A sensibility expressed through vibrant colours and textures, which introduces us to a world of joy, of innocence, a space where we can get in touch with ourselves, explore identities and have fun without fear. This is what we can find in the creations of Sri Lankan designer Amesh Wijesekera. This young and emerging creator invites us to discover a cultural explosion through the interaction of a close-knit community, its life stories and craft heritages. 
The young designer, who was the first winner of the Reference Incubator Prize and a semi-finalist in the last edition of the LVMH prize talks about the challenges he has faced along the way, the importance of community, collaboration and above all the value of the identity and culture of his place of origin. A path full of treasure hunts, hard work and well-deserved rewards forges this very interesting brand that has already become a platform for revisiting and rewriting social stereotypes.
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I would like to start by asking about your beginnings, I have heard you say that fashion for you is a tool for self discovery. Was it always like that? What made you realise that your path was in the fashion industry?
Yes, I have always understood fashion in terms of self-discovery, it is a tool for direct expression and contact with oneself. I come from South Asia, I grew up in Sri Lanka, there we have certain aspects like the way society is constructed, social stigmas and stereotypes, growing up there I was in the middle of all this. Since I was a child I went through all these kinds of situations, just because I was a bit different and I felt very pressured by these social norms and gender stereotypes. So I decided to make my work a platform to be able to talk about these issues and that's how it all started.
You founded your brand in 2019 under the name Amesh, your name. Which leads me to think about the very personal character and the influence of your own experiences on it. How do your roots and growing up in Sri Lanka influence the identity of the brand?
The environment I grew up in has completely shaped my brand identity. Not just as we talked about before in terms of expression. Behind this identity is the cultural explosion that we find in Sri Lanka, it speaks of life, colour, craftsmanship, community, which is very important to me. All these elements are brought together and communicated in a contemporary way using local crafts and textiles as a medium. But there is also a part that I think is very important to bring to the fashion industry, which is representation, because we don't see a lot of South Asian designers, I mean, we see a lot of Indian models and things like that, but with my creations I also always talk about the challenge of identity and beauty. Even in all my campaigns, for the casting I do open calls online for models, and they are just ordinary people, not from specific agencies or anything like that.And for me this representation is so important, because when I was growing up, the way I looked and for example at school people, I was too dark or my hair was too curly or too frizzy, I was insecure in my own skin and I would have liked to see this kind of referents and representation as well.
When I came to London I started to see how people appreciated me as I was, this was the first time something like this had happened to me. In Sri Lanka, I was always too brown and then here they want to know how I became as brown as a compliment. Starting to embrace who I am made me finally find myself and feel comfortable the way I am, this is a very important part of my brand identity as well, to reflect this acceptance of oneself. Because sometimes this is very difficult and even more so if you don't have references to look up to or to lean on. All our countries were colonised by the British, Dutch and Portuguese. We still have this Western-centred vision, ideals and standards of beauty, you have all these whitening creams and all these toxic things, for example. So in my work I always aim to represent, speak or give a platform to the local population and also explore our identity. Because I think that's something that's missing in the industry or that's very whitewashed and for me it's very relatable.
In your vibrant collections you explore questions of identity through a colourful universe full of craft techniques. What role does colour play in your creations?
I am a person who is very attracted to colour, textures and design. For me it's all about the materials, because I'm mainly a textile designer and that's usually my canvas, where I start from. Everything around me as a child was full of vibrant colours, I grew up near the beach and that definitely marked my relationship with colour. When I came to Europe for the first time I was very surprised because I found a lot of difference with this and I thought, "oh my god, what's going on? It's so black and so dark".
Colour has a lot of power and manifests itself in many ways, from healing properties to the ability to make you happy. It can be a way to communicate, sometimes a limitation such as colours that are associated with gender, but I thought "why can't everyone enjoy colour?" And this thought became a big part of my brand.
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Talking about craftsmanship, textiles and textures, what is the importance of craftsmanship for you?
