If there ever was a brand that could be touted as a true representation of Singapore’s cultures and society, that brand could just be Ong Shunmugam. Founded by Priscilla Shunmugam in 2010, the brand – nearing its second birthday – has captured accolades aplenty for its sensible aesthetics that meld tradition with fit and modernity.
Just like the city the brand is based in, Ong Shunmugam offers a refreshing dose of wit by interpreting seemingly musty traditions into designs that are as relevant now as they were in the 40’s. Subversively modern, yet respectful of cultural roots, Shunmugam’s boldness in experimenting with historical elements makes up just one part of her winning formula. The other part is the designer herself.
On an overcast Saturday, we meet up with Shunmugam at her workspace, which doubles up as her boutique. As our team packed into the cosy area, we are instantly invited to sneak peeks into Shunmugam’s mind. Lining one wall are wood-framed sepia-toned photographs hung over a traditional sewing table. Her couch, though reminiscent of old Victorian salon chairs, is rendered with minimalist details and covered in black. On her coffee table, you will find canned drinks featuring nostalgic artwork of 70’s and a comically-large pair of scissors. Everything in this space reflects who Shunmugam is – quietly insulated from the bustling city outside, but never losing its touch of the progressive nature of time.
Thinking Designs For Thinking Women
“Old fashioned”, was what Shunmugam replied with a smirk, when I asked how she would describe her brand. “Ong Shumugam is a blend of old and new. It straddles between the past, and what the future would want to wear.”
I would readily admit that belonging to a generation dominated by iPhones and fast food, the idea of traditional wear has never appealed to me as a form of fashionable wear. Cheongsams, or anything with a hint of traditional, were strictly reserved for Chinese New Year dinners, Racial Harmony dress-up days in school and for that wedding of that distant cousin whom you never knew you had. However, after those twenty-odd minutes that we spent in her shop, I can now safely say that I am a convert.
Shunmugam’s ethos to working with traditional art forms and cultural costume references is simple: create pieces that women of all ages can take out at any day of their lives and tell stories to their descendants of the adventures they had while dressed in a “Ong Shunmugam” creation. Unlike the rest of the fashion crowd that sees the Asian influence as a mere trend and fad, Shunmugam understands that the Asian influence is more than just riding on the wave of fame that Asian designers are experiencing in Western countries now. Instead, she has developed an uncompromising respect for these influences and takes great lengths to research on various traditional techniques of different eras, even before she hits the sketchbooks.
“Asian fashion is considered a burden sometimes. People wonder why I have chosen to focus on things of the past when contemporary fashion is moving in the other direction”, Shunmugam says. “But I’m creating an Asian brand for Asians. It’s not about being cool or exotic, but it really is an authentic and organic process.”
After a short pause, she continues, “In 50 years from now, what would you have left that you can proudly show your grandchildren? A jacket from H&M? Or a piece of clothing that is characteristic of the rich history of Asian culture?”
It becomes clear to me that Shunmugam is not throwing fancy sentences around - she is a designer who takes her time to deconstruct a brand and build it up from the basics. There is a process behind each design; a process that is both cerebral and thorough in understanding the intrinsic qualities of Asian culture, which she pours back into the brand.
For Shunmugam, her path did not start out in fashion. Though formally trained in law, she knew that it was a profession that she had no desire to build a career out of. Then, inspiration hit.
“It was like someone had switched the light bulb on”, she says, recounting how she first began by taking dressmaking classes while based in England. There, she realized she had a knack of sewing and this inspired her to pursue a course on patternmaking. “For me, if I was told that my sewing wasn’t good enough, I wouldn’t grunt like most people would. I would just unstitch it, and redid the whole thing again.”
With her diligence and analytical skills, for which she credits to all those years of formal law education, Shunmugam began to garner support from within the local fashion industry. Editors quietly watched as she began building her customer base, while tradeshows provided her with the exposure to a global market, which was looking for a brand that could interpret Asian fashion as well as Ong Shunmugam could.
“In the creative field, there are some things that can’t be taught. You take what you get and you run with it”, says Shunmugam.
Still, certain things cannot be schooled in, like forecasting a trend for example. In Shunmugam’s case, it should be even tougher for her to feel current in a trend-conscious world. The designer admits that she “never buys fashion magazines unless there’s a feature on the brand, never attends the parties or goes out much” and that she could perhaps very well be the “most unfashionable fashion designer”. This makes one wonder, how can could someone be so drawn away from current fashion but yet hit so many trends right on the nail? Her Fall/ Winter ’12 collection, for example, featured currently prominent trends of brocade peplums and baroque floral prints. “It’s intuitive.” she shrugged.
“Were you ever afraid?” I asked at one point in our conversation, for I assumed that certainly she must have been. Imagine spending many years studying and focusing on one profession, then making a complete change to work in an industry that is as alien to her as the people are. Just picture a young lady with nothing more than a pocketful of burning passion for what she loves and the willingness to forgo her usual comforts to afford fancier fabrics - that was exactly what Shunmugam had to go through. So certainly, there must have been some level of doubt or fear at some point in her career. But as always, Shunmugam’s reply was more than what I had expected.
“I never doubted myself”, she says with a firm conviction in her voice, “I was nervous, but I knew that since I have made a decision, I was going to see it all the way through.” She continues, “There were times when I didn’t have anything in my (bank) account. I didn’t even have money to get a decent haircut because once money came in, I took it out to buy fabrics immediately.”
Prior to ending our conversation, I asked what would be the one piece of advice she would give to anyone who has a dream, but is uncertain if they should pursue it till the end. Shunmugam takes a moment to ponder, and you could almost see it in her eyes – how she reflects on her own journey that has yielded sweet success. Her designs were just shown on the runways of Paris Fashion Week as part of the Future Fashion Now showcase. After seemingly condensing the important lessons that life has given to her all these years, Shunmugam offers this one advice: “You have to hit the bottom first, before you go up.”
Get ready to shop Ong Shunmugam S/S 2013 at www.futurefashionnow.com!
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Photos by Shavonne Wong of Zhiffy Photography.