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?
Enter sarong designer Asanka de Mel. 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.
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, as I can then keep a check on the quality of my garments. Plus, it's a lovely place to live."
So what prompted him to design 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."
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. "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. 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, especially in areas where the sarong has traditionally been a part of the local culture.