South Asian Apparel Leadership Forum 2017 Unpacks Brilliant Business Intel to Unlock a Powerful Future for Sri Lanka Apparel

The eighth annual South Asian Apparel Leadership Forum was held as part of the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week last Saturday (28th Oct.) in Colombo, Sri Lanka amidst a hundred-plus audience of wearables industry visionaries, apparel leaders and professionals, emerging business bright-minds, international foresight experts, fashion business intel researchers, opinion leaders, tech revolutionaries and new media experts in fashion. This exhilaratingly inspiring session was hailed as the event’s most successful edition to date and managed to spark an illuminating discussion on the future of Sri Lanka’s most powerful export industry among its speakers and participants. The forum was chaired by Kurt Cavano, the president of GT NEXUS and presented a cleverly curated string of speakers, both local and international, to discuss and present diverse perspectives on the conference theme ‘Design and Make.’ The topics weaved in and out of major themes that highlighted how industries and businesses are dealing with change in the light of the current retail apocalypse and how with the destruction of every age, comes new opportunities that we can harness.

The art of selling emotions, living ‘phygital’ and why business needs to step in where governments fail

The world’s leading foresight consultancy— The Future Laboratory was represented by its brilliant co-founder Chris Sanderson, who first touched on the idea of conscious capitalism that prompted businesses to question as to ‘why’ they are building industries. In this light, Sanderson stressed how the twentieth century structures of commerce and capitalism that we built are no longer working in the twenty first century with changing markets, consumers and the growing ‘politics of difference’. This lead the session towards how and why businesses now can connect to the consumers in a whole new way, by leaning in, engaging, finding purpose and reason. Sanderson described why businesses— as custodians of wealth, have a responsibility to step in where governments fail. This, he pointed out, is what makes the new age business shift from profit driven to community driven, where technology creates new relationships between the companies and consumers with machines as conduits of labour and the human voice and spirit are reserved for ‘greater’.


“What is in your business for mankind? What is the bigger picture, beyond money and employment?” — Chris

The transformation economy where the customer is moving away from buying products, to spending on the intangible ‘experiences’ is much deeper than we grasp it to be. Consumers no longer want to be part of an experience where things ‘happen’ to them, while they value being part of making the experience, engaging with it as it helps them find meaning. As an example, Sanderson pointed out as how large scale activewear brands shifted from selling the idea of competition to self betterment. Experiences, thus, should be personal, engaging and also create wonder. He urged brands to think of promotions and communication in more fluid terms from music, dance to art and film.

The session also dipped into how AI and autonomous technology will ease the human burden while at the same time, companies that don’t pay attention to this will be left behind because they will not find human talent to do labour-heavy tasks in the near future. EQ and neurodiversity, which cannot be imitated by robotics yet, were highlighted as the hot skills of the future. This way, brands that will truly succeed in the twenty first century are those that recognise the true potential of their human capital and the emotional intelligence that they bring. Simultaneously, companies that don’t invest on automated colleagues will not be able to harvest big data as a mean to enhance product. Sanderson also assured that AI is not about replacing humans, but rather, augmenting their roles to make life easier, more interesting and engaging.

Continuing this, Sanderson also highlighted how tech is no longer on and off as it was in the past. Now, it’s part of us, integrated to our bodies and our lives, making the future physical and digital— rather, ‘phygital’.  


Women— and how they can make your business an absolute goddamn shit ton of money

Future Laboratory’s Foresight Director Ruth Marshall-Johnson gave a sneak peek into the new and revolutionary ‘Female Futures Forum’ that followed the South Asian Apparel Leadership Forum. She brought the attention of the audience to the massive force of female awakening and empowerment that is sweeping the world, particularly the business realm, assuring that it’s really not about women taking over, but rather a call for an equal place to form a collaboration between men and women. The female tipping point is here— women are educated, ambitious, what’s next?

