For Dhanushka Wickramaratne, becoming an entrepreneur has been a journey of self-realization.
By Thushanthi Ponweera
Moving forward, come what may
For those of you who haven’t been following the slowly rising trend of local fashion designers, Dhanushka’s brainchild, ‘Cane Couture’ was created in 2015, back when most of what was available to the local consumers were foreign brand rejects. But according to Dhanushka, it wasn’t a clear-cut road to success. In fact, her path was made over the stepping stones of many challenges.
“My childhood dream was to become a doctor, but when my grades didn’t quite add up, I chose law as my mom was eager for me to follow in her footsteps, and sat for the law entrance exams. A few times!” I her how she then came to be a Fashion Designer. “Well, I thought perhaps the reason I wasn’t really succeeding in law was because my heart wasn’t in it. That’s when I began to notice the sketches of silhouettes and clothing covering the blank spaces in my study texts. I’d done them to distract myself, but they were actually pretty good. I realized that I enjoyed designing very much, and decided to follow that passion and see where it would lead me”. A regular person would get frustrated with all the attempts at career paths that didn’t see fruition, but not Dhanushka. Undeterred and full of optimism, she set out to get her BSc at the T.John College (an affiliate to the University of Bangalore) in India, a time filled with great memories and lifelong friendships. She had finally found her calling.
It still wouldn’t be smooth sailing though. In 2000, Dhanushka experienced a seizure at the age of 16, while in her classroom at Bishops’ College, Colombo. She was later diagnosed with Epilepsy. She says the seizures didn’t occur frequently, but they did happen unpredictably, and it was that unpredictability that proved the most difficult. Especially, as she later found out, in the corporate world. After her return to Sri Lanka upon completing her degree, Dhanushka secured a position at a leading apparel manufacturer as an Assistant Fashion Designer. Unfortunately, interrupting what was a promising career, Dhanushka suffered a seizure during a secondment in Hong Kong, (only her third during a tenure of almost five years), and was brought back to Sri Lanka immediately after, a move that she felt letdown by. “It isn’t a crippling disease. I’m usually fully recovered and back at work a couple of days later. I never hid it from my past employers or my current employees, and I always put in whatever time and energy I could into my work”, Dhanushka says passionately, making it clear that she values integrity, hard work and transparency above all. “In hindsight, I understand. People find it hard to adjust to anything that deviates even slightly from the norm, and are sometimes ill equipped to handle situations like that. I’m glad to see that this is slowly changing the world over”. She adds that she too is hoping to create more awareness about the illness*, and braving her fears to open up publicly through this very interview is only the beginning.
She moved out of her job in 2014, determined to create something meaningful. “I wanted to do something that mattered and by being a part of it, feel like I mattered”. Inspiration struck in the most random way, which she owes to her mother. “My mom had an old Palmyra handbag that she loved, but was falling apart. And I really wanted to find a similar bag for her”. This made her wonder why it was so hard to locate Palmyrah or Cane handbags in Sri Lanka. “After all, it’s grown locally and there are plenty of products made from these raw materials already available in the market”. That’s when she decided to fill in the gap in the market- cane bags and accessories with an edge. “My first bag, which is still one of my favourite designs, is named ‘Anomi’, which is the nickname given to my mom, Anoma, by my dad. It’s shaped after her too”, she adds fondly, referring to how the bag, which is rounded at the bottom, reminds her of her mother’s typically wide Lankan hips in the traditional Kandyan attire, the Osariya. “In fact, the Anomi pairs perfectly with the Osariya, but still looks equally good with a simple shift. It’s nice to create designs that anyone can carry, whether modern or traditional”.
I ask her how her journey has been thus far. “It’s been incredible. I’ve met the most amazing people”. I assume she’s talking about her customers, but she is speaking of the craftsmen she works with. “It’s almost a sacred experience. This is what their fathers and forefathers did before them. Cane craft is not only a livelihood for them, it’s in their blood”. As someone who didn’t have any experience with cane herself, she initially spent a lot of time trying to learn as much about the craft as she could. “I would take off for an entire day and go to Radawaduna (popularly known as Vevaldeniya), spend time with craftspeople and their families, surrounded by so much contentment and pride. I still find it one of the best ways to destress and to get inspired”.
She now has over 20 independent suppliers in varying crafts, all experienced artisans, all whom she considers friends. “I have been approached with opportunities to produce on a larger scale, but I have opted not to. These artisans do their craft as a passion, alongside with many other activities. Increasing the demand would disrupt their work-life balance and I don’t want to do that”. She is also conscious that Cane Couture products do not leave behind a heavy carbon footprint. “Currently, we plant two rattan trees every time we harvest one, which is possible at the current production rate, thankfully”. Her voice is tinged with pride when she speaks about what she does, not because of what she is giving out to the world, but because of what she has gained out of it.
“It’s a beautiful network that I’m honoured to be a part of, and I really hope that I’m helping to make a difference. It’s certainly changed my life for the better”.
*At the time of publication, Dhanushka had concluded a panel discussion on the topic, which was free for public attendance.
Originally appeared in the Pulse magazine, Nov/Dec 2019 issue.
Picture credit: Pulse