Designers / The Sunday Times

Marisa Gnanaraj: “Fashion found me.”

Walking across Barefoot’s courtyard on a sunny day, Marisa Gnanaraj is hailed by more than one regular. She’s a familiar face here, the young designer whose debut collection under her ‘MFact’ label sold out almost as soon as it made it to the racks. It also helps that some of these people have known her since she was a little girl. She’s inherited their affection along with a love for the store’s signature handloom textiles – her mother Marie Gnanaraj has long been known as one of the store’s premier designers -but Marisa’s take on it is entirely her own. Inventive and bold, she works within the Barefoot aesthetic but still manages to remain distinctive. From her buoyant choice of colours (black is anathema) to her loose, swirling cuts, she is at heart a designer for the tropics.

Pictures by Dominic Sansoni/three blindmen

Despite her pedigree, Marisa is somewhat surprised to be in the fashion business. She’s dabbled in many different fields – being at various points an actress and student of journalism, jewellery designer, air stewardess, television presenter, elocution and drama teacher and compere. A tomboy as a child, she still surprises relatives with her choice of career. “I was never into fashion, fashion found me,” she says. However, growing up as Marie’s daughter has always been the most profound of her influences. “I think she knew what I could do before I knew what I could do.”

Explaining that she lives in a house filled with looms, textiles and other bits and pieces associated with the trade, Marisa says: “You sit and listen to my mother talk and you understand why things work the way they work, how important colour tones are and what colour should come on which part of the body.”Though she herself is a fashion graduate from Raffles in Bangkok, she hypothesises that many of the country’s senior designers rely on instinct rather than training. It’s what she most wants to absorb from her mother.

Still, she appreciates the exhaustive training she received in university.The wild melange of Asian cultures brought Taiwanese, Korean, Malaysian, Japanese and Burmese students into the classroom with her, and Marisa says she enjoyed those introductions. Never really having learned to sew or cut fabrics before, she had to begin with mastering the essentials which she used to build a student collection she dubbed ‘Antagonista’.

Inspired by the Arab Spring but also by the Red Shirts citizen movement in Thailand, with her use of colour she sought to capture that same sense of simmering revolt in her designs; while schisms in the very fabric of society were replicated in the way she layered and cut cloth. Back home, her first collection for Barefoot was another learning experience.
For ‘Juxtaop’ Marisa wanted to play around with optical illusions and flowing lines.

Working with handloom she learned quickly that the fabric had its limitations – it didn’t lend itself to very fitted silhouettes nor did the design aesthetic allow for zips and the like. On the plus side though, this was in many ways a designer’s dream. For someone about to produce a relatively small selection of 150 garments over six months, the chance to access such an incredible palette of colours plus accessories was a boon.

Although there were seven basic designs, Marisa chose to make them one at a time introducing enough variation to ensure she was never bored and that each piece was unique. The collection did so well that she was fielding custom orders well after the main line had sold out. Now she’s hard at work on her second collection which should be out in the coming weeks. She’s playing with what the eye sees again – using geometry and the same inescapably unapologetic sense of colour. She’s doing all this while maintaining a low profile – “The less they know about you, the easier it is to work,” she says, with a grin.

In the meantime, Marisa continues to take on other projects. She worked with UK designers to create the costumes for The Floating Space Theatre Company’s Unearthed and more recently was one of the artists selected to exhibit as part of Raking Leaves’ Open Call project. She’d love to take on more along the same line.

“Fashion is a business, but projects like this help you grow in terms of technique, it’s a creative thing and I learned so much from that,” she says. She has tentative plans to go into collaborations with other designers and eventually she hopes to have her own team but she’s not too hung up on a five year plan. For now she’s happy to take her own road.“It’s fun to travel without a map sometimes. The experience is better, disappointments are less and you’re always discovering something new,” she says.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on October 13, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Dominic Sansoni. 

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