One Small Voice: Priscilla Shunmugam

Published on 26 September 2017

Fashion designer PRISCILLA SHUNMUGAM stays true to her personal heritage, while helping to evolve the conversation about identity and creativity.

By Pamela Ho

Photo: Ong Shunmugam

When I started my fashion label Ong Shunmugam in 2010, I was looking to create a brand that had a story worth telling. It had to have a strong degree of authenticity because I knew that if I could relate to it, then whatever flowed from it would be representative and relevant, and I’d always have a grasp of what I’m doing.

I started out looking internally for answers. I had just turned 30 and, somehow, I didn’t feel like my personal narrative was strong enough. As a person of mixed heritage, I took a couple of steps back to see where I had come from. My parents were both immigrants to Malaysia; and their parents came from India and China with nothing in hand but dreams. They worked their way up. They had to overcome obstacles to get married; and my sisters and I are the result of all that.

I realised then that heritage in a personal sphere can already be powerful. In a place like South-East Asia — where you can’t separate heritage from the idea of being an immigrant, or the idea of constantly searching for an identity — this story would resonate with people, and even teach us a thing or two. So Ong Shunmugam will never just be a fashion label. It is a movement, a conversation.

We often think of traditional fashion as costumes we put on for National Day or Racial Harmony Day; but it’s never really something you wear out of choice or a sense of ‘Yah, this is me and I love it!’ So, we need to orchestrate that mental shift amongst Asians. If we’re not giving these Asian silhouettes or fabrics the chance to shine on a runway, in a look-book or a fashion shoot, it will never evolve.

People ask me if I feel like it’s now my duty. I do feel a bit of that. Along the way, I’ve realised that the brand has somehow become that little beacon that people look to because no one else is really putting this forward in a very accurate, thoughtful, or well-researched way. In that sense, I feel like Ong Shunmugam doesn’t just belong to me — there’s a movement supporting it now, and giving it buoyancy.

I think as long as you’re in the trade of making things to sell, you’ll always feel the tension between customer and authenticity. So, I’m always keeping my ear to the ground, always paying attention to the commercial aspects of running a fashion label. But as long as your brand has a solid foundation, you have a base on which to send your work out. When we issue a new collection, what we stand for does not change; but for the themes and inspirations, there’s always that freedom to explore.

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PRISCILLA SHUNMUGAM is a Malaysian-born, Singapore-based fashion designer and founder of Ong Shunmugam, a contemporary womenswear label that promotes Asian silhouettes and fabrics. She worked briefly as a lawyer before leaving for England to study dressmaking and pattern cutting. In 2010, she launched her debut collection, Orientalism. She was voted 2012 Designer of the Year at the Elle Awards, and received the Her World Young Woman Achiever award in 2015. This August, she launched her 10th ready-to-wear collection, Love Letters, in her first standalone show.

Tips for Dream Chasers

Photo: iStock

There will always be fear and uncertainty. Go to battle prepared — practise your moves, and sharpen your sword.

Don’t be afraid to ask ‘stupid’ questions. Be honest and upfront about what you do and don’t know.

The best advice I got from my law professor: If you make a mistake, you can always correct it.

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