'Born In The East, Raised In The West': The Vision Behind Helani Sarath-Kumara's Aussie Fashion Label 'Gather & Stitch'

Meet Helani Sarath-Kumara, a Sri Lankan Australian fashion designer and makeup artist who founded Gather & Stitch Couture and Gather & Stitch Beauty.

Today we chat to Helani Sarath-Kumara, a Sri Lankan Australian fashion designer and makeup artist who founded Gather & Stitch Couture and Gather & Stitch Beauty.

Helani recently launched Gather & Stitch's first ready-to-wear collection called Candy Skies – a definite game changer in the Australian market where there's high demand for Indo-western couture wear for weddings and formal events.

Here Helani speaks about Candy Skies, designing the national costume for the Miss Universe pageant, what advice she has for South Asian women hoping to forge a creative career, and more.

When did you start Gather & Stitch and what made you decide to start it? 

I started planning Gather and Stitch when I was 22. I had just finished university and, like I had felt my whole life, I couldn’t imagine working for someone else. I launched Gather and Stitch in 2010, one week after I turned 23. I loved fashion growing up but I didn’t study it which I think kept my passion for it alive. It's funny how things turn out, because I went back to it after I finished my degree in Visual Communication.

During a trip to Sri Lanka, I saw a school building in a rural village that needed funding to be built. I decided to have a fashion show to launch my label and raise funds for it. We did, and that’s how Gather and Stitch started. In 2011 we added the Beauty side to Gather and Stitch. It may have been intuition or instinct, or just being naive! But it just felt like what I was supposed to do.

What made you decide to start a ready-to-wear collection now? 

I think it was finally the right timing in my life. We get so many requests and orders for the custom-made that I am turning so many people down. I want everyone who wants to wear Gather and Stitch to be able to. I’ve always wanted to do a collection and felt like I didn’t have the right resources or knowledge to be able to do that. Over the last two years, the road on how and why I should make it happen became clearer and here we are.

What is the vision behind Candy Skies and what sets it apart from other couture ready-to-wear collections?

The vision behind Candy Skies is the 'born in the east, raised in the west' concept. This is who Gather and Stitch is, and I feel like so many people around the world feel this way.

I don’t know any other brand that is creating something that’s a reflection of their upbringing in Sri Lanka and Australia. It looks delicately eastern in Australia and undeniably western in Sri Lanka. Fitting into none, standing out alone, a blend of two realities.

I also wanted to create choice for the customer. They get to choose their own combination and everything is designed in a way that it matches with anything on the site.  The ready made Kandiyan is also first of its kind. I don’t believe there is anything like this out there in the world.

If you had to describe Candy Skies in a few words, what would they be? 

Soft, free and a reflection of us.

What's been the most popular piece from the Candy Skies collection so far? 

I would say the most popular one is the Strapless and Bishop Blouse! Those sleeves are so popular.

We're also really curious about Gather & Stitch's bespoke one-off pieces that are created for clients. How long do those outfits take to make?

The one-off custom ones take about one year from enquiry to the finished product. Because they are custom, we do everything with you from the design, fabric selection to fittings. It is truly made to fit you and your personality. For our interstate clients as well, this kind of lead up is great to leave time to come to Sydney for fittings. The actual process of making the outfit is done about three months from the date of your wedding to ensure the perfect fit of your right size. Because we do everything in-house, this process is fast.

What are the most popular design requests you get from clients in general?

The most popular design request is Dilini’s and Sam’s modern Kandiyan sarees. This style is so unique to Sri Lanka and I get requests for this style from all over the world, including from Sri Lanka. I truly believe it’s different to anything out there and yet traditionally accepted. The other one would be our modern ‘Saree Not Saree’ look. That is also a popular request from everywhere.

Have there been any memorable moments in your design career to date?

I think my most memorable moments would have to start with the day we launched. I’ll always remember that day and everyone who helped out to make it happen.

I did love the process of working with Miss Universe Australia back in 2013 for the National Costume competition and learning from that experience. It’s definitely the part of my journey that everyone remembers. So many uncles and aunties would come up to me years after saying how they remembered that. I think they were really proud to have been able to see ‘one of them’ on TV, especially all those years ago.

My favourite part is seeing the happiness and confidence a great dress creates for the client. Their posture changes and they feel, I would hope, amazing and confident because of what they’re wearing. 

What's next for Gather & Stitch? 

I don’t know, thats a great question. You’ll be the first to know when I know!

What's your advice to other young South Asian women and women of colour who want to start a creative business? 

Get a plan together as much as possible and just do it. Don’t compare your start to someone else three, 10 years down the track.

The first three to five years is crucial and that process is what you need to go through to come out on the other side more confident and wise. Every mistake is a learning process and a stepping stone to making you and your business stronger. Follow your passion and what makes you happy. If you can make a business or career out of that, then you’ll never feel like its ‘work’.

And don’t be afraid of change, listen to your business ideas and let things change and grow as required. Remember that you can’t learn to write without writing. Just like that, you can’t learn to have a business without having a business. You’ve got to start to make it happen. Good luck!