Catherine Rawson: The Old Railway

The Old Railway is housed in what used to be an electrician’s shop. Upstairs, a pretty little café overlooks the canal but it is the workshop downstairs that Catherine Rawson really considers her domain. There are clothes everywhere you look and interspersed among them are an eclectic selection of books and jewellery, bags and handicrafts. Dressed casually in a pair of denim cut offs and a loose brown top, Catherine greets us. “I’m wearing my farmers outfit,” she laughs, “you can tell I’ve been busy.”

And likelier to get busier still: Catherine has her hands full preparing for The Old Railway Fashion Show where she will debut Skin, her new line of clothing. It covers the range from “balloony” shorts and smart tea dresses for women to urban, casual wear for men.  Catherine designer, who moved to Sri Lanka in 2010, opened The Old Railway with her husband Rasika in January 2012. A year in, they seem settled into their spot on Havelock Road and they’re one of a handful of cafés actually operating outside the Fort.

Catherine and one of her creations being modelled (bottom)

Catherine says their unique menu helps lure in guests – think pork, plum and apple burger served with coleslaw and caramelised onion relish (Rs.900) or tuna fish cakes served with potato salad and tartare sauce (Rs.800). (What’s on offer changes according to what’s in season.) To wash it down they serve a range of beverages, including Vietnamese style coffee (Rs.350) and Nepali chai (Rs.200) and for dessert there’s freshly baked cake and cookies, some of which are made from recipes handed down from Catherine’s grandfather who liked to bake his own bread and brew his own beer. Piled on plate is this week’s guilty pleasure: chunky cookies packed with cadju, chocolate, peanut butter, cream cheese and stem ginger (Rs.250).

Despite the temptations of the café, Catherine’s main focus is the shop downstairs. It’s where she sells her one of a kind designs. She studied fashion in London at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design where she graduated in 2004 with a BA (Hons) in Fashion Design with Knitwear. She traces her interest in the latter to growing up in Sheffield, U.K and being taught French knitting by her grandmother. As a child, Catherine used the technique, which produces a long cord of fabric, to make scarves for her teddy bear, but says her interest in design itself was rooted in a different childhood experience – being big made for her age.

Growing up, Catherine and her sister had distinctly different body types. Life as the taller, chubbier child could be disheartening – clothes that looked wonderful on her sibling did nothing for her. “It was an on-going battle in our house because my mother liked to dress us in the same clothes – they would look great on my sister, but rubbish on me,” says Catherine. Not being able to find the designs she liked in a larger size was a challenge she would frequently encounter – her solution was to design and make her own clothes. It’s the reason, she says that she still prefers the looser silhouettes – they’re comfortable, but she’s also designing things she would be happy to wear herself. Her garments tend to be light and airy, but are adaptable: they can be cinched in at the waist, tucked in or worn out or paired with more fitted pieces. “I like very fluid fabrics, fabrics so light that they aren’t quite there,” she says.

Catherine’s designs are influenced by the years she spent in London and Paris working for various fashion houses. (She also ran a stall at London’s Broadway market for a year, selling handmade children’s toys made from the left over fabric from her graduate collection). Though she had done well in college, Catherine wasn’t sure she could muster the funds and the patience it would take to make it big in the fashion world. Years slaving as an unpaid intern is treated as a rite of passage, but Catherine knew she had to think about paying the rent.

It was why she took a job with a travel company and spent four and half years touring the world, along the way filling her rucksack with fabric, beads and buttons and interesting clothing as she explored the markets in a new city. She visited India, Kyrgyzstan – where she bought the massive felt carpet that dominates one of the rooms in the café – and several other countries in Asia as well Europe and Africa. In Vietnam, she found an old vendor who sold wooden and mother of pearl buttons and in Thailand she bought hand-woven belts decorated with intricate embroidery. “I used to spend practically everything I earned on these bits and bobs I would find in the markets. When I’d show my mom my rucksack full of this stuff, she’d ask ‘Where are your clothes?’” Catherine documented her travels with sketches and photographs but yearned to be back designing clothes.

After the momentous decision to move to Sri Lanka which she cemented by marrying Rasika in Unawatuna, Catherine decided to revisit the dream. “I thought, this is the time to get serious, to draw on everything you’ve learned, all the places you’ve seen, all the people you’ve met and get to it.” As a relatively unknown designer, Catherine is undoubtedly taking a leap of faith with both the shop and her new line of clothing but she appears determined to have fun with it. Her influences offer clues: she mentions mint and chocolate chip Sundays (from which she borrowed a layered colour palette of pale green and rich brown), The Great Gatsby and the fashion of the first decades of the 1900s. “I loved art deco, all dropped waist and the flapper dresses,” says Catherine. “That era, to me, was the epitome of style and grace on a woman…everyone was losing their rigidity and experimenting a little and their clothes allowed them to do it.” In having moved her home to a new country, started a new business and resurrected an old passion, Catherine seems to have embraced some of that same adventurous spirit.

Find The Old Railway online at

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 20 January, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Mangala Weerasekera

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