|‘I would have been
nobody if I didn’t do what I did’
Kirthi reflects on 80
years in fashion
Kirthi Sri Karunaratne, a celebrated and legendary couturier
turned 80 last week. Nevertheless, age doesn’t mean much to
him. He enjoys being active and doesn’t even fancy the
notion of retiring.
“I just finished a bridal last week,” he says whimsically
and brings to me a laced sari blouse. He wants to re-do the
lining for the sari by himself. “See the fabric is too
thick,” he points to me as if it were a matter of fact. At
80 years of age, this man shows no signs of stopping.
Always presentable, witty and soft-spoken, Kirthi is a
pleasure to talk with. We met him at his place to uncover a
treasure trove of pictures from yesteryear brides. From
Padmini Pilapitiya he dressed 54 years ago to the ones he
did last week.
Q. Everyone knows about your illustrious career in
fashion, so tell us something about your childhood, siblings
and your parents.
We are five boys in the family, I am the second and only one
left. My brothers were Rangiv, Chitral, Mahanil and Shamthi.
I was studious while my brothers were mostly into sports. We
all went to Ananda College. My father worked for the
municipality and my mother a housewife. I lost one brother
when he was very young, he must have been about 23 at the
time. My sister-in-law was pregnant at the time and to the
date I look after them and consider them as my own. My niece
and nephew are very close to me.
Q. Growing up, did you ever have a penchant for
fashion or beauty?
You can say that (laughs). I would always go up to my mother
and give unsolicited fashion advice, which I must say she
was very open to. She was my biggest fan and the very first
client who took my advice.
Q. What did you do after leaving school?
I wanted to be a doctor, so did my parents. Since I was
studying well, I had made it to med school. But on and off,
I found myself sketching on bits and pieces of paper. Of
course my father was not happy with what I was doing, but I
realised it was inherent in me to follow this path too, or
even consider it.
Daily News Editor saw some of these sketches and expressed
that they were gorgeous, He carried an article on me,
something along the lines of Schoolboy designer. Just after
this exposure, House of Dior had sent Geoffrey de Seyness to
scout for a designer. Daily News editor had mentioned about
me. When she asked me I told her my parents would freak out.
Seyness however had been impressed with some of my sketches
and wanted to know if I’d like to come and work for them. I
Q. How did your parents react?
They weren’t entirely happy. I was a pre-med student who was
ready to give up something that everyone considered
prestigious to do something completely unheard of.
Q. How long were you in the UK and what did you do
I was in the UK for about two years. I wanted to study
designing so I turned to the Royal School of Dress
Designing. I was dismayed to find out that I’d have to study
five years to be a designer and I was not willing or
prepared to do. The last thing I wanted to do was study the
history of costume (laughs). I met Mangala Samaraweera
there, we became friends and still keep in touch. I left the
school and started working for John Cavanaugh - one of the
12 best designers in England at the time.
Q. What did you do after your arrival here?
I started work immediately. I took part in shows and hosted
some. I even designed attire for a competition for Air
Ceylon. I won and had the attire adopted. So I kept myself
busy and it made my parents happy as well.
Q. When you dress a bride, what do you keep in mind?
To make her appear as beautiful as possible without turning
her to someone else. Even if the makeup is minimal, she can
still look her best.
Q. How many brides you’ve dressed?
Unfortunately, I can’t remember because I haven’t kept
proper record. This is probably the only shortfall. I have
pictures of most of them. Only thing is I can’t remember
their names. The ones that I can remember names, I can’t
Q. Has Ramani Fernando worked with you?
No, not worked. I actually dressed her as a bride.
Thereafter, she went to the UK. After returning, she
approached me and asked if she can be my assistant, I
happily agreed. (See picture)
Q. What advice do you have for young aspiring
Don’t push yourself. If you are really good at what you do,
you will make a name.