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“The ‘Unbreakable’ message is for the silent sufferers” – Amilani Perera 

Fashion plays an important role in our daily lives. It is in many ways, a reflection of how we experience the world. It is integrally woven into our decision-making processes, and fashion, whether through garments or through the image-building of the fashion industry can form and shape stereotypes and norms, for both good and bad.

Fashion has the potential to shape gender relations positively. For instance, in 2018, the vast majority of actresses and Hollywood professionals stood in solidarity with each other, wearing black to the 2018 Golden Globes to show their support of the #MeToo movement and build accountability in Hollywood when it came to sexual harassment.

Sri Lankan designer brand Amilani Perera recently unveiled her new collection ‘Unbreakable’ at Colombo Fashion Week 2020. A unique collection and groundbreaking collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Sri Lanka, the heart of the ‘Unbreakable’ is powerfully simple – stand against domestic violence.

The Sunday Morning Brunch sat down with designer Amilani Perera to learn more about her eponymous label, and her new collection ‘Unbreakable’.

 

The story behind Amilani Perera

Having wanted to be a designer since the age of 14, Perera’s keen interest in design led her to study drawing at A-Level, before continuing to pursue a design degree at the La Salle College of the Arts in Singapore, before returning to Sri Lanka. “I wanted to start my own brand as soon as I got back,” Perera shared, “but my parents urged me to get some more work experience before starting out on my own.”

Joining MAS Holdings as a designer for their home-grown lingerie brand Amante, Perera soon fell into the life of a corporate designer, and the desire to create her own brand faded until she decided to pursue an MBA at the University of Wales. The inspiring business conversations she had as an MBA student rekindled her passion to build her own business and in 2013, Perera decided to create her own brand, applying to showcase at Colombo Fashion Week 2013.

“This was before the days of Bright Sparks and other emerging designer platforms,” Perera recalled, “I remember being one of three new designers that Colombo Fashion Week selected that year to showcase at Colombo Fashion Week among the established designers who’d been showing for years. I’ve been ”

“Before launching my brand at Colombo Fashion Week, I applied for the British Council Young Creative Entrepreneur Award. I hadn’t even officially started the brand yet, it was my first-ever proposal, a range of accessories made from waste products. They were very impressed by the concept and were made an award finalist.”

After a successful launch at Colombo Fashion Week, the Amilani Perera brand quickly grew, receiving a retail opportunity at the designer boutique Melache. Before long, Perera decided to take the plunge and focus on her brand full-time. She also took on a consultancy position with the Indian company Arvind Lifestyle Brands working with them as a consultant on their work for the international apparel brand Hanes.

 

‘Unbreakable’ – speaking out against domestic violence

Amilani Perera’s newest collection “Unbreakable’ made waves for all the right reasons. “The whole project was one of mutual understanding,” Perera shared, “domestic violence is a global issue and transcends all barriers of race, class and background. The UNFPA was looking for a good, impactful way to get the message, and I know, how within the industry itself, there are so many women who face gender-based violence- across all levels from sewing technicians in factories, to models and even designers working at the top of their fields.”

“After discussing it and sharing information with the New York UNFPA office, we decided to come together and sign an MOU, which was how ‘Unbreakable’ began,” Perera added.

“The “Unbreakable’  message is for the silent sufferers, to show that you can break through and be empowered,” Perera shared, explaining how she carefully curated her colour pallet, selecting burgundies and reds to denote abuse, mid greens for transformational healing and growth and pinks to represent the empowered woman. Perera also continued her theme of empowerment through the volume and character of her garments.

The ‘Unbreakable’ collection uplifts and empowers women who have domestic violence in Sri Lanka, featuring embellishment and embroidery done by women at the Women’s Development Centre (WDC) in Kandy.