Marshall pointed out that women as a market have grown, but, so have women as a business tool. She highlighted how, for women, it is about the money— often driven by familial and ambitious needs, and how that female trait works well for business.


“Powering the woman is not only the right thing to do, but also the profitable.” — Ruth

Looking ahead to a future where female empowerment doesn’t become an echo chamber but rather a change agent for business, Marshall encouraged businesses and educationalists to equip women with entrepreneurial tools to arm them with autonomous power.

Data is the new oil

The Chief Digital & Technology Officer at  Coats— Hizmy Hassen delivered a power-packed session on how investing in tech is a matter of do or die for business. Using the story of Coats— a business that is over two centuries old, and how they transitioned to a digitally savvy operation in less than a decade Hassen disclosed the following. He shared how Coats simplified their business approach to ‘What can we do with clever, thin lines?’, which began their digital transition.

Hassen stated that exponential growth in data, Ubiquitous connectivity of people and things, and leaps in computing power has led to accelerated business models, product innovation, workflow and operations digitisation, and dramatically different customer expectations for Coats, and predictably, also for any other business.


Hassen also stressed that the real challenge is to how to manage change. In this, companies will often find that what is difficult is not rallying the consumer around change, but their own workforces, colleagues and employees. Often, it is our systems that hold them back, which can be unlocked through connectivity, devices and data.

Hassen assured that digital has been, and will be, a game changer for the fashion and apparel value chain industries, which makes it critical for the Lankan apparel industry to digitally disrupt their operations.

“Every industry will be digitally disrupted. Your customers will adopt digital whether you do or don’t. So, putting digital and tech at the heart of your business will be key for survival.” — Hizmy

Hassen also shared how digital also allows radical and real time transparency, which also serves internally to breed a company culture of openness, efficiency and responsibility, which pushes companies to deliver true omni-channel customer experience.


Design, innovation, robotics and making frenemies

Forum chair Kurt Cavano grouped together a powerful panel consisting of industry pioneers Ashroff Omar— CEO of Brandix and Deshamanya Mahesh Amalean— chairman of MAS Holdings together with the future leader AroonHirdaramani— director of Hirdaramani.

Deshamanya Amalean stated that himself and MAS are very interested in innovation as the key transformational force in building the future of the company which is currently wired as a manufacturing base. He shared a personal a-ha moment that connected the dots for him, when someone asked him— “But, do you understand the consumer? Not your direct client brands, but the end consumer in the streets who wears the clothes you make.” Amalean stated that connecting their work to this consumer’s unmet need was what helped him streamline MAS.

Aroon Hirdaramani turned the conversation to global examples like Amazon for true innovation that connected the consumer need to the product and its delivery directly using tech as a conduit. He also turned the conversation to ‘design’ and its role in connecting the consumer to product effectively, saying that co-creation with the consumer is something our designers are striving to do and educators like AOD are at the forefront in creating designers who understand how to work with the consumer.

Amalean also highlighted on the importance of looking at maximising the labour you have to increase their efficiency while also making their job interesting so they learn something from it in addition to earn a good living. He admitted that robotics and automation are becoming more and more important, and it is something that the industry has to really consider.


“It is possible, and necessary for us to invest in robotics and automation on a foundation of lean manufacturing. It used to be expensive, not anymore.” — Mahesh

Ashroff Omar said that automation has taken time in the apparel industry, opposed to industries like plastics where it has been the norm for decades. But, now the industry is at a stage where it cannot be prolonged— connectivity and using data in a central way is key.

Hirdaramani contributed to this topic mentioning that the industry has been talking about automation, robotics and data for a while now— but, it’s really time to act. He expressed Hirdaramani’s interest in the area of 3D printing and manufacturing which has a lot of potential to digitise for fashion cutting through a major portion of the product cycle. He acknowledged that what took the industry to make 5 billion in the last decade will not be what takes them to make the target 8 billion and beyond in the next decade.


