Kanyä London founder Sahani Gunesakara on living for herself through fashion & design
April 9, 2021
On centering her hyphenated identity and taking risks.
By Janvi Sai, Contributor
In a saturated South Asian-fusion fashion space, Kanyä London stands apart in grabbing the attention of the internet (and mine) with its creation of minimalist corset sarees and silk slip lehengas. In a risk-averse culture that pressures South Asian women to shrink ourselves and live solely for others, it's refreshing and inspiring to witness a South Asian woman and her brand challenge it, dare to stand out, and explore their creative and entrepreneurial ventures for themselves unabashedly. When I spoke with Sahani Gunesakara (@sahxni), the 24-year-old Founder and Creative Director of Kanyä London, I began rethinking the representation of hyphenated South Asian identities, the space in fashion Gen-Z South Asians can take up, and how her London-based brand is disrupting monolithic narratives through design and visual storytelling. I had the pleasure of hearing what’s contributed to Sahani’s style evolution and non-traditional career path as a creative and entrepreneur — from her love of ABBA to her Sri Lankan heritage.
Q1. What's your relationship with fashion and when did it first begin? Have you always had an interest in fashion?
A: I think it began at an early age subconsciously, with my mum always making me wear crazy outfits and she was always making her own clothes and dresses. Her outfits have always been on point. Even if she was picking me up from school or going for an errand, she made sure she had the best outfit on. I think that really rubbed off on me. So, yeah, I've always had an interest in it, but I never thought it would be something I would do for a living.
Q2. How has your style evolved throughout your life?
A: My style had always evolved depending on the environment I was in. From always having to move around as a kid. From Milan to London, Kent to South London, my Sri Lankan heritage, these places really helped shape my style throughout the years. I've gone through so many phases, but I guess all of us do as we try to find what style actually represents us. For me, it still hasn't stopped even at the age of 24, I just don't think I'll ever settle for one style. And I feel like you can see that with Kanyä — it's always evolving in design. Right now I'm really into the 70's era. Let's see what I say in a year's time!
photo credit: Sahani
Q3. Who &/or what are your fashion influences? How have they inspired Kanyä London?
A: My mum, ABBA, and Cher — I know there are a few more, but these are at the top of my head.
I think these influences have taught me to be bold and to not care about the opinions of others; to wear what I want, how I want.
If you feel good, own it!
Q4. How did you get into fashion design?
A: I've always designed my own items from a young age, especially with Asian-wear. I've had people ask me to design their items, and I would do that as a hobby. Once I finished my Economics degree, I decided to get qualifications in design, too. I feel like if you're going to have a career in something you should master it, so no one can take you for a fool (especially when it comes to manufacturers) and no one can take that skill away from you. So, yeah, I guess that's how I got into design.
Q5. What prompted you to launch your own clothing brand?
A: I think it's because I've tried so many jobs: from retail, to working in hospitals, pharmacies, the food industry, and nothing has ever made me happy.
Until I started Kanyä, I never did anything for myself or anything that made me happy. It was always to please everyone around me.
But the moment I changed that, I decided it was time to create Kanyä.
Hafsa Adnan photographed by Charles Oguns
Q6. Are there any gaps in the South Asian ethnic clothing market you want Kanyä London to fill?
A: Definitely, we are already working on some right now, but that will be revealed soon! We are also working on expanding our sizing range. We feel it's really important to be size inclusive. As a small brand it was really hard to achieve that, but as we're growing, we are able to keep adding sizes!
Q7. With South Asian culture and fashion being quite maximalist, what prompted you to incorporate minimalism, neutral colors, and Western trends like silk slip dresses and corsets into your designs?
A: I’ve always loved accessorizing, so I felt like having something quite minimal could allow for more accessories. I just loved the whole concept of corsets; they’re very feminine. I don’t know, I just love them! However, we are slowly starting to incorporate a few maximalist designs, as my taste is slowly changing, too.
Manisha Wijesinghe photographed by Charles Oguns
Q8. What challenges have you faced as a South Asian woman creative and entrepreneur with a non-traditional career path? How do you get through them?
A: I think being taken seriously from the South Asian community. With the South Asian community, it was getting people to understand my designs at the beginning — the minimalism, the risqué designs — and I guess getting them to understand that this is a serious career path for me. How I got through to them was seeing that people were starting to accept and love the designs, and as months went on, Kanyä started picking up, and it was amazing to see.
Q9. What piece of advice would you give your younger self?
A: Cheesy, but BE YOURSELF! Stop trying to fit in with everyone or trying to please everyone and don't be embarrassed about who you are.
Embrace your quirks because that's why you have the people whom you love around you right now.
Q10. What is your vision for the future of the brand?
A: To be more than just a clothing brand. I hope, in the future, we are closer to circular fashion than we are now. I hope that we will be able to be a brand that represents and gives opportunity to others.
I didn't grow up with much and never had that many opportunities, so I hope to be a person that can give.
Cover photo credit: Sahani Gunesakara, @sahxni