When fashion designer Priscilla Shunmugam first launched her contemporary interpretations of the cheongsam in September 2011, there were naysayers aplenty. They would ask why something made in Singapore was so expensive, and make comments like: “You’re not Chinese—are you sure you know how to make a cheongsam?”
“I used to be shaken by such comments and would take a day or two to contemplate what I’d done wrong,” says Priscilla, who is Indian-Chinese. “However, because my design concepts were so well ‘marinated’ in my head, I would always be able to defend my choices and workmanship.”
To date, the 34-year-old has released seven collections, which she designs under Ong Shunmugam – the label she created in 2010 – and has sold close to 2,000 dresses. An off-the-rack Ong Shunmugam piece sells for $600 and a bespoke one, from $1,400.
Priscilla has shown her designs at Paris Fashion Week (2012), the Audi Fashion Festival (2013 and 2014) and Singapore Fashion Week (2015), as well as at Beijing’s Chinese Museum of Women & Children.
On her reaction to being invited by online retailer Future Fashion to show at Paris Fashion Week, Priscilla says: “I was very much in a daze and struggled to come to terms with it. At that point in time, it had only been two years since I’d launched the label—I was very insecure because I felt that I wasn’t ready and that there were people who deserved that opportunity more than I did.”
However, the positive reaction from members of the audience told her otherwise. “That’s when I realised I shouldn’t doubt myself.” The irony? She once loathed the idea of sewing.
“I enjoyed fashion, but purely as a consumer. I had no interest in going to fashion school,” she recalls. “In home economics class, I hated sewing—I would pass all my sewing projects to my friends!” It’s no wonder she is baffled by the fact that something she had been so prejudiced against turned out to be something she now excels at.
As a child, what she wanted to be when she grew up ran the gamut from archaeologist (“That was very much influenced by the Indiana Jones series.”)—to art seller. “I even wrote a crime mystery novel and took it to my dad and said, ‘Here—print this. I’m ready to publish my first book!’” she says. “When I look back, I guess I was a very restless and curious child who was always up to no good!”
It was this same curiosity that fuelled her sartorial experiments as a teenager. For instance, she would alter the design of her secondary school uniform pinafore so that it resembled a 20s drop-waist dress, much to the chagrin of the discipline mistress.
The young fashionista would also make her mother alter almost every piece of her clothing. If she bought a new pair of jeans, she would ask her mum to remove the back pocket and replace the orange thread with a blue one. In mild annoyance, her mum would ask her why she bought the outfit if she didn’t like it. The reply? “I like it. I just want to change some parts of it.”
Fuelling her passion for fashion were magazines like Her World, Female and Elle UK, which she pored over religiously.
“I would spend hours in a bookstore owned by my dad’s friend, flipping through one magazine after another. Sometimes I would even tear out advertisements and keep them because they were so beautiful to look at,” says Priscilla, who never thought at the time that that would be the start of her interest in the fashion industry.
In the five years since she launched Ong Shunmugam, Priscilla has made a name for herself by reworking traditional Asian silhouettes into trendy, wearable pieces.
She made headlines again this June, after being selected to be a Product Design jury member at the 2015 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, making her the first representative from Singapore to be on the Product Design jury.
But things could have turned out differently for her—after all, she had pursued a law degree at the National University of Singapore on a grant from the Ministry of Education. Although she graduated with second class honours with an A-plus for her final-year dissertation, Priscilla – the youngest of three girls in her family – was at first floored by the culture shock she experienced at law school.
“I was thrown into a whole new world of elitism, competitiveness and elbow-shoving,” she says. “It was an intimidating experience of course mates not sharing their lecture notes, hiding library books and playing mind games with one another.”
She soon found herself paying more attention to “extra-curricular activities”, like art and dance lessons, instead of her course materials.
Unsurprisingly, by her second year there, Priscilla had failed two subjects and was on the verge of being ousted from the faculty. Her grades prompted concerned lecturers to have “weekly coffee sessions” with her, where they would remind her of her academic obligations and the privilege of being a law student.
“The point my professors were driving at was that I needed to pull up my socks, or there would be dire consequences. The message that hit home hard, however, was to stop being so selfish and entitled,” she said.
“Until then, it hadn’t really occurred to me that my actions had repercussions for others—especially my parents, who would have to cough up a hefty sum to repay the Ministry of Education for all that they had invested in me.”
Determined to finish what she had started, Priscilla ploughed through textbooks and journal papers with a steely resolve to get her studies back on track, and that she did with hard work and determination—traits she is proud to say have helped her in her growth as a fashion designer.
“It’s nice to be able to look back at the last five years and feel a certain sense of accomplishment. When I first started Ong Shunmugam, I didn’t have a lot of money, experience or connections, so I was just relying on internal abilities—whether you want to call it talent or having a good eye or the strength and will to do something,” she says.
“Five years later, I’m still relying on those qualities, but they’re augmented by connections that I now have, money that I now have in my corporate bank account, and the support that I’ve managed to build.”
