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A lady to be ‘remembered’

By Kumutu Amarasingham

It’s not that Otara Gunawardena, the queen of Lankan fashion, is soulless, one realises a few minutes into the inter-view. It’s being in a corporate world and being forced to portray a tough ‘corporate’ woman that has forced her to hold back a little – nevertheless always charmingly.

To have spoken at length to the ‘arty’ types: men and women who, revel, almost, in emotion and passion and simply living, it is hard at first to understand this gracious, though reserved and very ‘proper’ woman before me.

Cool and casual

In trendy three-quarters and a frilly, girly, white top, she appears very laid-back and casual. Perfectly mannered, perennially cool, exceedingly hospitable – that’s Otara – on the surface.

"I’m very patient, hardworking and determined," she says. It’s hard work and patience, she said, that got her to the top, and will no doubt take her further.

Born to a successful father, she described herself as a quiet and introverted child. Otara though shy excelled in sports at Ladies College, where she studied, and appears to have had an eventful, if not dazzling, school career.

She then proceeded to the United States for a degree in biology – worlds away from what she would later do. Both there and later in Sri Lanka, she began to model, and that’s how the fashion ‘thing’ started. Back during her college days she confessed to having been a wild party animal. Evidently though, a pretty responsible one.

From the boot

She began her business from the boot of her car, which she filled up with clothes, which she found soon disappeared amongst her friends. With a little help from her father she opened her first store down Dickman’s Road. "I don’t think my parents expected me to go this far," she said. Today, her brand, Odel, is synonymous with almost everything fashionable that is Sri Lankan.

Her fairytale life as a successful businesswoman, mother and wife was shattered earlier this year when she separated from her husband. A painful experience that nonetheless left her stronger and more enriched. Her two sons aged six and 12, her friends, and her business are now the main focus of her life, though she certainly has not forgotten how to kick back and have a good time!

Asked about falling in love, Otara said it was wonderful and painful at the same time, but she remained optimistic that she might find it again. "I’m not out looking for it – for one thing I’m way too busy! But my experience has not left me pessimistic or disillusioned," the 40-year-old beauty said.

Life begins at 40

Turning 40 last year was according to Otara, a momentous event, not to mention her most memorable birthday. And she definitely agrees that life begins at 40! Well it might, with her great looks and, in some ways, idealism – almost.

In business however, she is an uncompromising realist. She has no problems being a woman boss of a huge company. "I don’t judge people on gender, and I trust I don’t get judged likewise.

Her greatest passion is the environment. "I wanted to be a vet when I was little to work with animals, and in some ways that has carried through to what I do today – which is why Odel is so involved in environmental conservation," she said.

Successful entrepreneur

Despite having established herself as an extremely successful entrepreneur, with the grit to make it through where so many have failed, the vision to take big risks, and the will to triumph, there is no appearance of stress or pressure with Otara. She is almost enviably calm.

"I do yoga, which helps me retain my inner balance," she said. Her philosophy, very simply, is to ‘be happy.’ She describes herself as an uncomplicated, easy-going, though very private, person. She does not party as much now as she used to, mainly because of the time factor.

She has ‘very few’ close friends, whom she would trust with anything. She loves all types of food (you wouldn’t guess looking at her), and works out every day, does not read fiction, hates horror, and watches light-hearted movies that allow her to relax, when she can find the time.

Oh, yes, and she’s got big expansion plans for Odel in the near future, which have already begun.

So who is Otara? For all her amiability, it is almost impossible to get to the person, the real person. But her favourite quote, by her favourite designer, Georgio Armani, provides more insight than anything she said in a one-hour conversation.

"Style is not about being noticed, but about being remembered."

The Morning Leader


August 2, 2006 - Posted by | Media, Media Journalism, News, South Asia, World News

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