Luxe

The free garment

Riaan George | Updated on January 11, 2018 Published on May 18, 2017
Keeping it relevant: Asanka de Mel wants young Sri Lankans to take pride in the sarong while having fun with it

Keeping it relevant: Asanka de Mel wants young Sri Lankans to take pride in the sarong while having fun with it

Collections range from basic cotton colours and vintage rugby stripes to others with leather pinstripe embellishment.

Collections range from basic cotton colours and vintage rugby stripes to others with leather pinstripe embellishment.

Sarong pioneer: Designer Asanka de Mel poses in a tuxedo sarong of his own design

Sarong pioneer: Designer Asanka de Mel poses in a tuxedo sarong of his own design

The new silhouette: Collections range from basic cotton colours and vintage rugby stripes to others with leather pinstripe embellishment and tropical prints

The new silhouette: Collections range from basic cotton colours and vintage rugby stripes to others with leather pinstripe embellishment and tropical prints

“The traditional sarong is a liberating piece of clothing: two metres of fabric, like a giant canvas,” says designer Asanka de Mel, on reviving the sarong of Sri Lanka, and transforming it to fit better with modern needs

In the fashionable circles of Colombo, Sri Lanka, there’s one garment that seems to have come back on the radar — the humble sarong. The ubiquitous wraparound, long associated with Sri Lanka, southern States of India and much of Southeast Asia for centuries, has witnessed a gentrification of sorts in recent times. In the island nation, the sarong has never been more fashionable. Over the past few months, if you peeked into Colombo’s trendy cafes or waded through the crowds at a downtown party, you would have seen the islanders wearing the traditional garment in countless relaxed or stylish modern ways — paired with T-shirts, over tuxedos, accessorised with fedora hats and even coupled with the currently trending white sneakers. Who, then, is behind this new wave of revival, that could possibly change the way we perceive the humble lungi?

Sytle check

I meet sarong designer Asanka de Mel in the colonial galleries of Colombo’s shopping district, Arcade Independence Square. He shows up for our meeting looking as though he were fresh off the pages of a fashion magazine. This strikingly good-looking islander wears an impeccably tailored shirt that you cannot find fault with, paired with, a rich blue sarong. Over the past year, his new sarong brand, Lovi Ceylon, has made the traditional garment more in tune with the needs and aesthetics of contemporary times. As expected, there have been many takers. Lovi sarongs come in handloom cotton with all the trappings of modern tailoring. There are spacious pockets (for keys and cellphones) and elegant drawstrings to keep them securely fastened at the hip. Collections range from basic cotton ones in solid colours with vintage rugby stripes to others with leather pinstripe embellishment and tropical prints. “The tuxedo sarong is a signature of the brand, with its satin strip down the sides, to be paired with a tuxedo shirt and jacket,” says de Mel.

Going modern

The journey began when the designer, a former IT professional based in San Francisco, began to experience a certain homesickness. “I’ve always loved Sri Lanka. I grew up in a suburb of Colombo before leaving it for the US, where I stayed for 23 years, before coming back for good. I have always been an admirer of fashion, so when I had the chance to create a new direction in my career, I seized the opportunity. I blended technology and fashion. It may sound pretentious to you, but it’s not. We’re working on modern clothing, that’s about it.”

That’s when de Mel, while still in San Francisco, began to conceptualise what was to become Lovi Ceylon, his sarong label.

He elaborates, “I began the job there. The business was promising and I realised that being in Sri Lanka would help, especially in terms of production, because we make our own fabric as well as the stitching and embellishments. Being based here is good for my business to be based here, as I can then keep a check on the quality of my garments. Plus, it’s a lovely place to live.”

Faced with many options in an unexplored fashion space like Sri Lanka, I ask him what prompted him towards sarongs? “I always knew I wanted to do sarongs. I think it is one of the most democratic pieces of clothing as it has no gender or size. It is extremely versatile and it makes the wearer feel good,” he says.

Fashion and heritage

For him, it all boils down to the significance of the sarong in Lankan and Asian heritage. “It is a very important part of the Sri Lankan ethos. The sarong is a basic piece of clothing, but it is very powerful. An entire Asian identity has been built around it. Here in post-war Sri Lanka, this dialogue and identity are extremely important. I wanted to be a part of the conversation on identity that is going on right now. Therefore, it all falls into place.”

We start talking about the sarong’s relevance as a modern garment. De Mel highlights that the core message for Lovi is modern Ceylon clothing. “We make modern versions of what Sri Lankans and South Asians wear. I want to make that heritage more mainstream. At the same time, I do not want to make it too serious, it needs to be fun. Our next collection is going to highlight Sri Lanka as an island, and has nautical references.”

It’s been less than a year since Lovi’s launch and the response, the designer says, has been wonderfully encouraging. “We’ve started a conversation about sarongs in high fashion. The media in Sri Lanka has given us good feedback. Plus, social media has been kind, customers have been posting on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.”

While on the subject of reviving traditional garments, the designer is quick to point out that in India, people have preserved their garments and kept them relevant in the 21st century. For instance, the sari or the dhoti has been reinterpreted in many ways. On the island, national costumes, though popular, have not always been in focus. “We’re seeing an increasing number of modern people going back to traditional clothing. That’s what I want to do, bring indigenous garments to 2017 and carry them into the next decade. India is a vast and diverse country with such a rich clothing heritage. It is so beautiful to see it being preserved. We have a lot to learn from that.”

This month, for the first time ever, a sarong brand is poised to present its collection at Colombo Fashion Week. De Mel hopes to push his sarong revolution across the border to India and other parts of Asia through his label, especially in areas where the sarong has traditionally been a part of the local culture.

Riaan Jacob George is a Mumbai-based luxury journalist

Published on May 18, 2017
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