Kantala: a vegan fashion brand inspired by a centuries-old Sri Lankan craft tradition

May 21, 2020

Kantala Jessica Clutch

We had the pleasure of speaking with Vikum Rajapakse who is the co-founder of Kantala, an extremely interesting Sri Lankan fashion brand. Kantala does an interesting take on a centuries old Sri Lankan craft tradition: Agave (hana, in local parlance) fiber weaving.

We at Monkey Mind are very familiar with the art of hana weaving, having grown up in Sri Lanka; especially in my (Rudy) case as I grew up in the hill-country city of Kandy. Kandy was the royal capital of the last Sri Lankan kingdom, where hana weaving emerged as a major art form under the patronage of the Kandyan kings.

Growing up, I recall these huge spiky hana succulents covering the hillsides around my parents house, where my siblings and I would inevitably catch ourselves on hana spikes as we played in the garden. Hana fiber woven baskets, mats and tapestries were common household articles back then, later to be replaced with plastic and synthetic fibers.

We find it fascinating how Kantala has taken this very familiar old craft tradition and completely transformed it in way we could not have anticipated back then.

Vikum Rajapakse (Photo: courtesy of Kantala)

Hana or Agave Cantala, is a ubiquitous and an extremely sustainable plant that grows predominantly in the central highlands of Sri Lanka. When properly processed its large, fleshy leaves yield a particularly versatile and luxurious fiber that can be used in a variety of industries. Kantala makes beautiful handbags, clutches and totes out of handwoven hana fibers for the international market.

Agave Cantala growing on a slab of rock (Photo: courtesy of Kantala)  

We think that although Agave products are fairly common in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, Kantala has managed to incorporate a number of features to their business model that make their take on this traditional craft an important case study on how craft-based companies can innovate in order to find a niche in the hyper-competitive global marketplace. 

Harvesting Agave Cantala leaves (Photo: courtesy of Kantala)

In less than a decade Kantala has managed to incorporate a remote traditional craft village in the Sri Lankan highlands into the global fashion marketplace. Determinedly ethical, they operate on fair trade principles with a keen focus on fair wages, training, reskilling and worker participation in decision making. The latter is interesting on its own and is arguably unprecedented in contemporary Sri Lankan craft economies. They are currently experimenting with an environmental conservation model in the fire-prone central highlands using the Agave Cantala plant that seamlessly and sustainably feeds back into their business model. In addition, Kantala’s use of an efficiency-yielding lean business model plus the underlying technology stack that enables it, provide interesting experimental models for small businesses in general.

Hana artisan using a traditional loom (Photo: Courtesy of Kantala)

How it all began

At the start of the conversation Vikum talks about how the idea for Kantala started. Spoiler alert: it involves a trip to Egypt!

Monkey Mind · EP01 | Kantala | How it all began

Picking the right craft tradition

When they started off, the young company did quite a bit of research on natural/sustainable materials for their fashion brand that lead to a shortlist and in this segment Vikum explains how they ultimately settled on Agave Cantala.

Monkey Mind · EP01 | Kantala | Picking the craft tradition

Growing pains

Even when you find your dream sustainable source material and a centuries-old living craft tradition, starting a brand is not without its challenges. Here Vikum describes the initial challenges they faced as they started working with their artisan communities and how they addressed them.

Monkey Mind · EP01 | Kantala | Intial challenges

Ethical businesses and sustainability

“But your products are so expensive!” Vikum explains why ethical consumer products are - and indeed, should be - more expensive than the alternatives.

Monkey Mind · EP01 | Kantala | Ethical businesses and sustainability

Traditional craft and the use of technology

One of the noteworthy things about Kantala is their incorporation of technology into their business operations, including an organization-wide Enterprise Resource Planning or ERP system that connects most nodes of their supply chain into a seamless whole. The use of technology here coupled with complementary changes to the organizational structure, may provide useful models for craft-based SMEs in general to consider. 

Monkey Mind · EP01 | Kantala | Use of technology and organizational structure

Environmental responsibility

Kantala is actively involved in a conservation project involving the Agave Cantala plant in the central highlands of Sri Lanka. The properties of the plant makes it ideal for building fire breaks in the fire-prone mountainous regions of Sri Lanka. Listen to how they have seamlessly and sustainably integrated this project into their business model in a way that benefits everyone involved in the value chain.

Monkey Mind · EP01 | Kantala | Environmental responsibility