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Sri Lanka apparel makers design a way up the value chain
14 Nov, 2007 12:33:55
By Asantha Sirimanne
Nov 14, 2007 (LBO) – Sri Lanka's apparel makers are making inroads into design, collaborating closely with international brands to becoming an integral link in the supply chain of a fashionably evolving global industry.
Sri Lanka's top apparel makers stepped into the design stage of garments about five years ago, but are now getting deeper into the process.

The MAS group which makes lingerie and sportswear for some of the top global brands including Victoria's Secret and Speedo is now employing more than 40 designers.

"Our designers work closely with the design studios of brand-owners interpreting their designs, making suggestions and sometimes even giving ideas," says Ravi Fernando of the MAS group.

The industry is fed with designers by Sri Lanka's Moratuwa University which is now running a bachelors degree program on design with the London College of Fashion.

The third batch of 44 graduates are about to pass out after displaying their collections this week at a graduation fashion show.

Kumar Mirchandani of the Favorite apparel group says his company was a late starter in design work.

He speaks highly of his first recruit.

"She was simply given a design brief by one of our clients and she came up with an entire collection," he recalls.

"They accepted some designs with changes. The client was a label with 17 billion dollar revenues. Unfortunately she was so good that she left me and now works in London."

Nirmalie de Silva who runs the course at the Moratuwa University says her graduates earn around 35,000 to 40,000 rupee starting salaries a month. After a little experience some have moved up to about 100,000 rupees.

Roy Peach from the London College of Fashion says the Sri Lankan graduates are far more knowledgeable about the merchandising and materials side of the business than their London counterparts because the course includes a one year placement in the industry.

"It is true that you are not in London, so you cannot walk across to a shop and touch and feel the latest fashions or attend shows," he says.

"The culture is also different. But they are very knowledgeable about materials and merchandising. When they enter the industry they can hold a conversation with any global player."

Jane Shepherdson, former brand director of Topshop, who now worlks for a fair trade based brand called People Tree, agrees.

"It is true that they are removed from the market," says Shepherdson. "But I think the collaboration with the London College of Fashion with instructors coming every few months helps.

"And with the internet and communications let's not forgot that you can access any imagery if you know where to look.

"These students are enormously knowledgeable and can hit the ground running."

The course at Moratuwa University first gets students to open up their thinking to explore and develop their creativity and then moves onto using project based learning techniques.

"We open their minds to looking at problems and solving them in new ways," says Carmel Kelly of the London School of Fashion.

“In the third year students get a placement at an industry firm. In that year the students get a lot of confidence. They research and do a fashion industry investigative report.”

"In the final year they come back to the university, develop a strategy, do feasibility and design an entire collection that the industry can use. They manage the whole process of making a collection.”

Shepherdson says having design capabilities would put Sri Lankan manufacturers ahead of the game, though they cannot replace the design teams of the brands themselves.

"Top labels have their design teams, and they are building bigger design teams," she says.

"But having design at the very start of the process within the manufacturing business really, really, speeds up everything in terms of interpretation of designs, product development, yarn development and fabric development."

"If you have that at the beginning of the process you have an enormous head start over others."

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