Exclusive Cover Story: Asanka De Mel | Hi!! Magazine | 2016
The force behind LOVI Ceylon sarongs speaks of his sartorial journey to make the sarong sassy and stylish. Swapping life in Silicon Valley for a design studio in Sri Lanka, Harvard Graduate Asanka De Mel is living his dream. The creator of LOVI Ceylon sarongs, Asanka is realising a long held ambition to fuse technology and design in bringing his product to the fashion stores of Sri Lanka and the world. Asanka is passionate about transforming the humble sarong into a fashion statement and making LOVI Ceylon sarongs a staple in every fashionista’s wardrobe. Innovation is his raison d’être. This is evident in his creations which have a pocket and a gold tipped belt adding to its fashion appeal. His work ethic is admirable. His dedication is impressive and his creation - LOVI Ceylon sarongs have an aura of sophistication that makes the wearer stand out in a crowd. Elevating the sarong as a fashion ‘must have’ Asanka is on the cusp of making his aspiration a reality.
What is the LOVI Ceylon story?
The sarong, as you knew it, is dead. LOVI Ceylon is on a mission to reimagine traditional Ceylonese clothing. Like Geoffrey Bawa and his colleagues defined the architectural shape of our buildings, we’re creating a silhouette for modern Sri Lankan clothing. Let’s face it, when did you last wear a Kandyan Nilame suit, a National, or even a sarong out to dinner to make a fashion statement? Our traditional clothing is outdated. LOVI Ceylon is transforming traditionalwear into designerwear. We’re so committed to modernizing the sarong we have applied for a U.S. and World Patent to prove it.
After years of travel I know that Ceylonese aesthetics and values have an international appeal, and naturally fit into the global fashion dialogue. I hope to spark excitement about our roots, to foster confidence about our island home, and help usher our traditional clothing into modern times. Ceylon is in our label as a reminder of that mission. What we wear reflects how we see ourselves. The sarong is ours and it’s time to upgrade it, refresh it, and reclaim it with pride.
What does the sarong mean to you?
The sarong is our heritage. We have a natural claim to it, an ease with it. But it’s outdated. Fashion is about creating clothing for the times we live in. If we don’t innovate, this part of our culture will erode away. Teenagers today rarely wear sarongs because they aren’t relevant anymore. It’s time for us to make them cool again. The sarong is an inclusive garment that speaks to my values. No matter your age, gender, or body size, you look good in a sarong. I also have a cherished childhood memory of falling asleep rocking in the folds of my father’s sarong, during the balmy months. I think many in Sri Lanka can relate to that memory. It’s a wonderful emotional connection to this country wherever in the world you may live now.
How did the name LOVI Ceylon come about?
My girl and I were sitting in the garden in front of the fine arts museum in San Francisco. She was studying fruit vocabulary in Sinhala. I was thinking of names for the business, and it just clicked.
Why did you transition from a career in Silicon Valley to a design studio in Sri Lanka?
I’m living out my dream. I am always involved in tech. Fashion isn’t actually much different than tech. Fashion is about innovating what we wear. I see clothing as a tech product with really challenging user (wearer!) experience requirements. It needs to fit our hundreds of moods, our range of human body shapes, feel comfortable on our bodies, be durable, and put a smile on your face every time you wear it. I bet not many tech products would fit that bill.
When did you first launch?
LOVIsarongs.com was launched in January 2016, and we’ve sold sarongs in over a dozen countries online. Recently, we’ve started selling in several boutiques, like Aashkii and Trunk.
How long did you spend developing LOVI Ceylon from an idea into reality?
We want LOVI Ceylon sarongs to be a memorable experience. So we spent months working on the details: the softness and shine of the fabric, the proportions of the pockets, the weight of the gold-tipped belt in your hand, and the sizing to get that perfect fit without the bulge of the sarong knot around your waist. We wanted it gift-ready, the kind of packaging you’d find with a European luxury brand. And we wrapped it all up in great online customer care. It took us many months to get the first collection out, but I have been gathering ideas and inspiration for this venture my whole life.
Where do you seek your inspiration?
I’m inspired by travel, the intersection of cultures, and what the future holds. My collections are meant to fit the explorer, the adventurer in all of us. These are universal desires, and perhaps that’s why our sarongs appeal to a worldwide audience.
What is the name of your latest collection?
The theme ‘Modern Ceylon’ is inspired by our ideas to renew and reclaim the sarong. It’s the push and pull of identity in a globalized world. How can we be both uniquely Sri Lankan and a global citizen? We have several themed collections within the Modern Ceylon umbrella such as Rugby, Checks, Ribbons, Poppies and Tuxedos to fit the occasion and mood you’re in.
How are you modernizing the sarong?
Our current collection is in custom handloom cotton that we developed to give LOVI Ceylon the softness, shine, and durability we wanted. All LOVI Ceylon sarongs are designed for being active and outdoors. They have pockets for your cash and phone, a belt to keep it tied securely, and lining to keep you dry. They can be dressed up with a shirt, jacket, and shoes for going out. One popular example is the Leather Check Sarong which has twenty meters of genuine leather stitched to handloom cotton. It’s a go-to sarong for any occasion. We’re only just getting started, there’s more to come.
How do you intend to make the sarong more popular amongst Colombo’s fashionistas?
It’s already happening organically. Colombo Fashion Week was full of people wearing sarongs. LOVI Ceylon’s Brand Ambassador, Adrian de Silva, is one of the top high fashion models in the country. Our current Facebook campaign features brilliant model (and scientist!) Jay de Silva, who won the Miss Sri Lanka for Miss Universe pageant recently. We’re very engaged with the model community especially on Instagram.
Often it’s how they see sarongs that will drive our campaigns. We also create sarongs that make women feel beautiful. Fit is critical and our sarongs are available from XS to L. Our designs create slimming silhouettes, elegant looks and can be draped in many ways.
But it’s not just in Colombo. In August, I travelled to Trincomalee. As usual, I went out to dinner in a sarong with a dress shirt and shoes. I got so much attention. They were intrigued, proud, and maybe a little envious. Here’s why. People here come home from work, and what’s the first thing they do? They strip off their sweaty pants or jeans, and put on a sarong. With modern, on trend design, LOVI Ceylon is giving men and women the flexibility to wear the sarong they love outdoors, fashionably.
How important a role does social media play in promoting your business?
People from around the world are joining us on social media, sharing their stories. We love being able to talk directly with our customers and fans. We have these photo series called ‘Sarong Stories’ we develop together with the fashion crowd to show how exciting, glamorous, and comfortable sarongs can be. We have a lot of fun with them and the engagement from our online community is so encouraging. It’s a great party @lovisarongs on Facebook and Instagram.
What makes your product different from other sarongs sold in Colombo’s boutiques?
Since we’re focused on one product, we can be constantly innovating the sarong, which means staying on trend with global fashion. This is different from many brands with catalogs of thousands of products. I think the pictures here and online will show how we do things differently. Better yet, try one on at one of our boutiques, and you’ll experience the difference for yourself.