More than just bespoke cheongsams and qi paos, the brains behind Ong Shunmugam reveals a new Hari Raya collection coming your way soon
Ong Shumugam is a name synonymous with the cheongsam, but let’s get one thing clear: it is so much more than just Chinoiserie silks and qi paos. In the six years since its debut, the homegrown label has slowly and steadily dominated the local fashion scene with its contemporary, never-before-seen interpretations of the traditional Asian garb – but now, founder Priscilla Shumugam has her sights on growing the brand even further. How, you may ask? In an exclusive tête-à-tête, we sat down with the designer for the low-down on the future of Ong Shumugam, race, identity, and the biggest takeaways from her journey so far.
These six years since you founded Ong Shunmugam must’ve been quite the whirlwind. What have been the highlights and low points of your journey so far?
Opening the Ong Shunmugam flagship store was a major turning point for us. Another highlight was being part of the CFDA Fashion Futures program: it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I do hope I get to experience something similar to that sometime in the future. As for low points and disappointments, they are quite hard to come by. Even when our brand does face any challenges, we treat them as part of the learning process and as an opportunity to grow, so it never really feels like we’ve hit a bump in the road.
What are your plans and resolutions for 2017?
We definitely have our work cut out for us this year. Beside the CNY and Cruise 2017 collections, we also plan to launch a Hari Raya collection in March. In addition, we’ve formed a new arm of the company, OS Lab, which focuses on developing partnerships and branching out to lifestyle products, accessories, and even menswear.
Our resolution for 2017 is to have a better understanding of our customers and what they’re looking for. In the past, there was always a need to toe the line or do what was expected of us. Now, as Ong Shunmugam matures, it’s about reclaiming ownership of the brand and of our destiny.
Tell us about your cheongsam collection for Chinese New Year.
The collection is called RGB and it pays tribute to the colour space model by primarily using red, green, blue, and white. We all know that red is popular in Chinese culture, but it’s not a colour that Ong Shunmugam often uses. That’s why RGB is quite a bold collection – it shows our brand stepping out of our comfort zone.
What was your vision when creating the Ong Shumugam flagship store?
The store presents a multi-faceted perspective of what the Ong Shunmugam brand is. It puts everything on equal footing: the retail, production, storage, and administrative side of the company. My aim is to make the consumer understand that it takes more than just a fashion show to run a label – there’s a whole circus behind it that makes it tick. And aesthetically, this store also lets us translate the brand’s perspective and values into a physical space.
Many would say that Ong Shumugam has singlehandedly revived traditional Asian wear. Does that statement put any pressure on you?
If you want to be a pioneer in whatever you do, there’s bound to be pressure. People constantly look to us and ask, “Okay, what’s next?”. But I think it’s a good kind of pressure. I don’t mean this in an arrogant way, but I can’t imagine anyone else doing what Ong Shunmugam does. And with regards to what we did for the cheongsam and Chinese women, if we can’t do the same for Malay and Indian women, then no one else will. That was the driving force for us to introduce a Hari Raya collection.
Let’s be clear: Ong Shumugam is neither a cheongsam brand nor is it for Chinese women per se. As the brand matures, it’s important that we reiterate that and make it clear to women of all ethnicities and skin tones that we’re thinking about them too. When I first broached the idea of a Hari Raya collection, many people asked me, “Are you sure you even want to do this?”. But why should we be afraid? This is exactly what Ong Shumugam needs to do: take on areas that are tangled up in misinterpretations, misconceptions, and misappropriations, and give Muslim/Malay women the same kind of options we offer to our other customers.
What are the biggest takeaways from your time in fashion?
In these past six years, I have learnt to pick my battles and fear less about disappointing people. At the end of the day, you must always remember who your biggest critic is. Whatever you do – whether as a designer, journalist or a photographer – it’s important to achieve a sense of inner growth and peace. Ask yourself: what is it that you want to do and what are you trying to achieve? I’m just grateful that I’m still the same person I was when I first started Ong Shumugam, and that I’ve not sold out or cheapen myself despite everything that has happened these past six years.
Ong Shunmugam, #01-76, 43 Jalan Merah Saga, Singapore 278115, p. 6252 2612; Open daily 12-7pm.