2019. Working on this exhibition in partnership with Somerset house, Amesh has been in London ever since.
Amesh’s collection at Somerset House is titled ‘Phantasmagoria’, which aims to capture elements of dreams, the unexpected, and surrealistic magic. He was inspired by the Buddhist Vesak ceremony which takes place on the full moon day in day, and incorporated lights and motion into his installation. He describes the festival saying, “All the roads are lit up with massive structures – colourful pangols and Vesak Kudu lanterns. Now it’s a bit commercialised. The beautiful thing is that everyone is a part of it, it’s not only a Buddhist thing – it’s very communal.” Amesh feels that this sense of community is similar to the way that he works, the process brings all sorts of different people together. He believes that that fashion should foster an inclusive environment.
With collaboration being key to Amesh’s work, his installation involves work with Ruwean Gunaratna, an interior designer from Sri Lanka, whose technical knowledge produced the coat hanger structures. Amesh also worked with a sound engineer called ‘Visionist’, who overlayed music with the sounds of machines in factories. Describing the creative processs Amesh says, “When I’m creating, I don’t restrict myself at all, I have to let it all out.” Amesh’s brand identity is rooted in colour and texture, with his work being approachable and accessible for anyone. He says “There are so many interesting, unique people and confident personalities here in London. I wanted to mix this with my Sri Lankan heritage. I came from a loving family, but growing up in Sri Lanka was difficult. Sri Lankans can be narrow minded and conservative in terms of expression. I almost felt out of place in my own country. I really felt much more comfortable moving to London. With the platform that I have, I’m trying to challenge stereotypes in Sri Lanka.”
While Amesh’s collection of clothes are genderless, Sri Lankans are used to seeing men in shirts and trousers and women in blouses and skirts. He adds “I don’t want to constrain myself to menswear or womenswear. Clothes are clothes. It’s the idea of a shared wardrobe. It’s all about feeling confident being who you are. People are scared to try something else because of societal expectations.” Reflecting on the differences between fashion industries, Amesh says “There’s a huge scene in London, not like Sri Lanka. It’s coming, but it will take time. A lot of the world’s biggest brands are made in Sri Lanka, including sources of apparel and manufacturing. People don’t know that there’s a design scene there.” “All the excess fabrics from manufacturers are dumped in markets, such as Pettah in Colombo. That’s where we go and scavenge. We don’t have luxurious fabrics, but we are very appreciative of what we have on our doorstep. At the new emerging talent college, we have such a huge heritage in our textiles, which I feel no one knows about or appreciates.” While it may have once been the case that creative industries weren’t valued as much in Sri Lanka with parents saying you could either be a doctor, lawyer or engineer, Amesh believes that families now seem a lot more open minded. He says, “I feel like design is such a huge industry, because it is in everything around you. Innovation and design are the future. Art is considered more of a professional endeavour now, once people thought you would be living with no money but it’s so different now, it’s a very lucrative and demanding industry in Colombo now.” Sustainability is an issue that is close to Amesh’s heart. He describes someone who might wear his clothes as “Someone who is adventurous, knowledgeable, cultured, well-travelled, and really cares about where things come from.”
However, Amesh also feels that the word sustainability is often overused and commercialised. He acknowledges that the fashion industry is the largest polluter in the world, but there’s a lot of innovation happening in Sri Lanka right now to make clothes out of recyclable material. He says, “I think sustainable means when you take care, but environmental and social sustainability are different. My work is more socially sustainable because I work with people, communities, artisans in the village in Sri Lanka.” “It’s also important to pass on the knowledge and skills of craftsmanship. I feel like artisans are often used as machines, they are more or less told what to do, and they only know how to follow that. They don’t know how to think even though they are so skilled. They way I work with them is different, I want them to be part of the creative process. It’s a very organic structure, and results in each piece being different. I find imperfection beautiful, it shows the value of a craftsman’s hands. For me, it’s all about social sustainability and empowerment of lives.” Noticing changes in the fashion industry Amesh thinks people are starting to be more careful and increasingly interested in where things come from. “I think a lot of designers are promoting ideas of inclusivity and diversity, but sometimes it can be tokenistic. Last year Burberry destroyed about £1 million worth of clothes because they had excess stock. There’s a huge problem there. That’s why I think people should support new designers, or people who produce less.” Social media also feeds into the problem because people are influenced by what is trending, and the high street produces in response to this, using cheap labour. Amesh asserts, “Sri Lanka in that way is much better, because of the regulations that are in place. China is becoming too expensive and India has a bad reputation for the abuse of workers.”
Despite this, issues of colourism and LGBT rights are still problems that the Sri Lankan fashion industry has to tackle. Amesh notes that while there are a couple of modelling agencies in Sri Lanka, half the model’s don’t even look Sri Lankan. “If you look at any magazine or campaign in Sri Lanka, you can see that people are photoshopped because their hands are brown but their faces are white. It’s because of Western standards of beauty, and lighter skin means that you’re more privileged. For my lookbook, we have so many beautiful ethnic people. I think dark skin is extremely beautiful and attractive. If you’re dark you’re considered ugly in Sri Lanka. It’s so sad. South Asia has the biggest market for skin bleaching. It’s scary, sad and disgusting. There are so many beauty pageants in Sri Lanka, but the people who get selected to represent the country don’t look Sri Lankan even though we have so many gorgeous people.
Homosexuality is still criminalised in Sri Lanka. I’m dressing two graphic designers, they’re a lesbian couple, and they’re coming to London because they can’t get married in Sri Lanka. There are hundreds of queer people in Sri Lanka, but they’re all hiding because they’re so scared and they can’t be themselves. Drawing on his dual cultural heritage, Amesh says “I love Colombo and London both for different reasons. Back home I’m by the beach and have mango trees in my garden. And there’s no other place like London, so I’m lucky to have the best of both worlds.”