….The Colombo 7 cuties of 1956 broke with tradition. When you see them tomorrow night at the dance you will see what I mean. You notice a cutie in her splendiferous raiment and politely ask her who designed it. Promptly she produces from behind her a pretty boy who looks like the epitome of all the mothers’ darlings the world has ever known “this, she breathes reverently, “is my creator”. Mothers’ darling displays a ducky little dimple in a ravishing smile of acknowledgement and pirouettes shyly on his pretty little axis. You wonder what in heaven makes little boys take to designing cloths for women and what makes them damn good at it. There is no doubt they are good.
News from Colombo 7, Bouquets and brickbats, Tarzi Vittachi (Fly by Night)
Thus, the legendary journalist Tarzi Vittachi (Fly by Night) described Kirthi Sri Karunaratne’s entre into the world of fashion in the island of Ceylon.
As the doyen of Sri Lanka’s fashion unfolds, the one word that describes his creations through the year is elegance. As he is about to create a bridal for the 3rd generation in one family, we hear all around us, people from all walks of life say of him charming, cute, gentle, helpful and of course, a gentleman to his fingertips, as Kirthi Sri Karunaratne walks into the annals of the history of fashion in Sri Lanka.
My association with him has stood the test of time of a good friendship. My mother was not only a family friend of Kirthi but also a long standing fan.
So, this friendship is something I inherited. I have also had the privilege of being one of the first of my sex to be featured in his now famous column Focus In Fashion.
Those were the days I wore gimmicky outfits for special occasions like the horse race meets both in Colombo and Nuwara Eliya. Our friendship extended to the theatrical stage too. Among the many plays in which we have acted together I recall “ Who Killed Santa Claus”, “Man Who Came To Dinner”, “We Are No Angels” “Tea Is Not For Two” “Oops! It’s Broadway”.
Having him around was always wonderful. His concern and warmth for his fellow actors were always greatly appreciated. He has done costumes for so many of my productions. All the period costumes for the Well Mudliar series were designed by him. I must make a special mention of the costumes he did in the 1920s style for the musical Boyfriend.
The costumes got very good reviews in the press. His appearance on stage goes back sometime, he had some good roles in the famous plays that were directed by my cousin Lal Seneratne, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Street Car Named Desire, Glass Menagerie etc. I also remember him in a strenuous Spanish dance in a very popular recital given by two of the best exponents of the dance Rubini De Saram and Subodini Thambiah.
Kirthi loved to sing and was often seen with Deva Suriya Sena singing famous ballads both in Sinhala and English. He also entered the exciting world of cinema. He played in two of Manik Sandrasagara’s film productions Kalu Diya Dahara and Colomba Sanniya all the period costumes for Lester James Peiris’s masterpiece, Nidahanaya got many an encore.
In my many long conversations with Kirthi, I have gathered the beginning of this successful career. For a schoolboy who wanted to do a medical degree and pursued dress designing only as a hobby, has gone a very long way.
The talent he was blessed with was first taken notice of by none other than one of the most famous female personalities of the time Sita Parakrama (nee Jayawardene).
She saw some of his sketches and also some of the cloths he had done for his mother. This impressed her so much that she convinced his parents that he should follow a career in fashion designing. Of course this was unheard of at that time in our part of the world, for Kirthi’s luck just at that time Mr. Geoffrey De Seynes, a representative of the famous fashion house in Paris Christian Dior happened to be in Ceylon.
The meeting with him was the turning point of it all. He was so impressed with what he saw that he took to Paris a portfolio of the sketches and photographs of Kirthi’s work. Within a month he was invited to Paris.
Kirthi accepted the offer but decided to go to the United Kingdom first. He explored the possibilities of doing a course there but as the courses available were long and drawn out, he decided to work for the fashion house John Cavernagh of Curzon Street.
This gave him some considerable experience. He then proceeded to Paris and worked with the DIOR organisation.
After gathering a wealth of experience in the Western world he returned to Ceylon and announced his first fashion show.
This raised a lot of eyebrows as no male had ever paddled in the stormy waters of the exclusive world of female fashion.
The show was held at the Women’s International Club to an audience of over six hundred ladies. Quoting a review of the time it had this to say.
“Bold and strikingly effective. That was the verdict of his debut. Since then Kirthi has never turned back, He has done many a design and “excellent” and “elegant: were two words synonymous with years of his creative work.”
As the leading fashion journalist everyone looked forward to reading his famous columns describing the discreet charm of the bourgeois with malice toward none.
It is ironic that the last time we met was back stage at the Lionel Wendt when he came to congratulate me and the cast of my production Stars on Parade and as always he was very encouraging to every one of the participants and they were so overwhelmed by the kind words of this gentle legend.
“Good night sweet prince, may the Angels sing thee to thy rest.”
TIMES OF CEYLON 21 APRIL 1955... THE TATLERS’ DIARY
Dc Seynes’ Designs. . . . Christian Dior representative Geoffery de Seynes who was here over the weekend flew back to France armed with some very interesting material from Ceylon. The man who supplied the fashion plates was local dress designer diminutive Kirthi Sri Karunaratne who has held several fashion shows himself.
Europe was pleased; Dior surprised.. . . back from Europe is Ceylon’s fashion designer Kirthi Sri Karunaratne. Kirthi’s visit to Europe was unusually interesting because he met the sort of people we normally don’t meet.. . . I mean the top dress designers of England and the Continent.
EVENING STAR, LONDON
‘Dior of the East’ as he is known in Ceylon, Kirthi Sri Karunaratne has come to London on the first stage of a fashion tour of Europe. Though he will not be twenty three until the end of next month, Kirthi has built up for himself a reputation as the only man fashion designer in Ceylon.
HER WORLD MAGAZINE, SINGAPORE, JUNE 1970
Sari Splendour.. . a theme on traditional elegance updated in the modern idiom by a leading Ceylon designer Mr. Kirthi Sri Karunaratne who flew into Singapore to present Fascinating ideas on swinging with a sari, Refreshing variations for the saree set.