A woman who lives in a shoe
Tanya Warnakulasuriya in her series, From the eyes of an Ex-Pat tells the story of Joanne Stoker, creator of a well-known London shoe brand who came to Sri Lanka to take a good rest after a brief illness and immediately fell in love with the island’s diversity.
Joanne who has made the culturally dynamic island her second home says that she doesn’t see herself as English or others as Sri Lankan. “Interactions just feel so natural,” she says.
Joanne Stoker’s reputation precedes her: amongst Sri Lanka’s younger generations she is known as the “Shoe Lady”. The nomenclature conjured nursery rhyme images of an old woman living in a shoe. Thankfully further investigation revealed Joanne to be the vibrant young, creator of a well-known London shoe brand. Sitting in her studio, I was keen to find out when the fashion bug had first bitten, and how it had brought her here.
“Most of my knowledge was learned in my pre-school days from Mum. Before I was six, I could draw, knit, and sew. Mum and I would stich dolls’ clothes. I did arts subject at school and then studied fashion at Northumbria University which included a year’s placement in New York, working for different brands in textile design.”
A Shard, A Gherkin and Jimmy Choo himself
At 23, Joanne launched her first shoe label, Joanne Stoker London with resounding international success and rave reviews from Vogue Magazine. Her unique designs received attention from master shoe designer, Jimmy Choo who personally mentored her after her ideas and business plan won an industry competition.
“I think my shoes were chosen because they were so radically different. I was working in the heart of London at the time. Iconic architecture like the Shard and the Gherkin inspired the heels of my shoes. Jimmy Choo advised me to take care in business and to work in Asia rather than in Italy to reduce costs.
It was Joanne’s love of travel that became a double-edged sword, inspiring her designs but at the same time impacting her health and bringing her to Sri Lanka.
“Travel inspired my collections: The Eastern and North African influences especially attracted a huge Middle Eastern market for me. But after repeated 6 week travelling stints to France, China, Vietnam, Bali then back to Italy, London, New York then LA, I became ill. On my last flight I developed a balance problem in my ear which was scary. I came to Sri Lanka to rest and immediately fell in love with the island’s diversity. I also loved the people., I felt people here looked healthy, happy, and calm. When I returned to the UK, I searched for fashion jobs in Sri Lanka and found two. That’s how I started teaching Fashion Design at AOD (Academy of Design).”
Holidaying is all very well but living and working in a new country is quite a different matter. Were there any culture shocks for Joanne? Did she experience any local discrimination?
“The Big Girl’s parties were quite surprising to me. In the West when girls come of age, it is a very personal thing that is not spoken of. So, coming here, where women dress very demurely and are quite conservative, I didn’t expect there to be celebrations for attaining age.” She muses, before continuing, “And the number of geckos! –But that’s a nice culture shock because I love geckos.”
She happily reports never experiencing any form of discrimination since living here, “I have heard of incidences, but I personally have never had any problems. Even when I go to Pettah. I was warned to be careful and to dress fully covered, which I do anyway, but I have had no issues at all.”
Six years on, married and having recently become a first-time mum, Joanne has launched a new sustainable fashion label, NOAD, which upcycles remnant pieces from the end-of-roll deadstock, and mixes them with handloom and plant-dyed fabrics bought from local producers. I asked her about the unusual name and what inspired her to launch a new label again.
“The name was actually going to be ‘Hues of Iris’ as I wanted the collection to be colourful. But then the pandemic happened, and I realised the name sounded like “Who is a Virus””, she laughs, “I also wanted the line to be graceful. NOAD, which is Swedish word for grace, perfectly reflects the clean, minimalist look of my designs which I blend with vibrant Eastern colour blocks.
I wondered how this Durham girl, working with local producers in Nuwara Eliya, Kandy and Pettah coped with the language-barrier and working here.
“I’ve never really had any language problems here, apart from the odd Uber driver. The ladies in Kandy speak English and in Colombo it’s not a problem at all. It’s funny because I’ve been here for so long, I don’t even see myself as English or others as Sri Lankan – interactions just feel so natural. Now that I’m married to a Sri Lankan and have my son, I don’t see myself as any different.
My brand here is growing organically at its own pace. This is so different to the pressurised way of working in the UK, which requires hitting seasonal deadlines and store demands. The only thing I miss from the UK, is designing shoes as that is my first love. I could produce and import them from abroad, but I feel local production is important. We have amazing talent here. For NOAD’s shoe-line I’m hoping to work with Ceylon Boot Company and other local artisans. I would love to open a factory here but that’s a longer-term plan when Leo is older.
It’s important when working in a new country, to understand, the working culture and how things operate. It’s the realness of being in a new place. It’s ok if things don’t come on time all the time, it’s more important that I have good working relationships. Sri Lankans are very sensitive people, and I understand that because I am a sensitive person. Sometimes you get people from abroad who are very disrespectful of the country and how things operate here. They expect it to be like back home, but that’s wrong.”
Did Joanne find local artisans reluctant to share their ancient crafts and skills? I had heard that collaborations were notoriously difficult.
“Oh no, quite the opposite. I teach batik, handloom and beeralu to my students and the weavers love working on new designs with them. They are brilliant at explaining the parameters of the craft to students who may present them with designs that are difficult or not practical to create.”
Swap-shops and slow-fashion
I asked Joanne if our throw-away mindset could be changed and who is the sustainable consumer?
“In the UK we have a thriving vintage clothing market, where people happily buy from charity shops. At AOD we started a Swap-Shop where you purchase a ticket and bring good condition unwanted items to exchange. It’s been a great success with Sri Lanka’s Gen Z’s who definitely have an appetite for interesting, original styles that aren’t available locally. I’m also trying to introduce the concept of Slow fashion with my brand. So, instead of producing twenty garments in the same design, customers choose from a range of styles and colours on the website and the item is made on request and delivered within four days. Slow fashion is a hybrid between mass produced clothing and bespoke tailoring. Its popular in the West and I’m already working this way in Dubai. I’m just trialling it here whilst researching my customer base.
The sustainable customer is a very new demographic. I’d like the NOAD website to educate consumers about the impact of the clothes they wear. I’ve been making my own organic washing detergents, after researching ancient washing techniques. The Egyptians developed washing processes that preserved fabrics because they were luxury items. Now our priority is convenience. We want clothes that are easy to wash and wear, like polyester, but we’re compromising on quality and wellbeing for this ease. Our skin can’t breathe in cheap fabrics, and we sweat more. Then, we use chemical deodorants to stop sweating. Even thinking about what we eat impacts what we wear. For example, eating meat causes us to sweat more. Predominantly vegetarian diets in Eastern countries are there for good reason. There is so much more to wearing a garment when you think holistically about it.”
Tea is everything
Joanne pragmatically described the things she loved here and those she missed from England,
“I love the multi-cultural mix the island has from the influences it has absorbed through the ages. And I love the food. The number of fruits and vegetables – Rambutan, Durian, Jackfruit, is wonderful. And our beaches, I honestly think they are the best in the world.
In terms of things I miss, I think a more thriving music industry and festivals too. When I first arrived, there were all sorts of festivals – art, culture, food, and music. But these have diminished and now there’s nothing because of COVID. Hopefully there’ll be a resurrection. I also miss activities for small children. In London, galleries and museums have highly interactive exhibitions that teach through play. We don’t have that here.”
On asking her what she’d miss if on a desert island, her response was truly Sri Lankan,
“My tea!! Tea, for me is everything. It makes me so happy”.
Tanya Warnakulasuriya is a freelance writer and Media and Communications Specialist with over 20 years of experience in the international news industry. She is the former Head of Arts for the British Council and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA).