Fashion design wunderkind Priscilla Shunmugam churns out threads of grandeur for her label Ong Shunmugam, crafting cheongsams, saris and kebayas in updated styles and colourways, including her favourite shade, seafoam blue. With Chinese New Year just around the corner, we learnt the reasons behind Shunmugam's decision to embrace a these classic but dying designs.
You trained as a lawyer but chose to leave the practice and dive into fashion. What spurred that decision?
Priscilla Shunmugam: I suppose being a person with very innate inklings to be involved in the process of creating things and working with aesthetics, the transition into a very academic institution was always going to be a challenge. The transition back, however, has been a lot smoother and that probably says a lot.
Why did you choose to create a label that specialises in traditional Asian sensibilities?
On the one hand, while national dress still exists, it's increasingly confined to postcards, museums, ceremonial occasions and festive parades. On the other, it seems to need validation from a Western or an established brand/designer before it can find currency in the fashion system -- fashion as an instrument of identity negotiation and symbolic profiling. And this becomes augmented on so many levels, when you talk about Asians and Asian traditional wear. This is what interests me.
How has the response been for your designs thus far?
It's probably too early to say what we're actually doing for contemporary Asian women's wear and for Asian women, but I suspect we're getting a good response so far because our designs are, in some way, allowing wearers to achieve a psychological reassurance about their proximity -- both physical and symbolic -- to their cultural origins.
What would you say to someone who sees the cheongsam purely as costume?
The cheongsam enjoys a strange position as the most accepted, yet contested, symbol of Chinese identity. To some, it represents sophistication; yet to others, backwardness. It's important to keep questioning our reasons for putting on any traditional dress, and the best part is I think Asians today are fully capable of asking those questions and providing the answers.
What, in your opinion, completes the outfit?
A sense of quiet confidence.
Ong Shunmugam is located at 16 Raffles Quay, #B1-36, Hong Leong Building. Prices for their Ready-To-Wear collections range between S$428 and S$588. Customised outfits take up to eight weeks for completion.
Opening hours: Noon to 7pm on weekdays and weekends by appointment.
Tel: 6223 4804.