As Mercedes-Benz celebrates 10 years of its International Designer Exchange Program ‒ or Mercedes-Benz Fashion Talents, as this is now called ‒ we take a look at the German car manufacturer’s involvement in the fashion industry
Two models walk hand in hand down the catwalk, closing the vibrant fashion show of Amesh Wijesekera, which brought a welcome burst of colour to Berlin Fashion Week. For autumn/winter 2019/20 the young Sri Lankan designer was invited to show in Berlin as part of the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Talents scheme. It was a milestone for Wijesekera. This year is also significant for Mercedes-Benz ‒ in 2019 the Mercedes-Benz International Designer Exchange Program (IDEP) celebrates its 10th anniversary. It has seized the opportunity to change its title to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Talents, a simpler name with a clearer message, and more inclusive of different projects. The scheme was set up in 2009 with the vision of supporting young designers and providing them with a springboard. Amesh Wijesekera joins a line-up of designers that, over the past decade, has included Vivetta, Angel Chen and Steven Tai. These designers are scouted across various platforms, such as the prestigious International Festival of Fashion, Photography and Fashion Accessories in Hyères, with which Mercedes-Benz is also involved.
When I sit down to chat with Wijesekera, he is clearly still full of excitement from the show earlier that day. It’s refreshing to see someone quite so animated ‒ a far cry from designers who have been showing for years. Wijesekera’s talent was first identified at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Sri Lanka. Despite having graduated only in 2016, the designer already counts a number of accolades to his name. Winner of the Mercedes-Benz Fashion and Apparel awards in Sri Lanka and also of the Graduate Fashion Week London International Catwalk competition in 2016, he presented his first collection at London’s Fashion Scout in 2017. Reflecting on the invitation by Mercedes-Benz to show in Berlin, Wijesekera says: ‘It’s such a huge thing to show Sri Lankan design to a global audience. It’s one of the first times this has happened. The program is such a great platform, and I’m so grateful for it.’
Having studied in Sri Lanka (and now living in London), Wijesekera creates collections that have a strong focus on fabrics, particularly traditional Sri Lankan artisanship. ‘Sri Lanka has such a huge history of crafts,’ he explains. ‘For me it’s about how I can incorporate all these craftsmen.’ He works closely with the country’s artisans to produce contemporary pieces that sit at a crossroads between both cultures.
In a speech at Berlin Fashion Week to mark the Mercedes-Benz 10-year anniversary of involvement with fashion, Bettina Haussmann, head of branded entertainment at the company, says: ‘Back then, we became aware that appearing on an international platform is an important career step and at the same time a tough challenge, even for designers who are successful in their home countries.’ The brand covers conception, production and implementation costs, and also provides expert advice. Thanks to this support, designers gain exposure to press, buyers and other industry insiders.
The secret to the Mercedes-Benz scheme is that the brand gets involved, as Haussmann explains. ‘We want to be a partner, not just a sponsor. As much as possible, we want to look behind the scenes to see what is important, what is relevant to designers in order for them to get bigger and bigger. We take the task seriously.’
The success of the program is undeniable – the proof is evident. Besides those labels that are now fully established in their own right, some designers have gone on to work for some of the world’s leading fashion houses. Roshi Porkar now works as womenswear designer at Kenzo, and the duo behind Botter are the current creative directors of Nina Ricci, for example.
Without Mercedes-Benz’s involvement and its Fashion Talents program, the industry insiders attending Berlin Fashion Week this season would quite probably never have heard of Amesh Wijesekera or seen his exciting collections that showcase the craft of Sri Lanka in vibrant new ways. Mercedes-Benz Fashion Talents has become instrumental in discovering and supporting the next generation of creatives worldwide. While a number of similar initiatives are spearheaded by huge brands, none are quite as far-reaching as Mercedes-Benz’s role in supporting fashion weeks and initiatives worldwide – indeed, Fashion Talents is just one aspect of its involvement. Other global brands could take a leaf out of Mercedes-Benz’s book. Cross-discipline projects between industries, like the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Talents scheme, are enriching. In breaking away from the image of being solely a car brand, Mercedes-Benz has become a significant driver in fashion; it is a powerhouse shaping the future of the industry, and leaving a sizeable imprint.