Craftsmanship has a very important value, for me it consists of preserving human values. I think that right now, the way fashion world is set up, with mass production, the speed it demands, the human touch is lost, everything is mass-produced and machine-made. So for me it's like a return to the roots, to take back and give value to a heritage that is hundreds of years old and that unfortunately in Sri Lanka is disappearing. For example a hand-woven piece, is made on a loom made of a wooden structure by one person and it takes a long time to make one meter of fabric, whereas now there are machines that take away the human value and make meters and meters of fabric in a few minutes, in order to fit in the market. But as I'm so niche and so small scale production I could tap into these areas. One question kept ringing in my head, "how can we give a new relevance and a new context to leave these stories to the next generations and not lose them?”. That's why craftsmanship is so important to me.
I've seen that you work with industrial waste and deadstock fabrics. When you create a collection, do you start from what you find? Do you let yourself be inspired by what you see or do you look for materials based on an idea and a preconceived story? How do you work with these materials?
I let myself be inspired by what I find, there is a lot for example in these dead textile stocks, Sri Lanka has a massive import-export situation. A lot of garments are manufactured there, for Europe especially, and we have whole districts and areas where all the leftover fabrics and trimmings from the factories that don't go to the markets are simply burnt or dumped in these areas. So basically you can find everything and anything there.
For me it's like a treasure hunt. You go there day in and day out, you search, you dig and you can get damaged fabrics, interior fabrics, ornaments, anything you can imagine. For me it's like a trip to the field, a trip of inspiration, I collect things and when I look at them I get a lot of ideas in my head of what I could do with it. So I always start from this search. For handmade fabrics where crochet and handlooms are used, I do start from scratch. The mixture of all this comes into a collection, full of stories that are present through these materials.
You work with a community of Sri Lankan artisans and each of your garments is unique and individually knitted, handwoven or handprinted . How long does it take to make a garment? What is the creation process like? Do you start from a firm idea or is it a collaborative process?
It depends, this is interesting, a single garment can take a few weeks or a few months. Within the brand I have two lines, the handmade Amesh line and the ready to wear Amesh line which is mostly dead stock. The pieces in this handmade part take a minimum of a month to make, while the pieces made from deadstock are also often mixed and matched with the handmade materials so it ranges, from two or three weeks to a few months. In terms of the creation process and my way of collaborating, I don't have a studio, or a team, it's just me and the artisans I work with, at the end they are my team.
For example, in the case of knitwear, I come up with a concept and an idea for a piece, based on the fabrics I find. And then I ask them "What can we do with this?" Because I don't know much about knitting and they teach me the techniques, the different stitches and the processes that each garment needs. So I tell them the idea, I talk to them about the colours it has to have and then a creative dialogue begins where we envisage ideas to come up with something shared. I feel that normally the artisans are treated like machines, they are given a technical sheet and they are supposed to follow the instructions. I like to work with them, to involve them in the process because they are also part of it. I would say it's a collaboration and I love this part because it's like building a big story together. Their experiences and stories are also reflected in the garments.
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Such a unique process means that you have your own timing when launching a new collection. How do you experience the seasonality and speed of fashion? What is your way of thinking about this?
For me this is different because in Sri Lanka we don't have seasons, it's always summer except in the wet monsoon season, so I never understood the seasons until I came to London and experienced them, now I'm in Berlin and I'm more used to it. But to see so many brands and shops every day selling, selling, selling, then a new collection and then selling and selling again, non stop, for me it is very surprising, seeing how people buy and buy knowing that none of these garments are going to last for a long time. In my brand, I don't do any seasonal stuff. It's, what I call a seasonal crown, statement pieces that you can keep in your wardrobe and wear throughout the year and you can style it. You can wear it, for winter with jackets and coats over it, or in summer just as you wish. That's how I see it, it's a way of appreciating the piece, the value is there, it's not limited to a season, a genre or an age, it's an item that anyone can be part of at any time.
In your latest collection paddy field play you talk about moments of joy, innocence, escapism and optimism. What is the inspiration behind this collection? Would you say that this moment of joy and innocence is something that is in the DNA of the brand?
This collection was made during the most difficult times in the country. We had a big economic crisis, we were without electricity for more than 16 hours a day, but I still managed to create this collection, which was photographed outside our house in the paddy field. This place is where we grew up, as kids we used to fly kites and play there, it's a place very connected to my childhood.
It was also about talking about youth in that time of political crisis, about creative and inspiring youth, about how their voice was heard, so the collection was about hope. Even the colours I used, all those jewel tones, are about joy and optimism, and this is where paddy field play comes from.
