In the flurry of events, shows and IRL and URL appointments, it is easy to overlook rough diamonds. But even in a month of chaotic phygital fashion, Amish Wijesekera’s work stands out. The Sri Lankan designer is Reference Studios’ first Reference Incubator award winner and presented his work at the phygital Reference Festival in Berlin earlier this fall alongside 032c, Ottolinger, Juliana Huxtable and other artists, musicians and designers from fame.
“He’s the first winner and he’s also exactly what we were looking for; it represents every aspect of the program when we first reunited with Hans Ulrich Obrist three years ago, ”said Reference Studios founder Mumi Haiati. “What we had in mind was to really support and empower underrepresented talent around the world with a sustainable approach as a foundation. I think he represents exactly that.
Wijesekera’s collection tackles the ideas traditional fashion struggles with – identity, multiculturalism, sustainability and gender – with magnificent and emotional force. He spent much of the 2020 blockades in Sri Lanka with his family, using the experience to fuel a new creative process. “I was a little stuck at home, but then I started cleaning and found all of my mom’s sarees. They had been there all these years in her closet and she would wear them like once a year, [and they were] like rotting. I thought, let’s use what’s around me, ”he said. “So I cut out all of my mom’s sarees and made them into more fitted pieces.” Wijesekera also restored some of her grandmother’s saris, adding embroidery and hand painting, in other pieces.
Due to the pandemic, many artisans and factories in Sri Lanka were also suffering. Wijesekera notes that the country, a huge fashion manufacturing hub, has also become a repository for its waste, with companies sending tons of textile waste to the island. His solution was to work with artisans to create unique knits. “Sometimes I feel like artisans are treated like machines,” he says. “They have years and years of knowledge, know-how and skills, and they can never show their creativity or their skills. I would give them a rough idea, but I said there was no right or wrong way to do it. The collection was then modeled by local Sri Lankans who Wijesekera spotted on Instagram.
With the support of Reference Studios and its partner Slam Jam, Wijesekera’s reach extends far beyond Sri Lanka. As the winner of the Reference Incubator Award, he will receive three months of PR support, a spot in the Reference Studios showroom, and all the resources Slam Jam has to offer. Additionally, there was its virtual inclusion in the Reference Festival alongside other designers and artists like Ottolinger, Juliana Huxtable, 032C and techno musician Max Kobosil’s new collection in partnership with Antonioli 44 Label Group. “We were very happy this year to bridge the gap between Fashion Week and Art Week [in Berlin]”Says Haiati,” There has always been a distance between different worlds, but for us they go together and they can nourish each other. “The same could be said for the divide between local and global fashion, but thanks to a wave of international support, Wijesekera seems ready to go wherever he wants to settle.