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Barefoot, Colombo. Facilitating the elevation and empowerment of women in the workplace

A collection of buildings around a Twenties townhouse. The front of the store holds the handwoven fabrics, textiles, linen, clothing and patterns of Dumbara weaving, which hang through the metal structures

21 February, 2021. In the sixties a textile designer and colorist, got associated with a convent that taught Sri Lankan women how to weave, on the suggestion of her friend Mother of Good Counsel, an Irish nun. She discovered a passion and talent for weaving, and travelled around Sri Lanka to source inspiration for her designs. What started as an exercise to teach the women weavers the art of design and color, translated into the establishment of a clothing store adorned with meters of handloom. To this day the Barefoot employs ninety five percent women, facilitating the elevation and empowerment of women in the workplace. Barbara Sansoni founded Barefoot, in the year 1964, to showcase the island’s master-weavers, through her creations, in the capital city of Colombo. Barefoot operations started with designing, weaving, dying and drying fabric. The boutique store houses hand-woven fabrics, clothes and crafts sourced from around Sri Lanka: painted-wooden objects, jewelry, cushions, candle stands, stools and boxes. A display brimming with colors through its assortment of apparels, artefacts, and books, Barefoot has plenty to offer people seeking to add tints and hues into their lives. The store caters to travelers looking for a souvenir made by the people of the island. Today the brand’s management and operations are overlooked by Sansoni’s son and photographer, Dominic Sansoni.

The fifty-five-year-old brand operates out of two retail points in the capital, a shop at the Dutch Hospital, and the Galle Road concept store that holds a shop, gallery, bookshop and courtyard café. They have a third store located in Galle; a coastal city situated in the southwestern tip of the island. Located at the heart of Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the store, which was a residential property with a courtyard, was restored by architect Channa Daswatte in 2004, for Barefoot. Their flagship store, 704 Galle Road, Colombo, is a collection of buildings around a Twenties townhouse restored by architect Amila De Mel. The front of the store holds the handwoven fabrics, textiles, linen, clothing and patterns of Dumbara weaving, which hang through the metal structures. You can find cruelty-free spa products, a selection of Ceylon tea, and spices from the tropics in this section. The Barefoot bookshop stacks books pertaining to Sri Lankan culture, architecture and food. Established in the early Nineties with one shelf and two books: Nihal Fernando’s Handbook for Ceylon Traveler and Dominic Sansoni and Richard Simon’s coffee table book Sri Lanka the Resplendent Isle, the bookshop today boasts of an inventory with titles spanning art, architecture, photography, fiction and travel. «People kept coming to us to buy books which surprised us. We were not a bookstore when we started off. But years of curating and distributing books had people think of us in this regard. After a lapse through the years, my wife Nazreen, restarted the library. It has become a part of what we do. We keep our selection particular. As with retail: what you put in the store is what you keep out of the store», says Dominic Sansoni. Fabric covered notebooks, sketchbooks and photo albums can be found here. The bookstore serves as the segue to the townhouse built in the Thirties, where a selection of toys, bags and crafts are displayed, with a courtyard that holds brassware and stonework items. Walking past a working-loom you enter the Garden Cafe and Bar. Started with serving lime juice and fish croquettes, thirty years later, the cafe has escalated into a dining space. The restaurant menu focuses on locally-sourced ingredients and catch from the ocean. Specials on their menu include; black sesame pork, prawn coconut sambol, and lamprais, a rice-based dish wrapped in banana leaf and served with an assortment of meats. The cafe has live Sunday jazz sessions, running for over fifteen years, with an in-house band and visiting-musicians. Left to the cafe lies the Barefoot art gallery in a Twenties colonial home called Ivanhoe. Climbing the wooden-staircase takes you to a gallery of photographs lit by bay-windows to a balcony that overlooks the garden and courtyard. The story of Barefoot gallery began in the late Sixties when Barbara Sansoni opened the Colombo Gallery to exhibit her work and to promote talent. The gallery was located in a building designed by Ulrik Plesner, a Danish architect of the Mid-Twentieth century; and continued to operate for four years. Until two decades later, the Gallery was reopened by Barbara Sansoni under the name Gallery 706′ Colombo. It has been moved to Galle Road. The gallery name was changed to Barefoot Gallery in 1999. «The gallery would have seven exhibitions each year. People cannot hire the gallery to showcase their works. We select and present each theme in our format», says Sansoni.

