Entreprenuers

Kasunchana Wijeyawardena-Kapilasena: Trendy Trunk Takes Root

From the minute we walk in, well shy of 10 a.m. Kasunchana Wijeyawardena-Kapilasena is on her feet. Fielding phone calls and curious customers with equal courtesy, she’s very much in charge of her small domain. Dressed in a fitting black dress, slender heels and a gorgeous silver necklace, she’s also a walking advertisement for the clothes and accessories sold at her store, Trunk. It’s how she wants it – “If I wouldn’t wear it, I wouldn’t put it up for sale,” she says frankly, gesturing at a rack filled with carefully chosen garments. It’s an approach that’s worked well for Kasunchana, who in a few short years has opened three branches of Trunk in Colombo. For this self-labelled ‘London girl’, wooing the city’s fashionable elite appears to have come easy.

Kasunchana : A walking advertisement for her unique store

Kasunchana’s success is founded, at least in part, on the exclusivity she promises her clients. She’s had to fight her mostly European suppliers for the right to sell just one or two dresses in the same style – she says it continues to be her biggest challenge. You see, at Trunk, it’s a rare garment that is sold in duplicate sizes. In fact, each of her stores offers a unique selection – if you wanted to browse her entire catalogue you’d have to hop from the Galle Face Hotel to Odel and then to Cinnamon Grand.

When we meet her, it is at her newest outlet; having opened its doors this September, the Cinnamon Grand branch stocks clothing lines by Mimimango, U by Upeksha Hager, Rise and Pia Zara. Kasunchana gently separates one garment designed by Pia from the rest – it’s a glinting blue short sheath that she loves but says she’s unlikely to have the courage to wear it. “I have three boys at home,” she says ruefully, carefully re-hanging the daring outfit.

In recent years, her identity as a mother is something that has increasingly come to define her. Having been born and brought up in London, Kasunchana spent over 17 years in the retail business working with big names like Selfridges, Liberty’s of London, La Rinascente, Milan and Shoppers Stop, India. She was an infrequent visitor to Sri Lanka. But when her grandmother fell ill, she set aside a few days to check in on her. She met her future husband on that trip and the two chose to settle in Sri Lanka. Looking back on that time she describes it as both exciting and scary. “I had never lived anywhere apart from London. In hindsight, I think I was extremely brave.” Kasunchana is now mother to two and half year old twins and a six year old and her three boys keep her incredibly busy. They’re surprisingly interested in her business, she says, laughing as she describes her cash register being manned by her eldest – he’s a stickler for courtesy and will always remind her if she forgot to greet a customer.

It’s a reminder she rarely needs. Our interview is interrupted several times as customers come in to browse. From opening doors to helping clients try on jewellery, Kasunchana is very hands on. She says she spends most mornings, while her children are at school, running the store. After serving up dinner every night (she cherishes the compliment of being dubbed “the best cooker in the world”) she’s back at work again.

Trunk is open late – till 10 p.m on a typical night and up to midnight during the season. “I think people should be able to go out in the evening, have dinner and come back to find the shop is still open,” she says, adding that she wants her clients to be able to just linger in the store, soaking up its ambience. “It’s not about the purchase as much as it is about the experience,” she emphasises.

But if one were in the mood to buy, it would be hard to turn away from the beautiful display that houses the jewellery from the Jaipur based house of Amrapali.

Their designs include both spectacularly ornate traditional silver pieces and very contemporary ones – many of the latter are sleek and latticed, glimmering with precious stones or plated in gold. Each piece though is a showstopper and Kasunchana herself is a huge fan (appropriately her name is made up of two words meaning ‘gold’ and ‘girl’).

She introduced the work of these Indian jewellers to Selfridges in 2001 and they’ve since been picked up by Harrods as well, winning fans like Halle Berry and Angelina Jolie along the way and even being featured in the movie ‘Troy’ (2004).

Today, the flagship store is one of the reasons Kasunchana loves visiting Jaipur. “You should see me in Amrapali,” she says, describing her gleeful acquisition of the jewellery on display. She imports it by the trunk load, up to four times a month.

Though the high end pieces in particular might not move at quite that rate, she sees herself as being in the business of abundance – she wants her clients spoilt for choice as much as she wants to do the brand justice.

It’s the latter that’s kept her from showcasing more local designers. Under her direction, Trunk is a business that really throws itself behind the products it stocks. Kasunchana is working with a few select local designers to create entire lines that she can really push – “it has to be original, it has to be unique, because our customers here are sophisticated and they demand that,” she explains.

She’s faithful to the international catwalks and says Trunk’s collection is very much up to date. (As if to back her up, hanging there on a rack is a dress that Kate Middleton was recently spotted in.)

Throughout, her philosophy is simple: “An individual should be able to walk into Trunk and not have to go anywhere else.” From dress to shoes to accessories, she wants to provide a complete look. In fact, Trunk will soon be launching a personalised styling service where women can call ahead with their requirements and sizes and have a selection waiting for them.

Another service will allow you to call in with a budget and have the store choose and gift wrap an item for you. A recently added souvenir section which offers simple things like sarongs and stuffed toys is designed to cater to tourists.

Just as we’re ready to wrap up, Kasunchana slips in her reason for choosing the name ‘Trunk’ for her store. It’s not after a chest out of the Arabian Nights as I had assumed but for the trunk of a tree.

A tree is a thing of beauty that grows and changes with the season, she explains, “I see how a tree correlates to fashion with the changing trends, the shades of colour and the general beauty…from a business point of view, it represents continuous growth and it never stagnates.” Clearly, personally as well as professionally, Kasunchana has found herself a metaphor she can live by.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on November 13, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by M.A Pushpakumara

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