Fashion’s leading Man
Ajai Vir Singh
The founder of CFW speaks of his vision

Considered the God Father of fashion in Sri Lanka, Ajai Vir Singh’s adventures in fashion are unparalleled. He first came to Sri Lanka to work in advertising but then it was fashion that turned his head. This changed not only his fortunes but also the fashion fortunes of Sri Lanka. A man of faith, Ajai remains unmoved even in the most challenging situations and it took a brave man like Ajai to initiate the island’s first Fashion Week during a bloody war over a decade ago. In 2003 the first Colombo Fashion Week was birthed and since then it has moved forward in leaps and bounds with designers from around the world taking part alongside Sri Lankan designers. He finds young designers, nurtures them and then watches with pride as they climb the ladder of success. March sees the launch of Colombo Fashion Week 2017 and another feather in the cap of this Indian who remains steadfast in his goal to making Sri Lanka, his adopted homeland the fashion hub of South Asia.

When did you first start CFW?
Fourteen years ago in 2003. It was in my heart from couple of years before. It manifested in 2003.

What was the rationale behind a Colombo Fashion Week?
To uplift Sri Lanka’s fashion design industry. That has been our vision, our driving force, our motive and a mandate we gave ourselves. In 2003 when the first edition manifested, frankly I was not sure how far it will go. There were hardly any designers, (I struggled to find three), hardly any fashion schools and a non-existent infrastructure. We had to lead the path with nothing in front. So 14 years hence when I look back, its been an educative and a spiritual journey of fulfillment.

How difficult was it to get local stakeholders to share your vision?
It was difficult, since there was no distinct fashion scene, ‘Fashion’ per se was confused with apparel manufacturing or garments on one-side, and modelling and beauty pageants on the other. When I would share my vision of reviving and creating a progressive and a contemporary fashion industry they would look at me puzzled. I really had to spell my vision again and again. But after the first 4 or 5 years it broke through and stakeholders started seeing what I was envisioning.

How close have you come to in achieving your dream of making Colombo a fashion hub of South Asia?

Currently, we are known as the ‘Truly International’ Fashion Week in South Asia, as we have more number of reputed international designers who show regularly at CFW, this is something that does not happen regularly at other fashion weeks. We are beginning to be known in the region and our second strategic position of Swim Week Colombo makes us the first Fashion Week in Asia dedicated to Swimwear and Resortwear. These are innovative moves to create a regional platform. I feel we are progressing quite well on it.

As an Indian living in Sri Lanka, was your journey into the fashion industry that much difficult? How did you overcome those obstacles?
This is my 21st year in Sri Lanka and it seems like I have a very close spiritual relationship with Sri Lanka, so I always felt at home here. I faced the same obstacles every forerunner in any industry will face. Reviving an industry takes focus, determination and inner strength. Then you start moving. Obstacles are good, they propel you higher.

Some cynics claim that CFW is an elitist Colombo centric event, how do you refute those critics?
Yes, I have heard that. But critics should know everything I do, I do for a strategic reason. Fashion is an aspirational industry. Every new trend is first accepted by the innovative mindsets and then it finds acceptance with the other mindsets. I want the Sri Lankan designers’ new trends accepted by the aspirational fashion consumers who have the resources to consume. These consumers then become the ambassadors of the new trends. Which then gets seen and accepted by others. Fashion Weeks happen at the most progressive centres in any country as it gets accepted and then trickles. There is a reason the first Fashion Weeks happen in Paris, New York, Milan or London, or Tokyo. What others see as the ‘elitist’ I see as the fashion consumers that the designers will benefit from. Having said that we have tried in Negombo and Galle too. We are expanding or stretching the fashion consumers and the aspirational set.

From one CFW show you have expanded to three shows per year. How did that come about?
My commitment has been single-mindedly to the fashion industry of Sri Lanka. I stretch the designers out of their comfort zones to think beyond their current businesses. They need to be creating collections which should be their livelihoods throughout the year. The reason for more than one season is to stretch their scope, imagination and their business, so they can all prosper and lead the way for the next generation. We don’t follow global seasons. We work with what works for us here and what showcases us better internationally. Our seasons are the Summer, the Swim and the Resort. This is our environment for creativity.

What is the selection process for designers to showcase at CFW?
There is a detailed application and selection process. That starts from the applying onwards. The project has been refined every year. The process is objective and empowers the designers to showcase their best. The process never interferes with the designers natural design process. The process is made in the best interest of the designers so when they show on the ramp they are appreciated and not criticised. There is discipline and structure to it.

What is your nurturing process for young designers especially those who show at Emerging Designers?
This has been the mainstay of CFW. The Designer development process. There are three streams running within this. I spend a lot of time with the young designers either through the innovative Project 7 – Dream + Desire + Create process or the CFW Day at the fashion schools, where the young talent is identified and groomed for the bigger stage. Fashion schools play their part and we take it further and sharpen them for the practical fashion environment. A lot of my time is spent with young designers setting them up as the next generation in fashion design.

What more must local designers do in order to enjoy international success?
First of all the local designers need to keep their heads firmly on their shoulders and for their own good and don’t let it swell. Their pride becomes their biggest barrier to success. It stops them from learning more. When they first come to us, I try to instill this in them.

How successful has CFW been in attracting foreign media and buyers to this event?
Every year more foreign media covers us, since 2010 we have been shown globally on Fashion TV, that is every season. Just last year we were covered by Vogue, Harpers, The Economist, Xinhua and Fashion TV. So there is plenty of foreign media, but we use it as per our plan of exposure. With buyers, I have reduced them drastically as a large number of Sri Lankan designers were not ready with their production to meet the orders. Hence we are currently equipping them with production and retail expertise so that once ready we can once again start inviting foreign buyers. Though personally I feel with more tourists coming into Sri Lanka we have a good market emerging right here.

What is your proudest achievement since the inception of CFW?
Well I can count a few, one being instilling PRIDE in Sri Lankan labels and designers. When I started in 2003 no one wanted to buy Sri Lankan designers and now people have Sri Lankan designers occupying pride of place in their wardrobes. I love that. The President of Fashion TV in his interview to a foreign publication said that he counts CFW among the best productions in Asia.
And then a number of my friends who travel have seen CFW in bars in Rome, Hongkong and Vietnam. We are being shown around the world. I couldn’t think of this when I started. God is just awesome and super cool.

Can you reveal any plans you have in store for CFW in March 2017?
It’s the biggest CFW todate. There are big plans. There is an Ethical Fashion Day planned, Menswear slot, Fashion Film Festival, Workshops, Art Show, Fashion and Food among key restaurants in Sri Lanka.

You have launched your own labels Arugam Bay and Conscience. How are they fairing on an international platform?
Both these are very close to me. They have made a good name for themselves. There is constant tweaking required. I am struggling to find good midsize production on a regular basis to propel these brands into international markets. I showed Conscience at a very prominent show in Jaipur, and it was well received. So I am constantly pushing for foreign markets and consolidation there.

How successful have you been in your role in promoting Garments without Guilt in Sri Lanka?
Ethical Fashion or as I like to call it ‘Good Fashion’ or ‘Fashion-for-good’, is the base of everything I do. I coined the phrase ‘Garments without Guilt’ for Sri Lanka Apparel in 2006-7. Then led the global marketing programme for them. The global campaign won us a Global Effie in New York in 2009, making us the first country in Asia to win a Global Effie also known as the Oscar of Global Marketing. This honour still stands. It has positioned Sri Lanka Apparel on a sustainable supply chain platform.