It’s a blazing hot day and sunlight is peeking through the wooden lattices that line the walls of Wild Rocket @ Mount Emily. I have the restaurant all to myself and I’m waiting for fashion designer Priscilla Shunmugam, who’s running late. Fifteen minutes pass and I start to worry that we’ve mixed our dates up. I send her a WhatsApp message to check.
“Just parked!” comes her speedy reply and, two minutes later, she rushes in, apologising with a “I so didn’t want to be late for this”.
Shunmugam, 36, is the creator of the made-in-Singapore label Ong Shunmugam, which is named after the surnames of her Chinese mother and Indian father. The label was launched seven years ago and has become a favourite with hipster-heritage types as well as society ladies and VIPs’ wives who don’t mind forking out $1,000 for an off-the-rack frock, and more for bespoke pieces. The designs are a modern take on Asian dress. Cheongsams come with playful peplum details, cropped tops feature sweeping kimono sleeves, and modern jumpsuits are made from batik.
Her clothes have been exhibited at the National Museum and in 2015, she was named Her World magazine’s Young Woman Achiever.
Shunmugam is her label’s best spokesman. A size XS, she looks as model-like in person as in her publicity photos. Her hair is long and shiny – “Salon!” she exclaims when I remark what beautiful tresses she has – and she styles it cascading down her left shoulder. She’s wearing a black-and-white dress from Love Letters, her latest collection. Its contemporary design is a departure from her eclectic Asian-themed pieces. She pairs it with white Vans sneakers. She’s friendly and charming and easy to warm up to. She reveals that she is her brand’s fit model. Basically, her seamstresses use her as a mannequin to make sure the label’s fit and sizing are consistent.
“It’s very rare that the designer is also the fit model but it’s just the way it has worked since the beginning,” she says. The challenge, she adds, is to maintain her XS frame.
I wonder if she’s one of those who eat like a bird but her appetite is healthy. She opts for the a la carte menu and gets a pomelo salad, spanner crab ravioli in laksa broth and coconut ice cream. I get a three-course set of soto ayam soup, salted fish spaghetti and peanut butter ice cream. She has chosen Wild Rocket because it is one of her favourite restaurants. It is an appropriate place to meet because, like Shunmugam’s designs, the food by chef-owner Willin Low is about giving a surprising, modern twist to traditional fare.
“Some say Willin is my culinary sibling” she laughs. They are friends and Low pops out from the kitchen to say hello.
IT’S been a hectic period for Shunmugam. The week after our lunch, she’s embarking on a one-month working trip to London, Paris and New York to introduce her label to store buyers. It’s her first showroom tour and, fingers crossed, there will be interest. She will be travelling with two staff and suitcases containing the 25 looks of her latest collection. Since the brand’s launch, she has focused on the Singapore market, with a foray into Kuala Lumpur. While she has built a loyal following, the market is small.
“We’ve managed to pull through quite okay, but seven years later, the market limitations become much more apparent. You realise that Singapore is an extremely small market,” she says.
“If you want to start scaling up, internationalising, achieving economies of scale, these are things that this market cannot provide.”
While Asia remains her focus – she intends to seek out Jakarta and Hong Kong next – it’s important to have a presence in Western fashion capitals, she says. It won’t be easy and she knows all too well the chequered history of Singapore fashion brands.
Every few years, a home-grown designer or brand emerges and hogs headlines. But things inevitably go south. Small market, high rentals, lack of scalability, competition from fast fashion – they all add up. In recent years, brands like Song+Kelly, alldressedup, Raoul and M)phosis have faded from the scene. I mention this and she sighs. “I’m very intimidated and daunted,” she says after a long pause, sounding burdened by the challenge of having to buck history.
The fashion industry has changed so much and that’s why you see all these failures, she says. “It’s not because these people were necessarily being careless or not intelligent, but just that the industry has evolved. It has really been very, very unforgiving and a lot of people have just been dropped by the wayside.”
While Ong Shunmugam is going strong, she has had to make “key pivots” to survive, she says with another sigh. “I feel like I cannot let my guard down. I mean, I wouldn’t say the end is near but I feel it can happen.”
For example, it’s a matter of pride that her clothes are made in Singapore by her four seamstresses in her atelier in Chip Bee Gardens in Holland Village. They produce two to three pieces a day. “They are still made in Singapore but, to be honest, the way we are growing, it’s going to be hard for us to maintain that.” Three of her dressmakers are also in their 60s. “I know I have only a few good years with them and then it will be a problem.” The past seven years have been exhausting and she does look quite tired. Most days, she survives on four hours’ sleep. She keeps a staff of 11 and she not only designs but also does everything from social media to sending out press releases.
