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  • Writer's pictureAnnika Fernando

What does it mean to buy Sri Lankan?

If you're in Sri Lanka, you know what this means because you are living it.

If you are watching the news and following Sri Lanka on social media, you would know we are in the midst of an economic and political crisis like no other time we know.

Easter Sunday just passed.

3 years ago, just as many of us thought we were on an upward spiral post civil war and tsunami, our world was torn apart by a brutal terrorist attack and lives were lost. At this point, we didn't really commit ourselves to the real cause behind what this day signified from a political point of view.

We mourned lost lives and worried about businesses recovering with tourism affected and moved on a little too swiftly perhaps.

A majority of our Sri Lankans voted in our current leader and we were then hit by a Pandemic.

Many experienced loss of jobs/ livelihoods, salary cuts or periods of no-pay.

Long lockdowns meant we actioned in survival mode, hoping each day/week/month/year would get better and we'd be able to forget, move on and focus on new plans of 'growth'.

We were so wrong.

Here in Sri Lanka, we had other wrongs to right and a longer future to think about and action for the benefit of all.

Now as we battle through this economic crisis and are in a completely different level of survival mode we are not only insecure about our futures and our children's futures, but we are struggling through each day and managing the limitations on basic essentials which have been restricted for us - electricity, petrol, diesel, gas, sometimes water, milk and other food items, medicines and medical supplies.

Every month, we think about whether it's right or even whether we feel up to posting a newsletter. Every day we wonder whether to talk about selling on our social media platforms, encouraging people to shop with us. Is it appropriate?

Is it sensitive? When many of our people are struggling for food to eat and to what degree these restrictions mean to different walks of life, and we count our blessings.

We don't have a generator at PR, but we've been managing through with understanding customers and emergency lights. Our emergency lights now travel home with our staff in case they don't have power when they get home to their families. We are considering setting up a cooking station so that staff who struggle to cook at home due to power/gas restrictions, can cook at work and then take food home to their families.

We are grateful that those visiting us are sensitive about the restrictions, because at the moment, no one is spared.

We survived 2019 and Covid and we remain determined to see us through this time too.

In the midst of all this, in this environment, how do creative people keep creating and how are goods produced at this time?

We must. We have to. Lives depend on it.

Buying Sri Lankan shouldn't be about charity, we want to still celebrate the best of what we are capable of and have to offer, but we now ask our customer and follower to look a little deeper. What does it mean today when you buy Sri Lankan?

What does it mean today when you buy Sri Lankan?

When you look at a beautiful garment or piece of jewellery, admire, shop or even 'like' a pair of shoes, we ask you to consider at this time what it has taken to be made and the challenges the whole chain of production and retail are facing, both at work and at home.

Kasuni Rathnasuriya of KÚR says, "As most of our senior handmade lace weavers are above 50 years old, they find it very difficult to engage in lace weaving during late afternoons due to power cuts. The cotton thread prices are extremely high as we import cotton yarn from India. Most of the small, home-based factories cannot afford to have a generator. Even if they have generators, there is a fuel shortage. Shortage of raw materials in the local market is a critical issue too. "

The fashion industry that we know, is creating opportunities, creating businesses and creating jobs. We will continue to work with our artisans and teams besides all the challenges we have in the country.

We are working on new solutions to create new ideas and new opportunities. That is our pledge.

"We are working on new solutions to create new ideas and new opportunities. That is our pledge", says Kasuni.

Saskia Fernando of PDT says, "It has been difficult to find the time to create amongst all the pressures of these last few years. Workshops were closed and production could not begin until things reopened. Power cuts have made it difficult for the work to be completed on time.

I am infinitely inspired by my beautiful country, our culture and the artisans that I work with, but functioning in crisis mode 24/7 takes it's toll.

Saskia says, "Functioning in crisis mode 24/7 takes it's toll."

In the last six months we created the Totem necklace and bracelet, stunning one of a kind pieces that repurpose stones from vintage pieces alongside semi precious and precious stones. On the left is a picture of a bracelet I designed for my mother on her birthday on the 1st of March. I was only able to give it to her last week.

"I'm now working on a small collection that is, naturally, inspired by this particular season we have just passed through (Sinhala and Tamil New Year). It will launch at PR in May/June this year. ", Saskia shares.

Nadira of True Colours says, "The biggest challenge is to keep our manufacturing facility operational due to the power and fuel crisis in the country. With ad hoc power outages and a lack of diesel to run generators it is a daily battle to keep the operation running and productivity has dropped tremendously.

The biggest inspiration is our workforce who have volunteered to work to accommodate the demands on the business by customers even if it means working night shifts to align with power availability . Their personal sacrifice for the greater good of the companies commitments is what keeps us going and inspired.