You were a semi-finalist in the 2022 edition of the LVMH Prize, an award given to the next generation of fashion designers who will be the future of the industry. How was your experience? How has this influenced your brand?
It was a very shocking experience, because I was the first Sri Lankan to enter the list of semi-finalists and there were many candidates from all over the world. To be recognised and given that platform was very important. Especially when my country was going through such a bad time and the collection came at one of the most difficult times. It was very comforting for me to finally see some light. Also meeting the people made me very excited, the designers, I met everyone you can imagine and many professionals from the fashion world, magazines, editors, Anna Wintour, Miuccia Prada... It was very overwhelming and I could not assimilate what had happened until a few weeks later, I think it was for them too. The most beautiful thing was that they saw, and knew that all this was designed and made in Sri Lanka, because they didn't expect it, or nobody knew that we also have design there. Sri Lanka is very well known for tourism, but not really for textiles, craftsmanship and manufacturing.
So it was a nice experience to be able to share it with the international fashion press.
There was much more recognition than I expected, and now in terms of business, it has influenced very positively, I am working with the sales agent in Milan, because we have some buyers who were interested and more intensive support, that's what I am focused on now. But overall the experience I can tell you, it's a dream.
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In these years that you have been building your brand, you have been recognised with several awards and mentions such as the one we talked about previously, or the Reference Incubator Prize of which you were the first winner, has it been a long road of recognition? In these years, what has been the hardest moment you have faced with the brand?
I think that for any young designer, just starting a project like a fashion brand is very complicated. But personally for me the first thing I had to face, and one of the hardest things, was trying to find my space, because I was nobody. I mean, I came from having graduated in Sri Lanka and then I went to London, where I was working in the food markets and doing internships. That moment when I came to Europe and I didn't know anyone, it was very hard, I was trying to adapt to the new culture, the climate, the food, everything. I experienced it as a kind of culture shock, until I adapted. But with time, gradually, and trying to fit in, without losing my identity, I found my place.
Now I'm still a chef. That's what finances the brand at the moment, because it's just me, It's still very small. If we talk about funding, finance, getting this kind of support is not easy, especially when you come from a place like Sri Lanka. So the business part, the legal part, basically it's not the fun part in fashion. I would say it's the hardest part. But at the same time, I've been very lucky with having a growing audience that appreciates what I do and understands my message.
And the one that has moved you most?
For me last year, it was definitely a very special moment when I was on the shortlist, when I was nominated for the LVMH award. That was very emotional and as we were talking about earlier to be the first Sri Lankan designer to be nominated and to have that kind of recognition. But also the expectation, the pressure was overwhelming and it was hard for me to handle. It's very motivating and very exciting for me to be able to continue with the project, the support I get, to see how people like me and want to talk about me, the brand and the country, I'm very surprised and moved. All these little recognitions and moments that I receive, it's very heart-warming for me. I can't think of a specific one, but I would say all these little things together moved me the most.
And finally, what are your plans for 2023? And, what would you like to do in the future?
I'm currently working on the new collection, it will be launched in the next few weeks. It will be called Lotus Pond, I just came back from Sri Lanka last week, where we shot it in the water. That's also a bit like my childhood, about now, about how things have changed. Remembering when we all shared as kids and traveled around the country with our families, we used to jump in the lakes. Carefree we connected with ourselves and each other through these things, and you know what? We miss that because we are adults and life is so busy now. In this new collection I look a lot at the smaller things, the things we enjoyed as children.
Going into the future and imagining things I would like to do, I have always dreamt of Amesh Home, an interior design line with my fabrics. It's something I've always been passionate about, a lot of my friends say they would love it, imagine all my textures, colours and prints in homeware, they would love to buy a rug, wall art or cushions. That's something I've been thinking about a lot, because my collections and my pieces are sometimes, well let's just say not everyone is attracted to it. It's very niche, the kind of people who would like that kind of colour and all that texture and mix. So I'm thinking, homeware, maybe it's a little bit more accessible.
Actually when I was growing up I was thinking about being an architect rather than a fashion designer, interior design has always really attracted me. Part of my family including my mother are in architecture and interior design, so I'm also very connected to these worlds. I would love to see how I can take my fashion vision, textile knowledge and apply it through the design of these home products, I think it could be very interesting.
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