Sri Lanka was as much intriguing as it was perplexing when I stepped into the arrival hall of the Bandaranaike International Airport. Beyond the superficial impressions that it is tropical, home to beautiful beaches and Ceylon tea, the island nation was ravaged by a 26-year civil war that only concluded in a victory to the Sri Lankan government in 2009. I was here for the store launch of Hugo Boss in Colombo.
“You must be wondering why Sri Lanka,” said Steven Lam, managing director of Hugo Boss Southeast Asia, as we sat down at Traveller’s Bar at Galle Face Hotel with portraits of Mark Twain and Harrison Ford hanging over us. “We wouldn’t have considered here.”
The city of Colombo is the definitive juxtaposition. Buses are old, but everyone drives around in a brand new automobile. Traffic is chaotic, but locals are friendly and very welcoming. They would strike up a conversation with me at any given opportunity, including a Sri Lankan Malay in his 60s who greeted me in Bahasa Melayu during an early morning stroll along Galle Face Green.
Today, dominating the skyline are cranes installed to lift building materials for the construction of Shangri-la and Grand Hyatt hotels. In the distance, a dredger works hard spewing out sand to form the bed for Colombo International Financial City. It seems Colombo is fast rising to becoming a powerful economic hub in South Asia.
“To me, it’s very simple: it takes two hands to work together.” I was introduced to Abans Group through a mutual acquaintance in Hong Kong,” replied Steven, when I quarried on how the opportunity arose. “Tito Pestonjee, managing director of Abans Group, he loves Hugo Boss. It always helps when your business partner is a big fan.”
Originally the plan was to open at The Mall at Colombo City Centre – a mammoth development by Abans Group – as an anchor tenant. While that will still be going ahead when the project is ready by the end of next year, the first store is already open to the Sri Lankan public at Arcade Independence Square. What used to be an asylum built in 1889, and subsequently neglected and fell into disrepair, these days, the whole complex has been renovated and brought up to date to showcase its beautiful colonial architecture.
The decision to set up at boutique there happened by chance and almost spontaneously. “Tito drove me around the city to look at different projects,” said Steven while describing the business trip. One of which was the Arcade. “Tito said the Arcade is a beautiful space and that they didn’t quite know what to do with it despite having already committed to a 10-year lease. Then he said why wait for the Boss store at The Mall? Let’s do it now.”
Steven disclosed the plan for the store was put in place one year ago and the renovation began in January this year. Architects were flown in. Experienced staff were roped in from luxury hospitality and electronics retail segments of the Abans Group. Before Hugo Boss, the luxury fashion retail market was non-existent here. Wealthy locals shop overseas in Singapore, India and Dubai. But now they have an extensive range of quality menswear to choose from in Hugo Boss. “We have a great location, a great business partner and we are a great brand,” declared Steven. “In the past, people here might not want to be seen spending in public due to historical reasons. But I think now we are about to hit a break in the waves in Sri Lanka.”
The day after the launch party, we embarked on a two-hour drive down to the south coast of the island on an Abans Tours’ bus. The journey was a smooth travel on a tolled highway, completed in 2014, with relatively few vehicles – a far cry from the heart-stopping navigation on the streets of Colombo. On the way were paddy fields with farmers breaking their backs working hard for the harvest and water birds were aplenty, submerging their feet in the mud looking for their catch of the day. When we disembarked from the bus, we were greeted by curious locals who were ecstatic to see a big group of tourists visiting the seaside village of Weligama and its famed sandy shores. Then we proceeded to check into Cape Weligama, a celebrated luxury resort that boasts 39 private villas, perched atop a cape pounded by the strong currents of the Indian Ocean below.
That night before we dined under the crescent and midnight blue sky unpolluted by city lights, I met Steven again at a pre-dinner cocktail session at the verandah of Moon Bar. While holding a glass of Long Island Iced Tea in my hand, backed by the relaxing sound of ocean waves crashing, Steven turned his attention to me asked, perhaps rhetorically, “So Justin, now do you know why we had decided to open in Sri Lanka?”
Absolutely. This is the new frontier.