AOD alumna Shayani Alwis talks fashion design, entrepreneurship, and her passion for fashion

From aspiring fashion design student to successful business owner – An interview with AOD alumna Shayani Alwis

Fashion is reputedly a competitive enough arena to break into, but to launch and successfully run your own brand has its own set of challenges; challenges that one can only learn when passion is coupled with a sound educational foundation.

In an interview for The Education Times, Shayani Alwis, former BA (Hons) Fashion & Textile Design student from the Academy of Design, and Founder and Creative Director of Shay Intl., bears testament to the importance of both.

In 2013, and aged just 23, Shayani launched Shay Intl., with the aim to offer Sri Lankan fashionistas a broad range of fun and on-trend designs that would otherwise not be easily found in the country. Combining her own passion for all things fashion, innovation with design, and business know-how, Shayani is now, nearly 10 years later, a successful business entrepreneur.

How did you know that you want to become a fashion designer and eventually a fashion business owner?

I have always been artistic ever since I was quite young, and even though I initially had plans of becoming an architect, it was my mother who recognized my keen eye for fashion and looked up AOD’s Fashion Design programs for my benefit. Once I got a taste of what this could potentially open up for me, I just knew that fashion design was what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life.

As for eventually launching my own business, during my studies at AOD –where I acquired the theoretical and practical education required of fashion design, I was selected for an internship at MAS Linea Aqua which allowed me to step right into the industry immediately after graduation. I always knew I wanted to start my own brand, and the many opportunities I was privileged to receive from AOD, coupled at this point with a very real passion for fashion, I was determined to somehow make it work. Additionally, winning the award for Individual Own Brand at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion and Apparel Awards gave me the confidence to finally launch the brand.

Going back to your university days, as a designer dreaming about starting your own business, what influenced and encouraged you the most?

Many underestimate the importance of having great teachers alongside you as part of your learning journey. A lot of my dedication to the craft and my successes so far I owe greatly to the truly encouraging and inspirational faculty I learned from at AOD. My lecturers –and even university Director- were not just well-versed in the subjects they taught and the design industry as a whole, but were also wholly invested in each of their students, often going out of their way to enhance the learning experience and provide greater opportunities for us to expand our breadth of study.

What are the key skills you gained from university that helps you function as a fashion entrepreneur today?

As the founder of my own fashion venture, naturally I’m the one having to make strategic decisions about the direction my business takes. For this I need a thorough understanding of the business of fashion, but also strong communication skills.

At AOD, I was given immense exposure to the inner workings of the industry; a lot of it shaping how I function as an entrepreneur today. In addition to learning directly from some of the country’s leading professionals, I will never forget my showcase and win at the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, not just for the immense honor and exposure, but more importantly for the hands-on education I received through the entire experience. Here I learned to work closely with other artisans and members of the design community, and as a result, was able to build on not just my designing skills, but also my people-skills to be able to better communicate my vision.

With your designs at Shay Intl., how do you walk the line between being unique and having commercial appeal?

As cutting-edge business tactics continue to shape today’s fashion industry, fashion entrepreneurs must be able to employ strategies that will help them negotiate this commercially-driven sector.

With AOD’s BA (Hons) Fashion & Textile Design programme, I was given the opportunity to explore not just how to design, create, and produce wearable outfits that reflected my own signature style, but was also introduced to the theory, principles and practical realities of running a business operationally, from manufacturing to project; all this while keeping a finger on the pulse on new market trends and consumer interests. This has helped me immensely in staying relevant in a constantly fluctuating industry.

You are both the creative and the business head of your company. How do you balance your time between the two?

It’s not easy! Being in charge of design as well as the entire operation behind what makes a fashion brand click requires a whole lot of passion and determination to see your brand succeed; even when times are hard.

I’ve learned to segregate the two functions, and accordingly switch between the two corporate personas. While on one day I’m sourcing fabrics and sketching designs, another I’m speaking to retailers and ensuring that the shop is running smoothly.

Why do you think most fashion designers can't make it to being successful entrepreneurs?

Although it appears that increasingly more and more designers are launching their own businesses, eventually only a handful end up breaking through that proverbial glass ceiling as a truly successful entrepreneur.

In my case, growth is something I actively invest in for my company and overall entrepreneurship philosophy. This doesn't mean that my brand is fast fashion, but it’s about building a successful, locally designed and produced clothing brand that helps the local economy flourish by keeping demand and supply circularity within the country.

At the same time, we can’t also say that a fashion designer who owns a small brand and chooses to maintain it as niche and at manageable size is not a successful entrepreneur.

In my case, I also think that by being a designer by nature, alongside the design development skills I have been able to hone during my study and work experiences, has given me the ability to think out of the box in approaching the many entrepreneurial challenges I have had to face since launching Shay Intl.

What advice would you give to those hoping to go down the same path as you, in terms of launching their own fashion brand?

You have to understand from the get go, that this isn’t going to be an easy ride. However, provided that you invest in a good education, dedicate yourself to your craft, take on every opportunity you get, and keep fuelling your passion, the journey will not seem  like work at all, but truly a dream come true.

What specific advice do you have for aspiring women entrepreneurs in particular? Would you say there are specific advantages or disadvantages to being a woman business owner?

In my opinion, it is still a man's world out there, and perhaps it will stay that way for a long time to come. I can remember there were times when I went for meetings together with my husband, and was often dismissed by the men in the room assuming that he was the director of the brand and not me!

This is a huge problem that has deeper roots in our society, and we as women unfortunately, have to go that extra mile to prove that we belong. But with passion, grit, and a will to succeed no matter what, we can definitely turn around the way things function in the corporate world. Over 80% of my workforce is now female, with the larger goal of promoting the livelihood of women and helping them grow as entrepreneurs alongside the Shay Intl. brand.