Although her relationship with law was a brief one – her two years as an in-house lawyer at an oil and gas company confirmed that a desk-bound, paper-based job was not something she could envision doing for the rest of her life – the hours of ruminating over case notes and reference material taught Priscilla how to break down and compartmentalise research and ideas, which has resulted in a unique creative process.
“If you were to look at my sketchbook, you’ll see there are no sketches. There are only mind maps and weird calculations,” says Priscilla, who is often praised for being an “intelligent designer”.
“I don’t have a mood board like most designers do. I don’t like to reference things that I’ve seen because I have an innate fear of copying. An idea, a message, an argument, a belief—these are things that are very important in every Ong Shunmugam collection.”
Despite the fact that she considers her ideas “academic and dry”, her designs are anything but. In fact, Priscilla is recognised for her affinity with beautiful and intricate Asian fabrics.
Funnily enough, her inspiration for “an Asian label, by an Asian designer, for Asian women” came from a year spent in the UK in 2008 on a visa and witnessing how Westerners valued their culture and heritage. This got her thinking about the global success of Western luxury houses and why there weren’t more Asian ones around.
But it wasn’t until she walked past a shop in Nottingham which offered sewing classes conducted by a retired couturier that her serious affair with fashion began, although she admits there was little thought that went into making the decision to take those classes. “It was really just based on circumstance. I didn’t have a plan.”
Priscilla surprised herself and her sewing teacher in Nottingham by making a skirt in just two days, when the deadline had been one week. Realising she had a flair for sewing, her teacher accelerated the lessons and recommended that she enrol in pattern-cutting courses at the London College of Fashion.
“By the time I reached London, I had missed the intake to pursue a diploma, so taking the short courses was the best option for me since my visa allowed me to stay in the UK for only a year,” says Priscilla, who returned to Singapore in 2009, her mind set on establishing her own womenswear label.
Knowing that she wanted to create clothing with a distinct Asian identity, she traversed Asia for fabrics, making stops in Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and China.
Determined to get her hands on the most beautiful and well-woven fabrics each destination had to offer, she would spend hours trekking through jungle-like terrain to reach remote villages and factories, so that she could meet artisans and persuade them to sell her their most exquisite fabrics.
“I think it’s a very important part of what I do, because I feel responsible to all these communities of men and women, who have dedicated their lives to preserving these traditional forms of textiles, which are an integral part of Asia’s history,” she says.
“Fashion insiders like to ask me why I choose to limit myself by sticking to Asian fabrics, but I think otherwise,” adds Priscilla. “There’s so much material and so many untold stories to work with that I’ll never run out of inspiration.”
THE PRICE OF SUCCESS
After amassing bales of fabric from her South-east Asian travels, which she stored in her rented apartment in Portsdown, and accumulating about $20,000 of capital from a handful of close friends, Priscilla got to work on her first collection of dresses. Her rented apartment doubled as her workspace and she worked in solitude, with an adopted Siberian husky as her trusty companion.
She tried sharing her plans with family and friends, but this only drew skepticism, laced with ridicule. “Few believed I was heading down a good road, so there was no need to say more,” says Priscilla. “From that point onwards, I became my greatest supporter and harshest critic, and promised myself that I would make this work.”
For starters, she pared down her lifestyle expenses. “I had to cancel insurance plans and could not even afford drugstore toiletries and makeup brands; it was a stark contrast to the lavish lifestyles of my lawyer friends,” she says.
Business-wise, her tight budget meant that apart from designing dresses, she had to be her own accountant, public relations officer, salesperson and model.
Today, life is no less frantic. Sadly, it’s not getting any better despite the successes, says Priscilla, whose label beat more than 900 entries from 19 countries to emerge one of 10 recipients of the Grand Award at the Design for Asia Awards held in Hong Kong in 2013.
“Everything comes at a price. It’s a hard truth, but you have to understand that there will be trade-offs and you have to be brave enough to commit to your choices,” she says, revealing that she gave up two serious relationships (which were leading to marriage) and her dreams of starting a family in her 20s in exchange for what she has today.
“I’m still sleeping about four to five hours a day, working seven days a week and managing five separate e-mail accounts. But I don’t want to let go of any of it. I still feel I want to be involved in everything—that’s something that hasn’t changed from day one,” says Priscilla who, because she didn’t have a mentor, hopes to be one to young, aspiring fashion designers. This explains why all her current staffers are interns who are pursuing degrees in fashion or textile design.
“To be honest, it’s hard to prove your potential when you’re just starting out, so I try to give my interns as many opportunities as I can,” says Priscilla. And she doesn’t go easy on them. She makes it very clear that there are deadlines and expectations to meet, and throws them in the deep end of both glamorous and laborious duties.
“I do feel that I don’t have the time to stop and breathe, but I also realise that this is the nature of the industry. This is fashion and it’s about momentum—when the wave comes, you have to be quick,” says Priscilla, who is fully aware that she has been blessed with opportunities not many people get.
“When these opportunities present themselves, you have to make a decision—do you want to grab and go, or do you want to sit and whine?’ The decision has been very easy for me to make. I just need to go, go fast and keep going!” she says. “I’m very thankful that this opportunity has come my way—the least I can do is to do justice to the opportunity.”