“Our apparel industry, despite being competitors, have a culture of mentoring, sharing and working together— being frenemies.” — Aroon

Looking into the future, both Amalean and Omar stressed on the need to invest on building a strong digital ecosystem, and how, as an industry the way they organise themselves to serve the new consumer and the digital consumer, matter.

Hirdaramani expressed his confidence that continuing to create this culture of innovation in Sri Lanka will lead the industry somewhere very good.


“Local skill enhancement in creativity can be connected to markets anywhere through digital. What AOD has implemented with design, must continue for our industry.” — Ashroff

At the core of experience is…

Michael Gutierrez, the founder of the PODIUM Innovative Talent Development mesmerised the audience with a moving solo musical performance before presenting his views on the importance of this sense of ‘play’ for creative thinking. The idea of play that is central to children, has been psychologically researched and connected to creativity, connectivity and emotion. Gutierrez stated that designing human experience is an emotive language rather than an intellectual one; One is concrete and standard, the other is fluid and abstract. This fluidity and abstraction is what allows us to connect with music without understanding it. This, he highlighted is the core of creating universal experiences.

“Technical capacity and skill should be supported by humanity”

He also connected this philosophy to creating workplaces of the future to replace silo thinking with interdependence, competitiveness with collaboration and authority with leadership. He urged Lankan apparel makers to remember to put the human experience back at the centre, as they involve tech in their business.


Yes, we still need to talk about China

Addressing the pink elephant in the room amidst all this discussion of future of fashion and business, Director of China Market Research Group​ Ben Cavendar stated that China is still very much an active force in the global economy. He asserted that the Chinese economy is strong, consumers are the happiest and most optimistic they have been in ten years and that the debt issues have been addressed very well by the government. In short, China is, right now, doing better than ever.

Cavendar also warned that China is aiming to enter the power vacuum that US has created, because now is the time for the Sinoconomy to not only counterbalance the US, but to replace it. To lead the country towards the future, the Chinese government is backing tech and innovation in a big way, having implemented layers of funding from provincial to city levels to develop technology, specifically AI. The Sino consumers too are tech progressive and are at the brink of becoming completely cashless, which presents the market as an effective one for ecommerce.


“Very soon, China will have a good, sustainable story to tell the fashion brands of the world.”

In a more directly relevant piece of intel, Cavendar also stated that China is now opening the door for high value manufacturing, and is investing in creating conduits for goods to move from China to Europe, more quickly and more cheaply as a move to gain market access for Chinese companies that rely on cheap labour and bypassing tariffs etc. China is also investing in countries like Pakistan and Ethiopia– creating new hubs in low cost regions, knowing that these investments will allow future negotiating power. With Pakistan as a Sino-powered manufacturing hub, it will have great potential to threaten Bangladesh, Vietnam and even Sri Lanka. With a large enough and vocal enough middle-class and going green also starting to make financial sense, China is also starting to invest on clean technology and environmental sustainability. Therefore investing in design and innovation that differentiates Sri Lanka Apparel will go a long way, along with strong brand building, retail partnerships and heavy emphasis on tech solutions.


Stories from the Sub-continent

Manjula Tiwari of India’s Cover Story and Linda Speldewinde of Sri Lanka’s talked about the challenges and learnings in launching two very young, but high-impact fashion brands in South Asia. Tiwari who founded Cover Story said that ​​​creating India’s first fast fashion brand was anything but easy.

The entrepreneurial challenges from making that first decision in a moment of inspiration, to working through to the same vision even in your most uninspired moments, to finding a group of believers...everything helped her craft Cover Story to become what it is today. She highlighted the importance of discovering a team that saw the same dream as you, as one of the key ingredients to success.


