Radhika and Rob are quite the power couple. When I walked into their dressing room at Shangri-La Hotel where they were getting ready for the cover shoot, I didn’t expect to be able to conduct the entire interview. But what was meant as a quick meet and greet turned into a full-blown chat that spanned business, family, personalities, and life changing decisions. Success aside, this good looking and intelligent husband and wife duo are incredibly unassuming and friendly, and the conversation, illuminating.
By Thushanthi Ponweera
Radhika, the chattier of the two, had no problem speaking through her makeup application, which led me to ask her if she has modelled before- she certainly has the looks for it. The 39-year-old mother of two is slim and tall, with golden skin and striking features. “No, no, no, no”, came her reply. But she did shyly admit that her looks were the reason she was picked to be one half of a musical duo, with her sister, Tanuja, back when she was in London in her late teens. “My sister was always the performer, but her vocal trainer saw me and immediately wanted me to sing alongside her as we were apparently an attractive sister-act…her words, not mine!”. This led to both Radhika and Tanuja forming an R&B band, and spending a year singing across the USA. “We were named ‘Taraka’ after both our names”, she adds, while asking me to kindly refrain from searching for them on YouTube. “It’s embarrassing!”. As fate would have it, this unplanned and spontaneous phase was how she came to meet Rob Heights, her now husband.
“We met in New York. I was in music production, and ended up producing music for Radhika, and one thing led to another”, says 42-year-old Rob, who is soft spoken and whose Puerto Rican roots lend his words a languid lilt. He smiles whenever he speaks of his wife. “My upbringing was completely different from Radhika’s. Unlike her, I didn’t have the most stable childhood, constantly getting into trouble as a kid. I got kicked out of high school, and ended up working some pretty basic jobs, not sure of what I wanted to do with my life, let alone how to do it”. It was at one of these jobs that a colleague’s comment changed his life. “He would see me drawing and ask me why I wasn’t pursuing it further. Art was something I loved to do, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it was something I could make a living out of, but when he told me that I should go to Art school…it was like he lit a fire in me”. The spark quickly led to a flame, that saw the 18-year-old Rob through night school, and finally getting his degree in Fashion from the University of Atlanta. “I was always attracted to fashion, and that was how I discovered I could be a designer. It was a chance to start afresh. So I changed my name to Rob Heights (his birth name is Roberto Hernandez), moved to New York and started my career in the fashion industry working for successful apparel brands which spanned a length of 18 years. During this period, I also started my own label Life of Kings. I spent the first few years handmaking each item out of a tiny basement apartment. This was when Swiss Beatz (American DJ, and also Alicia Key’s husband) noticed my products and ordered my beanie in every shade!”. The celebrity endorsement was a high point in the budding designer’s career and was the encouragement he needed. “It was a pretty uphill journey from there. My last job in the States before moving to Sri Lanka, was working for the fashion label Noah, as their Design Director”.
Radhika’s entry in to Fashion was happenstance as well. “I married Rob when I was 24, and we settled in New York. So here I was sitting in the apartment alone all day, without a job and really bored. I think Rob got sick of all my complaining, so one day he says to me, exasperated ‘Radhika, what do you want to do?!”, and I told him that I wanted to design too”. “So, design”, was his practical reply. It was one she could not argue with. She already knew how to stitch, thanks to her grandmother’s diligent sewing lessons when she was a child, and as a teenager, enjoyed putting together interesting outfit combinations, most of it upcycled from vintage stores. Sans a formal education in fashion, Radhika turned to the next best thing- she decided to learn it firsthand. Proving that America is definitely the land of opportunity, Radhika got her break as a receptionist at Beyonce Knowles fashion label, House of Dereon. “I swear, I think it was my British accent!”, she laughs. “I probably ticked all the boxes on selecting employees with diversity”. She doesn’t owe her success to luck though. “I worked hard to get to where I am. I never thought, oh I’m just a receptionist, this is beyond my job description. I was there giving my 100% every single day, and I got noticed for it. 05 months later, there was a vacancy in the design room, and they asked me to fill it”. She continued learning and working, and 05 years later she was heading the design unit. In fact, her designs have been worn by Queen Bey herself.
