Hubert Burda Media

Cover Story: Priscilla Shunmugam explores identity through design

In her interview with Prestige Malaysia, the founder of Ong Shunmugam talks about the philosophy behind the label

Photography: Kah Mun of Myth Studio

Creative Direction: Ibnu Aswan, assisted by Nigel Lee 

To hear Priscilla Shunmugam talk about the creative process she employs for her ethnocentric label Ong Shunmugam is akin to an intellectual discussion about her PhD thesis. And with each collection, it seems as if the designer is one step closer to shedding light on issues to do with identity that is common to those in this region. Her terminology is academic as we talk delve into these issues. She even describes the direction of her brand in terms of ideologies.

“That is my training,” concurs the law graduate whose discovery of fashion could perhaps also be described as being part of a quest for self-discovery.   “Am I better at drawing than writing an essay? I say no. Am I better at doing research than a mood board? I say yes.”

It is that approach which has led to Ong Shunmugam being hailed as more than just a fashion label but one that inspires discourse about race, culture and identity. Ong Shunmugam’s official twitter account describes the premise of the brand as provoking a “re-evaluation of traditional Asian dress without beyond assumption and stereotype.” 

“People tend to lump Asians together,” she informs me. “They look at China and India, the two extremes and consider it Asia but here we are in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, in Southeast Asia and we are commonly glossed over and overlooked. When you think of our rich history, the colonisation, the nomadic nature of the people, the confluence of cultures, Southeast Asia is a goldmine.”

At the heart of Ong Shunmugam is the traditional cheongsam, which since 2011, has been re-examined and presented in a contemporary context, taking on numerous permutations. Her ‘Prints Charming’ collection, presented a bold display of textures and prints, as part of an exploration of gender identity in Asia.  In ‘Whenever I Fall At Your Feet’, each piece was created through a ‘conversation’ with Singapore’s national monuments. During her first showcase in Kuala Lumpur, in which she presented her ‘Cheongsam 2017’, there was a contrasting colour palette complemented by vibrant prints.

“It can be challenging,” she admits when asked about the constraints of designing season after season, using a single garment as inspiration. “A cheongsam collection means that every piece has to have a mandarin collar and that immediately moves out a lot of silhouettes. That means we are keeping ourselves in a box.”

This often results in some degree of frustration, having to adhere to the principles of the garment. It is about “being respectful and mindful for what it was but also understanding that it went through many evolutions.” The cheongsam after all stemmed from a male Manchurian outfit, she explains. But fashion should also be fun, she adds. And that’s where the colours, prints and details come in.

“It shouldn’t be so high-horse and pure. It is about delving into your psyche, your identity and finding a way to express yourself.”

Having since inception grown its collections solely from the cheongsam, OngShunmugam now shifts its attention to the Malay Muslim woman, whether from East Malaysia or West Malaysia, perhaps from Singapore or also from neighbouring Indonesia, with its first Raya collection to be presented later this year. The collection will be available locally at Shoes, Shoes, Shoes.

“It is scary and exciting because we have never ventured into this category,” she says. “But my briefing to the design team is that whatever we have done for traditional Chinese women wear, we have to the same for the Malay/Muslim woman. We need to give her the same care and consideration.”

This new challenge, she says, already triggered some very robust discussions among her design team. That means we will most likely not just see a variation of the kurung or kebaya but rather a collection that bears the Ong Shunmugan trademark of inspiring conversation about issues surrounding the modern Malay woman.

“She could be from West Malaysia, East Malaysia, Singapore or perhaps Indonesia but we will try to make she can find herself represented in the collection,” Priscilla assures. “We will definitely play on our trademark with the mixing of the prints, colours, textiles, fabrics, laces but at the same time we will be thinking of the Malay woman, paying attention to the levels of modesty but at the same time giving her freedom.”

Consistent with her approach to design, Priscilla took an introspective look at the traditional garment. As a student, she opted for it as her school uniform. Her Chinese mother frequently wore the ‘Baju Kedah.’ It is these experiences that enable Priscilla to address socio-cultural issues through her design.

“Everybody tells me that I am the perfect embodiment of the brand. I think I spent a year coming up with the ideology and philosophy,” she explains. The name Ong Shunmugam bears the imprint of her multi-cultural background.

“We had parents form different cultures, religions and social status coming together but my sisters and I were very fortunate because it was not just two people falling in love, and deciding to start a family but when they raised the three of us they really put both cultures side by side, equally.”

It is something, she says, that many can’t quite conceptualise. The idea of being baptised but still going to the Buddhist temple or celebrating Deepavali.

“My parents are very open-minded and accepting to anything that is different from what they know,” says Priscilla. “Clearly the home that you are nurtured in, the conversations at your dining table, they can go in one ear and come out the other but for some us, they stick. That has really informed my work and the way I look at things.”

It is perhaps because of this that Priscilla could never be content living life as a lawyer. Shortly after graduating from the National University of Singapore, she made her way to London on a working holiday visa. There she enrolled in a sewing class, which then led to her signing up at the London College of Fashion.

But her legal training continues to shape her perspective. Each collection begins in Singapore’s National Library where she scours the shelves for academic books on Southeast Asia. They are limited but she adds in jest that “no-one really borrows them.”

This scholarly take on fashion has resulted in Ong Shunmugam now broadening its scope to inspire dialogue in other aspects on Southeast Asian culture. Plans are underway to publish books on what the design house has accomplished but as the same time talk about how this aesthetic translates to other areas, for example, food.

“That is just my process,” she explains. “I admit that as a fashion designer I am still insecure because I feel that this is not my territory. I am more at home in a library, I am more at home with history books or legal books, books of anthropology or culture. I get very excited in that space. I am using fashion as a vehicle to talk about these things. I hope to contribute in that way.”