When Elena Shnyreva first set foot on this island 6 years ago, she planned to stay only for a short holiday trip. After all, she was supposed to be married a few weeks later, to a man from a traditional Russian family who her parents deemed a suitable match. Hailing from an affluent family with a long-standing history herself, Elena holds a master’s degree from the Moscow State University in Culture & Arts and had been working for the Russian Fashion Week for 5 consecutive years with a Russian PR agency that could call some of the big fish of the international fashion industry their clients, like Karl Lagerfeld and Victoria Beckham. Her job was exciting but something was missing in her life, she tells us. Elena’s story and the beginning of Var Vara, her fashion label for ladieswear, is one that can only happen in a place like this – it is a true story of serendipity.
Since Elena was a little child she wanted to become a fashion designer. Her mum didn’t allow her to spend time in front of the TV or play computer games. Elena recollects that since she was 5 years old, every time she wanted to watch TV her mum would give her huge books instead, from art galleries from all over the world, and Elena would spend hours flipping through the pages and admire the beautiful pictures. Her parents would attach great importance to a classical education and Elena felt attached to the arts all her life, but a fashion designer wasn’t exactly what her family had in mind for her, so she studied something more down-to-earth and followed the expected path.
It didn’t occur to her to actually follow her childhood dream as long as she was living in Russia, maybe because of the expectations of her family and friends, maybe because her job didn’t really allow her to explore her creative side. Elena liked her job, but retrospectively she describes it as “fake”. “When I came to Sri Lanka it was such a mind blowing experience that I could just be myself, I didn’t need to act in front of everyone, and there were people around me who loved me for being myself. That gave me so much strength and power. I was never confident enough to start something by myself in Russia, I think it was somewhere deep inside, but only when I came to Sri Lanka I realized that I was actually capable of doing it and that I had to start and I had to fight for what I actually want to do.” Elena felt so much freedom, so much happiness in Sri Lanka that she postponed her return ticket, and kept on postponing it until she had spent a year on the island travelling and enjoying herself.
Yet, she did not start to design her first dress until her money ran short. “I had very little left and there was another Russian girl who was producing a small collection of shorts from a small factory in Ratmalana, so she gave me the contact of that place. I just bought some material and I had some ideas for dresses that I wanted to make which were really simple, just some beachwear. So I ordered 5 dresses and put them in my friend’s shop, the A Frame Surf Shop run by Mambo’s in Hikkaduwa, and they sold them in 2 days. So I took the money and made 10 dresses and they sold them in about 5 days, so I took the money again and made 20 dresses. And that’s basically how I started.”
Her family at the beginning, of course, were not really delighted about their daughter’s decision to give up her life completely. It was a tough time, especially for her mother to understand. But in 2013, when Elena’s grandmother died and she came back to Russia for the funeral, her mum was finally willing to support her daughter’s dream. The principal of a renowned Russian fashion academy owed her mother a big favour, so Elena was able to receive private lessons from this lady herself. Elena was so passionate and determined, she studied day and night, sometimes even stayed at the principal’s house overnight and finally completed a 3 year fashion degree course in only 6 months. But Sri Lanka was where her heart lay, so she moved to Colombo and started Var Vara.
Elena opened an online shop and also began to sell her collections at small designer shops in Colombo, like Salt. Her beachwear is still available at the A Frame Surf Shop and she also plans to export it to Australia. Elena likes the “flying” breezy materials, her beach collection is funky and cool, but still classy and chic. She noticed that in many places down south it’s hard to find high quality Sri Lankan products for tourists. The clothes you can buy at the shops are often made in Thailand or India, but it’s difficult to find something of quality that has been produced in Sri Lanka. Thus, for Mambo’s newly renovated surf shop in Hikka, she would like to install a corner where tourists can buy authentic Sri Lankan products, like cosmetics, handmade soaps and clothes, including the Var Vara beach collection, of course.
Beach wear, however, is only one part of Var Vara’s array of products. Her classical dresses, pants and jackets for the Colombo market are more elegant and stylish. They are clothes for everyday life, suitable for every occasion, be it a walk on the beach, a dinner party at a friend’s place or an official business meeting. All the fabrics Elena uses are produced in Sri Lanka and 100% natural (except Jersey, the material requires a synthetic component in order to be stretchable). She works with linen, cotton or viscose, because she feels responsible for the environment, but also because these kinds of fabric are more comfortable to wear in the Sri Lankan heat than synthetics. “Comfort is one of the most important aspects for me. I’m trying to create clothes that make a woman feel elegant and confident, but at the same time are comfortable to wear and give her freedom to move. I like to create something simple and elegant with a little bit of a tropical touch.” Her new models of jackets made out of a special hand-loomed bamboo fabric definitely add to the tropical feel of her collection.
In the creative process itself, Elena’s educational background and childhood memories still play a huge role. “When I’m creating a dress it usually emerges form an image in my head. For example, I remember Audrey Hepburn in a movie that we watched at university, and she was in this dress. And I’m trying to create something like this, but with a modern twist. So, for me, every dress arises from an idea. It’s not just a dress to me, it has a certain character that you can put on. Every piece of apparel I’m creating has a history behind it that comes from my childhood imagination, from what I saw growing up. We traveled a lot when I was small, all around the world. So, sometimes when I’m working on something, I remember this old antique Greek dress and I become hooked on this image and started to work it out.” For Elena there is no greater satisfaction than to create. “When I’m creating a new collection, I’m so into my thoughts and in my imagination that people can’t even talk to me. I completely forget the world around me. It’s like a puzzle to solve for me, to find the right material, to make a pattern, to make it all right with proportions, so that it will fit properly. And when you see strangers walking around with what you have created… it’s just an unbelievable feeling, it was just in your mind, and here it is in reality.”
Elena has been working and growing with the same factory in Ratmalana ever since. She brought a course on visual format from her fashion academy in Russia for the seamstresses, to teach them how to conduct the finishes for luxury products. “The quality is quite high in what I’m doing. So they have to know how to work for the high-end market.” The woman who is running the factory meanwhile also contributes with her know-how. While Elena comes up with the design and the patterns, the factory owner sometimes adds the small finishing details. It´s a symbiosis everyone profits from and Elena is very happy to work with the existing team.
The latest project and one that demands Elena´s whole attention currently is the opening of a shop together with a couple of other designers at Liberty Plaza. Elena always wanted to have her own shop in Colombo. The concept for this place is to create something more than a mere shopping destination where people just go to buy clothes, it´s goal is to become a style studio where fashion shows are hosted once in a while, where customers can receive style lessons and personal advice from the designers themselves and where they can just spend some time and have conversations while enjoying a glass of wine. Comfort is again what is most important for Elena. The complete Var Vara collection will be available at this shop and, although the name has not been confirmed yet, the designers are planning to open its doors at the end of November, right in time for the Christmas shopping season.
Elena has struggled for a long time to reach where she is right now, but ultimately it seems to have been worth all the effort. “I’m really happy with what I’m doing and I’m really grateful for Sri Lanka. It’s not easy to conduct business here. But no matter what difficulties I experience, I am so grateful for this country, because is here that I started to actually discover myself. And however hard it might be, it’s never that painful, because at the end of the day, it is what I want to do.”
Available at Salt, No. 34, 27th lane, Colombo 3 and Liberty Plaza (TBA)