Creative Women At Work: Mehala Ford founder of the Friday Sari Project
Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Mehala Ford moved to the UK when she was four months old and grew up in the north of England, in the 1980s. Coming down to London to study PR and promotion at London College of Fashion, her subsequent career spanned over 20 years in the fashion industry. She has worked for Alexander McQueen alongside Lee McQueen and Sarah Burton, and Concrete PR working with cutting edge London designers including Preen and Robert Cary-Williams, and on the high street where she helped to launch Designers at Debenhams. Having taken a career break after the birth of her daughter, Ford began a self-discovery project to help her family feel closer to her South Asian heritage. The Friday Sari Project started as a blog in 2017 and has since grown into a unique concept store and e-commerce website that champions contemporary design and culture from India and Sri Lanka and showcases emerging and established modern South Asian designers. After a successful temporary residency in Dulwich, Ford is now fundraising for a permanent space in Peckham. I caught up with Mehala a couple of weeks ago (before lockdown) to find out more about the Friday Sari Project’s future plans:
TNMA: How did Friday Sari Project begin? And where does the name come from?
MF: The sari is something you instantly relate to in South Asia and that part of the world, and I realised I didn’t know how to tie one. And then that made me think oh gosh, I don’t know a lot of things about my culture. So I set myself a bit of a challenge to try and learn and decided that I should write my musings down. I started a blog called the ‘Friday Sari Project’ and it was really quite simply because I had Fridays free and that became my personal project day. While I was researching for the blog and further exploring my culture I was coming across some amazing designers. It occurred to me that a shop would be a brilliant place to showcase all of this. I considered many different names, then settled on Friday Sari Project, as that was where this idea began.
TNMA: And how did your retail space come about?
MF: Blogging really got me into the mindset of thinking about all things South Asia. I was on the look out and researching potential spaces all the time. The hardest thing was finding the right type of space, and it’s still the hardest thing going forward. Once I found the temporary space I did some crowd-funding to help get our pop-up shop up and running. I worked really hard to get the designers together, do the branding, find staff – all the usual things you’d do if you were putting together a business. And we opened our doors in the summer of 2018. It became a creative hub for modern Asian fashion, design, lifestyle and culture outside of Asia. It was the first concept store to launch in London showcasing contemporary design from the Indian sub-continent.
TNMA: What makes Sri Lankan style and design so unique?
MF: It was fascinating to come across what is still a quite small, niche group of designers who stand up to the fashion industry. They’re great global designers. They have a unique perspective. I was looking for designers that were very modern and cool. Everyday wearability and modern design is what I look for and what we do. I’m so happy with the designers that I have because they all represent something very different and they all stand out. Whether they work with hand-weaving or local craftspeople, it’s all very contemporary and very fresh. Their designs are all quite ageless and size-less – I like silhouettes that tend to go off the body a bit more and look out for those. Silhouettes that women of all different sizes, ages and style personalities will look good in.
I’m quite practical in my own dress sense and I like items that I can easily dress up, dress down, wear on holiday, wear for a meeting…. The trousers I’m wearing now I’ve worn for a long-haul flight, I’ve put ballet pumps and a suit jacket on with them, and I’ve put a necklace, a vest top and high heels with them. I like things that could look smart, or could be worn with trainers. I’ve got one dress that goes all the way down from my neck to my ankles, my accountant has bought one and she’s tall and slim, and another customer has bought one who is a more curvy shape, and we all look fabulous in it. I love it when that happens. I have one customer in her eighties who bought a bunch of things and four out of five of those garments I have, and I think that’s wonderful. To have clothes that are cross-generational.
TNMA: Could you highlight some of the key designers the Friday Sari Project showcases?
MF: I have a really interesting brand called Maus from Sri Lanka and she has a great organic jersey collection which is really popular. She has a mainline collection which is lovely simple cotton basics based on shirting, it’s just so easy. I love a collection we stock called NorBlack NorWhite. The designers were born in Canada, but both went back to India to discover their roots and are based there now. And the collection is so cool, they’re influenced by hip hop music culture and everything is really fun and really vibrant, but it also feels very Asian without all the motifs. They’re able to be themselves but also reference South Asia in a brilliant way. We also have a brand called LoveBirds which is super-minimal and clean in design. It’s great. And then we’ve got a couple of lovely brands which work a lot more with hand-weaving and crafts, and have just beautiful fabrics and simple pieces, but the materials and details are just gorgeous. There’s something for all style sensibilities.
TNMA: Has it helped you to feel more connected to your culture?
MF: I’d always thought that Asian design was very much stuck in formal wear, embellishment, bling and old-fashion silhouettes that you might only wear once in a Blue Moon for a wedding. I figured that it was a bit of a problem area. If you only pull out an item which connects you to your culture once every so often it’s hiding that cultural identity away. Instead I wanted to have it as a natural part of my everyday life. Now, for instance, I’m wearing a pair of natural cotton jersey pants by a Sri Lankan brand, a sweatshirt by an Indian brand, in my house I’ve got cushions dotted around which are from Tiipoi, everywhere I look around me there are spots of my heritage, all from Asian designers. It makes me feel so much more connected.
TNMA: Tell me about your fundraising? And your plans for the new retail space?
MF: Our last physical store space was temporary, so now we’re fundraising for a new, permanent space and we’re hoping to launch this summer in Peckham, south London. It’s been a real issue trying to find a space as a small independent retailer. It’s such a huge investment with the initial deposit, rents and business rates. I live in Peckham, so it’s nice to do something which would support my local area. A lot of our customers are also local, so it’s accessible. What’s happening in the area is brilliant. There’s a great food, arts and music scene – and we want to be part of the emerging fashion scene, which is a really exciting prospect.
Having an immersive space is very much part of the plan. We’ll have a programme of exhibitions, we’d like a cafe in the store and to have a supper club. We’d like the store to be full of information too, whether it’s about the designers or the sari or filled with artwork, for visitors to absorb and enjoy. I’d like to bring in other community groups and create a sort of hub. It would be the only space in the UK currently dedicated to showing these South Asian designers.
For me, I’m bringing back something which I think is quite old-school, but also very modern. I want people to feel like I did when I was 17 coming to London and going to the Bluebird Garage and Hyper Hyper discovering extraordinary designers and having that ‘Oh wow’ moment. That feeling of excitement when you go into the shop. I think it’s good for people to get out and connect to others, engage with the staff, and leave feeling enriched and elevated.
The Friday Sari Project is fundraising right now, it’s important to support small business through these difficult times – more details HERE.