"The biggest mental challenge is witnessing the en masse suffering of the people in this country with the lack of basic needs to live normally. No power, no fuel, no gas, no medicines , no sustainable income and lack of daily meals leading to social breakdown , with scant empathy from the leadership in the country.", says Nadira.

Catherine of The Old Railway, says,"On top of the devastating collapse of the Sri Lankan economy and the suffering of it's people, my wonderful team is now facing the added challenge of working with me remotely via video calls and WhatsApp chats, as I relocated to the UK at the end of 2021. The increase in the cost of living means that getting to work is more difficult, paying the overheads at our shop is harder than ever and running a business with no generator in a time of 13 hour power cuts is extremely stressful.

"Our business survived COVID - I won't let it fall now!"

During shortages of gas and imported supplies, the strength and resilience of Sri Lankans is in itself is extremely inspiring. Restricted availability of fabric and haberdashery items force design to be more resourceful and realistic.

Financial stability and family's survival is all consuming and mentally exhausting. As an employer you have a responsibility to ensure that your staff are paid regardless of work output during these times.

Samaadhi Weerasinghe is both the designer of ANUK and a garment manufacturer and she shares that, "Finding fuel and planning ahead has been the biggest task. Making sure I'm able to make my deliveries for my customers. It has been very difficult to find inspiration to be honest. Designing the kind of pieces I do I almost feel sick to my stomach that I have to do it.

"Designing the kind of pieces I do I almost feel sick to my stomach that I have to do it."

One of the main reasons why I couldn't push through an April collection. It's just mentally not possible. Keeping things going, paying salaries and bonuses for April holidays and just making sure when my employees come in to work there is running electricity for them to get some productive work done. I'm trying to slowly work on my new Anuk collection, but inspiration and mental capacity has been lacking."

TSS designer Thilini Silva says, "Manufacturing is twice as slow due to the power-cuts , gas shortage and the constant price increments of pretty much everything (gas, fabrics, dyes etc.) are challenges. We have actually started to use firewood when boiling our fabrics (the process where the dyes are preserved and wax extracted).

"We have actually started to use firewood when boiling our fabrics"

The slow process demotivates me especially on batik because you have to be in an artistic mood to get the idea out onto the fabric and then when the power cuts start it’s exhausting. As a young designer that wants to bring our local craft and give opportunities, it really scares me to think about a future here.

I worry about taking care of my staff as we can only work half a day due to the daily power cuts and with the increasing prices, the whole process is challenging and managing my work force of mostly single mothers who are balancing their challenges on the home front too.

I'm working on 2 collections simultaneously anticipating the delays. There’s a floral batik print I’m working on at the moment and it’s taking a lot of time because of the print and number of colours but yet I feel it’ll be one of my favourite pieces."

La Sari designer Nilanka Silva tells us that "Due to the present situation as a small-scale industry working on local craft, we are affected so badly. The costs of fabrics and dyes have increased exponentially and with the shortage of gas and power cuts, we go through tremendous difficulties. The collections that are due get delayed and the work rate is at least 75% slower.

I'm inspired by the feel of fabrics so with God's grace I haven't yet run out of inspiration.

I'm worried for our industry and my workers who depend on me. I have to remain strong for them too.

"I'm worried for our industry and my workers who depend on me. I have to remain strong for them too."

Sara Nazoor of Alke shares, "For the past few months it has been challenging to source items such as drill bits, polishing burs, polishing compound, saw blades and others, because of the economic crisis we can no longer predict the price of each item and have to purchase them when they are available and stock them. Sourcing metal such as brass was again a major issue and we switched to recycling our own waste metal, and hopefully we can sustain for a few months ahead. Due to the unpredictability of the time and duration of power cuts have us looking into alternative options and manual tools which is again quite time consuming.

Staying inspired has been a struggle on its own, it's hard to focus and pick up your tools when you are trying to attend to multiple things at the same time and also tune out a toddler who wants to be your assistant, but reaching out to other artists and connecting with them have been helpful.

I also had the opportunity to participate in an artist residency for a week, which has renewed my spirits immensely over the past weeks.

My main inspiration is visiting virtual exhibitions and reading about art jewellery and attending forums, webinars, learning and internalising information.

I think losing hope and not being able to envision a future was affecting my work, and the economic instability, not being able to source certain material all of it affects me, even though you try to stay positive, it does get to you eventually. At times it's overwhelming and crippling.

The most challenging piece I created, was the pendant (Together we Rise) that I worked on the day that curfew and a state of emergency was announced. It was a piece which was made during a long power cut and there were a lot of emotions packed into it. It was not a commercial piece, but I wanted to depict a united Sri Lanka in the simplest way possible.

Now I am catching up on my real work and finishing up a long awaited collection which is called the “two halves” and a small passion project which is a broach. Apart from that ALKE is also piloting its first community outreach program ‘Wearing Emotions’.


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