Perera also incorporated the work and messages of survivors of domestic violence into the collection, with handwriting from victims, hand-embroidery and other embellishments by domestic survivors from the WDC being incorporated into the collection.  The thread embroidery in the collection was done during the pandemic providing employment and empowerment for women struggling through that difficult time. “The collection wasn’t strictly finished in March, “ Perera explained, “There were delays in production because of other orders. The introduction to WDC and couriering the parcels up and down also played a part in timing. What happened, in the end, was that the day they were supposed to send the collection back to Colombo for the showcase was the day the lockdown was enforced.”

“Initially, we wore only going to do half the embellishment we had planned, but then everything worked out with the collection being Kandy during the lockdown. I asked them to expand on the workmanship and embellishment. I was in constant touch with the WDC and they already had the fabric and threads. It was also a way to provide these already struggling women with some income during the pandemic.”

‘Unbreakable’ is also an environmentally responsible collection that uses sublimation printing to minimise environmental impact as well as zero-waste production policies.

Perera will also be working with women from WDC in the longer term, doing mentoring programmes, colour therapy and skill-based workshops with survivors of domestic violence to give them more power to overcome their circumstances.

 

Creating a value-driven brand

When setting out to create the Amilani Perera brand, Perera looked at what her client actually wanted, and after some reflection, realised that all her clients were looking for were unique pieces- something that they could feel special and was catered only to them.

To this end, since its inception, Amilani Perera has only produced one piece of each of its designs, whether retail or bespoke, in each size. Through this, Amilani Perera guarantees that their clients own a unique piece. All Amilani Perera pieces also feature intricate hand-embellishment, all of which is done in Perera’s in-house atelier. This philosophy carries through to Amilani Perera bridals as well, ensuring that each bride receives an entirely unique, beautifully embellished outfit for their wedding day.

When dealing with the demand for specific pieces, for the next customer, Perera will make subtle changes so that clients still receive a unique piece with the basic concept that attracted them to it in the first place.

Speaking on what drives Amilani Perera’s style philosophy, Perera shared that “I have a flamboyant outlook, and I love playing with fabrics, and experimenting with new techniques, One of my earlier collections featured a lace hoodie, a streetwear item that I redefined using traditional fabric, and the opening piece for the ‘Unbreakable’ collection, though most people think it is just a printed top, it is actually an interesting combination of flock-printing and bonding.”

Sustainability also plays a crucial part in the DNA of the Amilani Perera brand. “My proposal for the Young Creative Entrepreneur Award when I first started out, was repurposing waste material to create fashion accessories,” Perera shared, “I created a range of clutch bags using waste metal. It was very well-received, I even ended up couriering orders to Canada at one-point, and I was also made a finalist for the Sustainable Fashion Award at the 2013 Sri Lanka Fashion and Apparel Awards for my work with that range. I even showcased some of those bags with the “Unbreakable’ collection.”

Working with sustainable materials and practising a zero-waste policy has always been important to the Amilani Perera brand, many of the fabric embellishments are made using pieces left over after patterns are cut. “Regardless of whatever we do, as humans, we need to be ethical,” Perera stressed, “it’s a value we need to hold in whatever we do. Working with sustainable and reusable materials and uplifting communities are very valuable ways forward and I would like to extend my deepest thanks to the UNFPA for this amazing collaboration. The team has been amazing, from senior officials down to the communications team. I feel really blessed to have been able to work on this project. There is so much meaning and depth in it, and I think this is one of my favourite collections so far. I’ve never felt so good.”

 

Looking to the future

Looking to the fashion landscape, which is facing a great deal of uncertainty, with many large global brands and design houses choosing not to show with the traditional fashion week format and calendar, Perera expressed the opinion that things are likely to change, but that the fashion industry will evolve to this change, both in a local and international context. 

“The new normal will always be something we need to evolve to. I think everything evolves around the nature of how we live.” Perera said, “Before World War II, it was unthinkable for women to wear pants, but now it is a norm. Even taking 2020, when the year started, we would never have thought about wearing masks, but now we have evolved to it. 

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we have to embrace whatever is thrown at us, adapt to it and then flaunt it.”