‘Fashion is one ofthe largest environmental polluters out there’: Ruwanthi Gajadeera

May 25, 2023

“I want to be a sustainable designer and try to help reduce the impact of the fashion industry on the planet,” says Ruwanthi Gajadeera, the Lead Designer of ARALU – a sustainable fashion line that utilises factory waste to make upcycled garments – in discussion with EthicalX. Her work has already received international recognition and awards – she made history as the first South Asian to win the coveted Taiwan Fashion Designer Award in October 2021. 

Her debut collection ‘kǣli Vol. 1’ showcases her distinctive approach to textural and silhouette experimentation, drawing inspiration from renowned designers such as Yohji Yamamoto and Junya Watanabe. 

“This collection earned me recognition as a Runner-Up at the 30th Anniversary of Graduate Fashion Week in London. My graduate collection secured me a place as a Semi-Finalist at the prestigious Redress Design Awards 2021,” said Ruwanthi. “My awards portfolio includes winning the Eco-Fashion category at the International Baltic Ethic Fashion Festival in St. Petersburg and the Fashion Newcomer Award at Taipei Fashion Week 2021, among others.”

She was also selected as one of the 10 finalists in the 2022 Redress Design Awards, the world’s largest sustainable fashion design competition, while her collection was featured in the October ’21 issue of Vogue Hong Kong.

Her latest collection, ‘Take Me Home,’ reflects her emotional connection to the great outdoors and urban spaces. 

Following are excerpts of the interview:  

Ruwanthi, would you like to introduce yourself? 

I am Ruwanthi Gajadeera, lead designer and co-founder of ARALU. I am a proud advocate for sustainable fashion. 

I spent my childhood alternating between bustling Colombo and the peaceful village of Ampara. This unique upbringing exposed me to a range of perspectives and experiences that influenced my approach to fashion and sustainability.

In Ampara, I was surrounded by nature and my father’s approach to upcycling. He would transform even a simple tin into a mini garden, showcasing the power of reusing resources. This sparked my passion for sustainability.

What do you hope to achieve with ARALU, what is its purpose?

At ARALU, my mission is to bring sustainable fashion to the forefront. I constantly seek innovative ways to achieve this. I utilise cutting-edge technology to test zero-waste traditional patterns and plan to refine my craft through the use of laser technology as a sustainable alternative to digital and screen printing.

I am also committed to educating and empowering our customers. I include QR labels with every garment we produce, providing care instructions and directing customers to the nearest waste bank, encouraging them to repair and recycle clothing. It is my goal to make sustainable fashion accessible, practical, and, most importantly, the norm. 

Why did you decide to embark on this path?

The tragic collapse of Meethotamulla garbage dump in Colombo, Sri Lanka was a defining moment in my life. This tragedy opened my eyes to the devastating impact of our actions on the world.

While pursuing my degree in fashion, I was horrified to learn that the industry is one of the largest polluters in the world, second only to the crude oil industry. This realisation was a turning point. I was determined to use my creativity to help reduce the industry’s environmental impact. That is how ARALU was born.

As a fashion graduate, I was thrilled to discover that sustainable design principles were deeply rooted in South Asian heritage fashion norms. This allowed me to merge my passion for sustainability with my love of heritage crafts and it has been a driving force behind ARALU.

Can you tell us about the other brands? 

kǣli is a tribute to the rich tapestry of cultural heritage and timeless artistry of craftsmanship. My mission is to imbue these ancient techniques with a new lease of life, while also being  eco-friendly – from the sourcing of materials from waste to the deliberate design of each garment for longevity.

YAKADA embraces the same ethos of sustainability. It is mainly focused on the materials and the design construction of each garment, which is crafted with the goal of minimising waste and maximising manufacturability, through the use of waste-to-fibre products made from pre- or post-consumer waste as well as pre- or post-industrial waste and the adoption of sustainable fabrics and materials. The brand also incorporates zero-waste design techniques.

Together, kǣli and YAKADA represent a fusion of the past and the future, bridging tradition and innovation to create a more sustainable and responsible fashion future. 

How can entities like EthicalX contribute to supporting local talent in ways that entrepreneurs would find useful?

EthicalX has significant potential to make a big impact on local talent. Firstly, through its capacity-building initiatives, it can empower entrepreneurs with the skills and knowledge needed for success, including access to training, networking, mentorship, and coaching. Secondly, EthicalX can offer practical support to tackle challenges faced by entrepreneurs during start-up and scaling stages of businesses, including help with business planning, marketing, and financial management. 

One of the remarkable things about EthicalX is that it focuses on supporting vulnerable communities, women, and young people, making sure that the support reaches those who need it the most, contributing to the development of a strong and sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Lastly, EthicalX’s support in raising seed funding can help remove one of the largest barriers to starting a business, allowing entrepreneurs to take their businesses to the next level.

Is there any message you would like to share with those interested in such an adventure?

Fashion is a powerful tool that allows us to express ourselves and make a statement to the world. In today’s world, where sustainability and ethics are at the forefront, the fashion industry has a unique opportunity to lead the way and make a difference.

If you have a passion for fashion and a desire to make a difference, embrace it. Dive deep into the industry. Together, we can create a more sustainable and ethical fashion industry.

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About the Author

SLYCAN Trust is a non-profit think tank. It has been a registered legal entity in the form of a trust since 2016, and a guarantee limited company since 2019. The entities focus on the thematic areas of climate change, adaptation and resilience, sustainable development, environmental conservation and restoration, social justice, and animal welfare. SLYCAN Trust’s activities include legal and policy research, education and awareness creation, capacity building and training, and implementation of ground level action. SLYCAN Trust aims to facilitate and contribute to multi-stakeholder driven, inclusive and participatory actions for a sustainable and resilient future for all.