Upeksha Hager: on fashion design and story telling

In their vase on the table, the roses are in full bloom. Their colour is echoed in Upeksha Deegala-Hager’s vivid, red lipstick. We’re in her house, which also doubles as a design studio for her line of clothing U by Upeksha Hager. She is telling us that she designed the house with its blue wooden doors and rooftop swimming pool herself, and that one room was always a designated studio.

Upeksha Deegala-Hager.
Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

A long cupboard in the room is overflowing with clothes and a single dummy stands dressed in a short dress made of coarse grey cloth (the kind that is not in fact grey, but off white) and bedecked with flowers in the same material. Handling it, Upeksha explains, “I like the juxtaposition of having something that people think of as boring and not finished and doing something very creative with it.”

Having grown up in Sri Lanka, Upeksha and her family migrated to the U.S when she was 16 years old. She says she found herself caught up in a culture that encouraged self discovery and individuality – it’s why she made the leap from studying biochemistry to art and costume design in particular. Looking back on her childhood growing up in Kurunegala, she remembered the simple pleasure she used to find in making new dresses for her dolls and in redecorating her room.

Now, having decided to focus on visual art, she also wanted to explore painting and sculpture. After graduating, for four years she worked in the field, designing sets and costumes for experimental theatre and dance performances in Washington D.C. Out of this came her own, small line of clothing which she designed while outsourcing the stitching to a seamstress. She built up a small but loyal client base there.

Her love of theatre has always informed her aesthetic. “It’s designing for characters and we’re all characters in a way. You dress the character to suit their lives, their story,” she says, adding that the same thing applies to her other love – interior design. “It’s the stage or the space for that character to live in. It’s about designing for that person’s life.” Upeksha’s understanding of what exactly that entails seems entirely intuitive. “When I meet a person – the way they speak, what they do in life – I have a sense of what will suit them,” she says, gesticulating. “There’s an air about a person that I want to nudge them toward.”

Upeksha has an aversion to mass production and currently seems to enjoy turning out unique, custom-designed pieces. Form, she believes, must simply arise out of function. “I let them try on different shapes and different colours and they start to see themselves in front of the mirror and they start to believe in it. A lot of the time when they leave, they’re wearing something very different from what they were wearing when they walked in… I send out of these doors women – happily dressed women – in all different shapes and sizes.”

Now after a marriage, a move to Sri Lanka and the birth of her first child, Upeksha is replicating her business model, except this time she’s a little more ambitious. It’s so competitive over there,” she says. “Here you can actually make the dream happen.” When her parents returned to spend their retirement in Sri Lanka, Upeksha brought her family along too. She placed an ad in the paper and found Nirosha Mohitige to serve as her seamstress. “We started making things out a trunk of fabrics I had collected.” Soon, they had a starter collection of 30 odd pieces.

The two women continue to work closely together, averaging a dress a day. “I wake up in the morning, and I know what kind of fabric I have,” Upeksha says explaining her process. Working primarily in linen and cotton, she allows her imagination full rein. “I basically dream it.” “When Nirosha comes in, in the morning, she doesn’t even get to put her bag down before I say, I have this idea!” Looking at the sheets, Upeksha imagines a clear pattern and cuts it, but still she describes the process of creating the dress itself as “organic” saying the design evolves right up until the last minute. They’re both exacting when it comes to finish – if you turn the dress inside out, it should look as neat.

The same painstaking effort is more immediately apparent in the three dimensional ‘sculpting’ she introduces into her designs. Flowers, in particular are a motif in this collection. Appearing to furl open on the otherwise plain cloth, they bloom in a variety of shapes and sizes. “I love the arts and crafts movement of the turn of the century,” she explains. “Some of my favourite painters are from that period too. I love the detail. The artisans and the craftsmen actually tell the story of their time. That’s what I’m trying to do.” The floral motif is set off by Upeksha’s love of geometric designs. Straight lines and figures form patterns that enhance the clean, crisp lines of her cut; it’s easy to see why Upeksha sees herself as a pattern cutter rather than a draper.

When it comes to accessories, she likes to keep it simple. For instance, she might advise a customer to pair her classic black dress with a red flower in her hair. “I have bohemian sensibilities and so I won’t necessarily suggest stilettos and coach bags. I propose whimsical ideas,” she says. Currently, she offers only advice, not the accessories themselves. Expanding her services in that area is something that holds an appeal for her. She’s fantasised about opening a little gourmet lunch place (where she can serve her signature soup, made from scratch) with a wine bar adjoining her boutique. But right now, such ambitions must take a backseat to other priorities. “I’m also quite greedy for having a fun life with the baby, husband, and family and I’m not willing to compromise on that to expand the business.” (Her son Nathaniel Pavan is a year old).

The pieces we are seeing are part of two new collections that will be launched soon. Her line of clothing is carried in the store Trunk at the Galle Face Hotel, and she will also have her own racks in their second outlet, to be opened soon. She has her own clients as well, who come direct to her little couture house for their clothes. She continues to contribute to theatrical productions here – the last one was a staging of Tennessee Williams’‘Out Cry’ at the Punchi, where she designed the stage layout and costumes.

With her work picking up, she sees herself living in Sri Lanka for a while. “I’m as settled as this humongous house is. I’m rooted here,” she confesses. Though she’s brimming with ideas, she’s uncertain about what the future holds for her fledgling line. Upstairs, under a painting of an apple tree and the watchful eyes of his grandmothers, her son is asleep – he’s the one who runs her schedule now.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on August 21, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel.

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