Barefoot 8
The company works with women in workshops located throughout the countryside

Barbara Sansoni was born in Kandy, a city in the north of Sri Lanka surrounded by mountains, tea plantations and rainforests. She was raised in Sri Lanka and southern India. The spectrum of colors in South Asia provided her with a lifetime’s worth of creativity, resulting in her painting since childhood. She was not drawn to weaving as a means of expression to begin with. The ninety-two-year-old began working with fabrics in the sixties after the suggestion of Mother Good Counsel of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. This marked the beginning of her journey into the world of handlooms. She taught herself, about fabric design, and to understand how the cross-colored yarns responded when woven into cloth. She thought the looms should be inspired by the landscape, wildlife and the essence of Sri Lanka. The colors of a visit to the beach, sail against the sky, a peacock in flight or a visiting Siamese cat. Barbara Sansoni discovered that fabric needed to be sold to buy yarn which led to the opening of her first store inside her home. By the early Seventies they had outgrown Sansoni’s home which led to the opening of Barefoot. «Fifty years later we continue to work with the center started by the Good Shepherd Convent. We have added our weaving center with a dye plant and water treatment facility», says Sansoni. Today their design team works with architects and designers for commissions: an altar cloth for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Sri Lanka in 1995, wall panels for a VIP lounge at Singapore’s Changi Airport or the colors for the ceiling of the Bentota Beach Hotel. Barbara is instrumental in bringing color to Geoffrey Bawa buildings, the Sri Lankan architect known for his monochrome-style and tropical-modernism. Barefoot helps nurture and cultivate artists by providing shelter for craftsmanship. A partnership with Mr. Somawansa and his family, artisan weavers from the Uda Dumbara Valley, has been thirty-five-years in the making, which happened with a chance meeting by the village road, on a day that was pouring. «Their skills at the loom combined with our design, geometry and color. Somawansa’s knowledge continues in the hands of his son rooted in the skills of the Dumbara Valley», says Sansoni. Barefoot contributes to the economic and social development of parts of the island. The company works with women in workshops located throughout the countryside. «We take work to them instead of having them travel to us», says Sansoni.From the designers to the management, ninety-five percent of their employees are women. «We are a sexist company. There is no gender balance at this place. If we were starting today, we would not be allowed to do it. My mother and her team did not call themselves feminist. When they started there was no norm of feminism – they did what they thought was right». The weaving process dates back to an age-old Sri Lankan tradition that was revived after their independence to the British. Materials used in their products are made from nature, including the kapok stuffing within the pillows and toys. There are no factories and production lines; each worker is responsible for the quality of his or her product. «We teach skills and strive for quality from our hand weavers. Our workers are not a substitute for machinery. This is why Barefoot products last». They stock coconut shell spoons, coasters made of recycled newspaper and scarves made with vegetable dye using indigo, pomegranate, soapnuts and tea waste. «For years we were approached by fair trade organizations to join the certifications. As a team we came to the consensus that we did not require somebody from outside telling us what we are doing is fair and ethical. We know what we are doing. What you call sustainability and up-cycling today, has remained the foundation of Barefoot since its inception».

The pandemic has had an impact on the retail industry in Sri Lanka. «What has sustained us is the loyalty of our customer base. We had months of curfews with no pedestrians in sight. When we re-opened our sales were down, but functioning. It gave us an opportunity to rethink. We looked at our products to see how we can improve and improvise». The archive of fabric designs recorded over fifty years depicts the story of their design works. While they are known for their use of color, neutral shades have been part of the palette at Barefoot. Rough whites, salt and sand, broken biscuit and oatmeal. «We have chalked out our program for 2021. There will be a section of black and whites and neutrals. When you think of Barefoot you think color, but we do want to celebrate the other side of the palette».

IMAGE GALLERY

Barefoot
704 Galle Road
Colombo 3
Sri Lanka

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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