Ong Shunmugam's worthwhile fashion experiment

  • Style
  • Tuesday, 11 Feb 2014

As the name of the collection suggests, the Prints Charming range is full of vibrant hues and textures.

Singapore-based fashion label ­Ong Shunmugam won the Grand Award at the Design For Asia Awards 2013.

EAST meets West, and then meets East again through the women’s wear label Ong Shunmugam, in an imaginative marriage of the traditional and contemporary.

Founded by Malaysian designer Priscilla Shunmugam, the unassuming label ousted the competition from a record 970 entries from 19 countries, across 18 design categories, to receive the highest honour of Grand Award at the Design For Asia Awards 2013.

The win is the first international award for the three-year-old Singapore-based label and makes Priscilla the first fashion designer from Malaysia to bag the Grand Award.

It brings to a close another year of milestones for Ong Shunmugam after the opening of its second retail space in Singapore and the premier of the label’s fifth collection “Whenever I Fall at Your Feet” at the Future Fashion Now platform.

Ong Shunmugam Fall/Winter 2013.

The collection transited from the runway into a full-scale exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore, making Ong Shunmugam the youngest fashion label to have a dedicated feature there, with the patronage of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

“I think it speaks more about the readiness of those around us, and those with influence, to have faith in the calibre of deserving work, no matter the creator’s age, background or years of experience. It’s important to distinguish that I didn’t come from within the fashion industry, so when I started this label, I had no connections or experience,” said the designer of her win.

“Every single person who has been receptive and supportive towards Ong Shunmugam has done so, not because of who I am, but because of my work. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter who takes home these awards. Every fellow designer I know works just as hard and struggles just as much as I do. It’s the fact that someone bothers to keep track of what we do that matters most.”

Priscilla said that people responded positively to what they saw at the awards. She detected a spike in the label’s sales and heightened media interest as well.

The designer admitted she was a little nervous about her work being scrutinised by the panel and found the judging process incredibly intimidating.

Also from the Ong Shunmugam Fall/Winter 2013 collection, striking colours and prints are used.

“My design process has never been one by the book and I never really thought it could be accepted by such a tough crowd. Plus, this is the first time I’ve put myself out there for an international award. Who knew?” Priscilla said.

The 32-year-old designer has been based in Singapore for the last 12 years. Having had to start out from scratch, she felt that the country, fondly known as the “little red dot”, has always been fair to her.

“It’s never handed anything to me on a platter, but perhaps, that has made all the difference. By the time I drew up the concept for the label, I knew I had something rather ‘experimental’ on my hands and I needed a society that was ready for it. I felt Singapore was the right place and the right time.

“It’s struggling with not just a post-colonial identity, but an immigrant society that keeps evolving – a perfect setting to stage the kind of questions we like to ask. I always felt KL would have to wait a while, not that it wasn’t important, but that I would come to it when it was ready for the label,” she explained.

Plans to cross the causeway are still on the drawing board at the moment, she revealed. With a customer base that has been growing slowly, but steadily, in the past year, she is convinced that the time is right to enter the Malaysian market this year.

As the name of the collection suggests, the Prints Charming range is full of vibrant hues and textures.

“If we have it our way, we’ll properly launch Ong Shunmugam in KL and women here will be able to shop for our pieces in person!”

Priscilla describes her label as “contemporary Asian women’s wear” and strives to push the boundaries of how people view traditional wear.

“Sometime in my late 20s, I began to notice the positioning of fashion classics such as the cheongsam or the kebaya as being stuck within layers of ambiguity and contradictions. On one hand, while the traditional dress still exists, it’s increasingly confined to costumery. On the other hand, it seems to need validation from a brand or designer in the West before it can find a place in the current fashion system,” said Priscilla, who is of Chinese and Indian descent.

“That’s when I realised I wasn’t embarrassed to wear my culture on my sleeve. The problem was, I just couldn’t find anything that I could relate to. I didn’t want nostalgia or kitsch, yet I also didn’t want something repackaged in the West and sold back to me. My discontentment with all these situations keeps me in check with every experiment I make.”

In the near future, she hopes to hit the fashion weeks circa London, Paris and New York later this year to test out three years of hardwork, dedication and education. The label is also looking around for an additional retail location in Singapore, and hopes to explore neighbouring markets like Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

“I’m looking forward to when I can objectively sense, either through critical or commercial feedback, whether the label has achieved and maintained a style that is clearly identifiable, influential to some extent and consistent over the years. I also hope we reach a point where the brand is able to fully understand how its designs are connecting with customers. With the release of every collection, Ong Shunmugam should keep trying to challenge contemporary Asian aesthetic and provoke people to think. I just have to keep the momentum going,” she concluded.

Other recipients of the Grand Award in past years were Shigeru Ban Architects (2011), Shang Xia (2011), Apple (2010) and Samsung (2009).

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