Architects / Designers / The Sunday Times

Nihara Fernando: Milliner At Large

Sitting in her garden, Nihara Fernando resembles nothing so much as a bird of paradise. Her toenails are pink, her fingernails are green. Big rings adorn her slender fingers; one wrist is bracketed in several bangles of varying sizes and shades of green. Her pants are red but the thin shirt she’s paired them with is pink. From her neck hang ropes of beads and in her ears, tiny studs are splashes of colour against brown skin. Knotted around her hair and tucked under one ear is an outsized turquoise fabric flower.

Pix by Ruvin De Silva

Once we’ve finished taking an inventory of her outfit, Nihara confesses readily to the obvious: “From the time that I was really young, I’ve just loved colour.” (She even divides her life into colour phases – like the period when she was briefly obsessed with all things purple.) She says it has something to do with the way she was raised – being surrounded by people who were unafraid to stand out. Her father is a landscape architect and the creator of the elaborate ponds and cascades that line one side of the steep path leading up to their Malabe home. He taught his daughter to appreciate detail and trained her to observe the world around. “He made me look at colour contrasts in nature that are very subtle and I’ve tried since to get inspired by those things,” she says.

Nihara is a photographer and an interior decorator by profession but what she’s rapidly becoming best known as is a milliner – a maker of playful, one of a kind hats. As we speak, the 28-year- old is imagining the exhibition cum sale she’ll have in a few months. There’s to be a Facebook page where people can buy readymade hats or contact her for custom designs. She’s already got a handful of buyers and she’s been enjoying engaging with them to create hats they will really wear. While where they’ll wear them and what will suit the shape of their faces are important questions, even more critical is “how bold you are with colour, how far you’ll go with it.”

Though she might be quite willing to tone it down for a customer, her own taste leans toward the flamboyant. It’s why she started making hats in the first place – everything in the stores was “dull or boring.” She took simple straw hats and upped their interest by tacking on buttons and brooches, feathers and flowers.

Quite apart from being works of art, she sees her hats as entirely practical objects. Her need for them grew out of having to be outside, at the building sites of homes she was working on. “I used to hate carrying umbrellas,” she says, “and really I think everyone should start wearing hats because this is a great country to do that. It’s such a fun way to express yourself and it adds a little bit of colour into your life.”

As she gains confidence Nihara is beginning to experiment more and more. She’s now learning how to work with felt and experimenting with shapes. She’s using different things – including recycled paper – to accessorise her hats. Some of the things she’s producing aren’t even hats – they’re headgear.

There are feats of millinery engineering in her future: “I’m experimenting so I can make any shape, any design,” she says. She’s also rifling through her huge stash of jewellery to see what she can recycle. Though it’s all inexpensive stuff, she’s loathe to part with it, endlessly recycling it into new necklaces, bracelets and now hats.

She’s had friends take her hats abroad and received letters raving about how her hats have actually made them cooler and won them new friends.

“They’ve created a hype I never expected them to,” she says. Part of it is surely mastering the confidence to carry off a vivid creation (Nihara suspects a Hollywood celebrity would certainly have the verve to do so and that Will Smith might just be the perfect candidate to wear her hats.)

“When I speak to people, I get the feeling that they’re afraid of colour, of standing out,” she says. It’s not a problem she sympathises with particularly. “From the time I was a teenager, I used to wear bright colours. I was never afraid to be myself. People wouldn’t understand it, they would think I was a freak, an alien, like from some other planet.” Now, it’s what makes her special, she says, sharing her insight: “It makes me feel confident. If you’re confident then everyone changes their mind about it too.”

Nihara: Expressing herself

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri  Lanka 2 June, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Ruvin de Silva 

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