She says she would choose the experience she got over any design degree (Radhika does hold a degree in Politics, although she did not have any interest in the field). It was how she gained the confidence to embark on her solo career, with her debut label Lois London. “I’m not an expert on the technical aspects of sewing. But what I do know is style, fabrics, silhouettes, and most importantly how to create a brand”. I ask her if she thinks her stint in New York helped her fame. “Yes, to some extent, but what stood out from that experience was learning to go after what I want; to really persevere. Sometimes in Sri Lanka, I feel the island vibe takes over too often. It’s nice to be chilled out and laid back, but those qualities don’t encourage you to push yourself as far as you can go”. She says that the current age of Social Media creates a level playing field for all. “If you brand and market yourself correctly, you can reach just about anyone. Perhaps this is where both Rob’s and my exposure to international labels help, because we both know how to style a shoot, how to edit the photographs to achieve what we want. That’s how that picture went viral”. She is referring to the repost of a Lois London Instagram post recently by Chrissy Teigen, who claimed she wanted her Asilah dress in every colour. Teigen has 26 million Instagram followers- ‘nuff said. When asked what the pinnacle of her career has been so far though, she say nothing beats seeing her designs on the runway at the New York Fashion Week 2016, proving that she is a force to be reckoned with.
My conversation with Radhika and Rob was regularly interspersed with stories about their children. The couple gave birth to their son Naeem in 2012 and daughter Violet in 2017. In fact, the inspiration for Lois London designs came after Radhika became a first-time mom. “Our bodies, as women, go through so much and evolve so much- especially as mothers. I wanted to create clothes that a woman could wear at every stage”. Her designs are fluid, and her dresses are adjustable to all sizes. “You’re paying so much for a dress; you should be able to wear it for as long as possible!”, she adds.
Both of them spoke with great love and respect about each of their mothers. Says Radhika, “My mother, Toni is the strongest woman I know. She has always been the backbone of our family. It was through her that I realized the importance of independence. She never took things for granted and would plan for the future. When we my father passed away suddenly, although grieving, she kept her head up and carried on. That gave us so much strength during a time of immense upheaval. There are always reasons to keep moving forward and not give up hope. You just need to be able to look for them”. Rob agrees. Coming from a single parent household, he too deeply admires his mother’s ability to work tirelessly to provide for his two siblings and himself. “I never had a father figure in my life. But Maria, my mom, showed me what dedication, and perseverance can do. I owe so much to her”.
The influence of such great parents has had an effect on the type of parents they themselves are. In fact, becoming parents was the catalyst for the family’s move back to Radhika’s native country. “After my dad’s death, my mother and sister moved to Sri Lanka, and I wanted to be nearer to them”. Raising their children in America without the support of the extended family had also presented challenges, mostly because it was hard to fulfill their own expectations of spending quality time with the kids. Rob says, “It was hard to concentrate on our work and also be present as parents, and neither of us enjoyed spending so much time apart from them. On some days, we’d only be able to see Naeem at bedtime. It was crazy”. Having the production for Lois London done in Sri Lanka, Radhika and Rob both decided that it would benefit both their careers as well as their children to live here, where they could achieve a better balance. Their devotion to each other is evident, and not only because Rob followed Radhika halfway across the world. It is clear that they both respect each other and are united. “I left a pretty great job in the States. But now I can work for myself”, says Rob, who is working on his bespoke men’s fashion line Juan Ortiz Bespoke. He and Radhika are also currently collaborating on their joint label, King & Lois.
On Future Plans
Seeing their commitment to parenthood, I am curious as to whether they hope to start a kids clothing line as well. “Maybe. There’s so much we plan to do with our brands. It’s so inspiring to be back, and we have the mind space now to plan for the future”, says Radhika, who would like to create a total lifestyle brand someday. “Anything is a possibility!”
Appeared in Pulse Magazine, Nov/Dec 2019 issue
(Featured image courtesy Pulse magazine)