She was born in Kuala Lumpur, the youngest of three daughters. She recounts with delight how her parents met at the University of Malaya campus in Kuala Lumpur where her mother, Ong Poh Sim, was a secretary and her father, Raja Shunmugam, was a clerk in the examination board. He spotted her at a bus stop, went in search of where she worked and inched his way into her social circle. “It took him probably three years before he scored a first date,” she smiles. “It’s a nice story.”
But her mother’s family frowned on the inter-racial marriage and her mother was disowned. She reconciled with her family only when Shunmugam was 12. “I met my grandmother for the first time when I was 12 and it was very sweet. She would look at us and she was like, ‘Oh, your hair has natural curls’, and we were like ‘yes’.” She grew up in the Taman Tun Dr Ismail area and was exposed to both Indian and Chinese cultures at home. Her father, a Hindu who converted to Catholicism, took her to Hindu temples and Sunday school. Her mother, a Buddhist, took her to Chinese temples.
Her father was strict about the children having good manners and speaking properly. The latter explains why she speaks eloquently, in full paragraphs. She did well in school, was a track and field athlete and had her heart set on being sent abroad for her university education. Her father had by then started a printing and graphic design business, but the economic downturn of the late 1990s affected it badly and her overseas plans had to be shelved.
She remembers vividly how she found out. Her father was driving her to a holiday job when he stopped the car. “He broke down and he just said, ‘I’m so sorry but I can’t fund your studies. I’m so sorry to do this to you because you were always the one with the best grades and I’ve always wanted the best for you, but I can’t give this to you’.” She hid her disappointment. “The moment I saw him in tears, I just said, ‘Okay, Pa. Don’t cry. It’s fine. I’ll do my A-level equivalent’.” She did well, applied to the National University of Singapore and got a grant from the Ministry of Education to do law.
She had a slow start at NUS because her heart wasn’t in law and she spent more time on outside activities like ballet. But she buckled down after she was called up for a chat with the university authorities and reminded that she was there on a scholarship. She worked as an in-house lawyer at an oil and gas company in Jurong for about a year. But her heart wasn’t in this and in 2008, she decided to go to Britain for a year. She had always been interested in fashion, getting her mother to customise her clothes. She learnt dressmaking in London and found her calling.
When she returned to Singapore in 2009, she started work on her womenswear label in her Portsdown rented apartment with $20,000 from close friends. She knew from the start that she wanted to do high-quality clothes with Asian silhouettes and fabrics. She launched her first collection in 2010. Through word of mouth, her clothes started selling and she broke even within a year. In 2011, she opened an atelier in the basement of Hong Leong Building.
In June last year, she moved to her flagship store in Chip Bee Gardens. Shunmugam, who is a Singapore PR, is grateful for the help she’s had from fashion veterans like Tina Tan, Douglas and Odile Benjamin and Wykidd Song. “They’ve been nothing but giving to me,” she says. The Benjamins, who are behind Raoul, passed on sewing equipment and tools, and some of her seamstresses were from the label. Tan advised her on details like packaging.
I ask how she’s going to guard against being another fashion casualty and she says she hopes her law background will give her an advantage. “Five years in law school mean five years of really mental sharpening, learning how to write, talk, argue and break down something really difficult.” She is also banking on her belief that high quality will sell, and also that her designs are unique. “You need to bring something to the scene. You need to have your own vocabulary. Otherwise, you’re just repeating what others have said before.” She was approached by investors in 2015 but after getting financial advice, decided it was too early to let anyone in. She owns 100 per cent of the label.
As we finish up the last swirls of ice cream, she relates how she went on her first real holiday in seven years this year. She spent two weeks in London. “It felt very good, to be honest. I didn’t feel that I missed work, I didn’t feel guilty.”
Shunmugam, who is attached, sees a future still involved in the business but she’d be happy to relinquish some control and devote more time to her personal life. Her parents live in Malaysia. “The past seven years have been very taxing on me. I mean, four hours a night is not healthy,” she says.
“I had in my head I was willing to trade in a good 10 years to get this off the ground, but I knew I was going to put my foot down at some point. The last thing I would want to do is look back on my life and see a disproportionate sense of balance.”
For the sake of her loyal customers, though, long may the smart, sassy and distinct designs of Ong Shunmugam be available on the racks.
This article was first published at The Straits Times.
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