“After a certain point, the dream is no longer the founder’s but of the custodians.” — Manjula


For Linda Speldewinde, creating a new design sector on a blank canvas was itself an inspiring act. When was born, it was driven by the moving from a manufacturing mindset to a knowledge and design based one. Among her learnings, she highlighted identifying the customer from inside out, as the key success ingredient. Speldewinde described how it was not just about marketing, but rather about telling the authentic story, a story of impact by building something of real substance that you can actually be audacious about. She also said that operating digitally is about really living in that digital space without seeing it as an ‘additional’ thing. Shealso touched on the importance of maintaining the newness of the project and full circle customer handling, to ensure your brand is carried through to the very end of the process. Her main highlight was that Sri Lanka had a big role to play in South Asian fashion, and how was playing a decisive role in establishing it.


“Sri Lanka can be a disruptor in the region, and has a big role to play, being a small island with a big heart.” — Linda


Where are stars born?

Sri Lanka’s move towards establishing itself as the region’s creative hub prompted this panel that discussed how creative hubs are made and how these places, in turn, inspire the birth of design stars. Moderated by Jane Rapley OBE—professor emerita of Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design UK, the panel featured Martyn Roberts— director at Fashion Scout & Graduate Fashion Week, Peter Towse— former academic at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design UK and AmeshWijesekera— recent Lankan star on London Fashion Week catwalks and the designer at SRI.

Peter Towse stated that the makings of a creative hub calls for supporting three key focus groups— government/business, education and entrepreneurs/change agents.

Martyn Roberts echoed a similar sentiment mentioning that education needs to be supported, talent needs to be supported, aspirations of young creative people should be supported— and this should be done by businesses and the state. He invited Lankan apparel makers to open their eyes to young talent like Amesh because they’re changing the business as we know it, right on our doorstep while brands are out searching for fashion innovation from overseas.


AmeshWijesekera, the young promise for Sri Lanka in the international fashion scene joined in, mentioning how the support he received from industry played a big part in his success. He said that having a world class manufacturing industry close at hand is a luxury that Sri Lankan designers have, and one that works both ways to benefit the industry with talent, and talent with industry tech and capabilities.


“For me, industry opening its doors to me to create my collection added a whole new dimension. I could make what I had in mind, a choice that even a graduate in the UK doesn’t have.” — Amesh

Ending the discussion, Jane Rapley stated that the making of a creative hub is really about attracting people. Because at the end of the day, you need people with big, bright ideas- the actors, musicians, designers, artists, writers, entrepreneurs and technologists etc. to gather here— that’s where the future ideas come from.

“Have you got the creative and imaginative risk takers? Is media radical enough? Is entrepreneurship encouraged enough? Is the community diverse enough? Is Sri Lanka really ‘cool’? Because that’s what you need to make a creative hub.” — Jane


When time is gold...

Pano Anthos who is the founder and managing director of XRC Labs
conducted the closing session of the forum on ‘design thinking’ and what it delivers to industry. He discussed how time is the most valuable commodity that there is, which influences product and retail in every single aspect— starting from the consumers. Anthos pointed out that with time as the most valuable commodity in today’s fast world, a brand’s best, highest paying consumers are those who don’t have time. So thinking along how you cannot waste their time is what will help a brand be remembered and loved? Examples for the fashion industry included the ever popular ecommerce channel, stylists that do home visits, ShopShops, pop-ups that take the store to the consumer etc. that are revolutionising fashion retail now. Thinking like this, streamlined to identify what consumers need, Anthos stated, is what design thinking is all about.


“Traditional retail where you go have to a store is a waste of time, hence, money. And people who have the least amount of time are those who have the most amount of money, and vice versa.”

He also spoke about how design thinking prepares you to work better with tech knowing that technology fails often and fast, making steps in the design thinking process such as prototyping, research and testing all the more important. Anthos touched on other consumer needs identified through design thinking, like personalising, giving recognition to consumers, making product searches easy for consumers and even radical new ideas like seeing the concept of the ‘store’ as a service or rental, corresponding to how consumers have moved from the owning mentality to the rental mentality today.