Priscilla Shunmugam: The woman putting Singapore on the fashion map

For my new book Lost Guides – Singapore, I really wanted to dig a bit deeper into what it is that makes a city so special. Yes you can eat at a fabulous restaurant, or be inspired by a marvellous museum, but to really get under to skin of a city, you have to speak to the people who are living here, and who are really making their mark on their home turf.  One such woman is Priscilla Shunmugam, founder and designer of fashion label Ong Shunmugam.

(You can read the full interview in the book, which you can order on my website here!)

I went to meet Priscilla at the new Ong Shunmugam flagship store on Jalan Merah Saga, in the Holland Village neighbourhood. They had recently moved from their first home, a small space in the basement level of the Hong Leong Building in Raffles Place. Like everything Priscilla does with her brand, the store is so carefully thought out, with every corner created to tell a story. Most interestingly, at the back of the store there is a large glass window looking into the workshop, where busy seamstresses work away on new designs, alongside rolls of rich fabrics lining the walls sourced from travels around Asia. In another part of the shop, one of the girls at the reception desk was experimenting with stitching bits of embroidery onto a pair of white Vans trainers, in preparation for a collaboration with the skate wear brand. On the rails, new pieces in the collection include a sari-cheongsam, a design merging traditional Indian and Chinese wear, whereby a cheongsam is cut with a sari sash, a design created to cater to the increasing number of mix raced marriages, where the bride is able to represent both cultures in her choice of clothing. We sat on a sofa at the front of the shop, opposite a wall of personal photos of Priscilla’s respective Indian and Chinese families, with a large black plaque with gold Chinese characters above them, which translates into ‘To Glorify Your Ancestors’, a gift from her family.

Tell me about how you started the fashion label Ong Shunmugam?

We started the label in December 2010 and it’s been a fast uphill journey since then. It has luckily been mostly high points, rather than low points which is unusual, but it’s certainly been very challenging. We’ve had to learn along the way, and at the same time challenge many assumptions and restrictions when it comes to developing and running a fashion label in Singapore.

You originally trained as a lawyer. How did you make the leap from the world of law to starting your own business?

It was a matter of just deciding to do it, rather than to keep thinking about it. When you want to make a change, especially when it requires a certain degree of risk taking, sometimes overthinking it can leave you in the same position. So the only thing I did was I stopped thinking and I decided to do.

Did travelling overseas influence you, or would you have made this career change if you were in Singapore?

I don’t that it would have happened if I was living here, because there aren’t the right channels for somebody like me to explore that kind of switch. I was in London, but I could have been in New York or Paris, and the same thing would have sparked. It was mainly about being at that point of time in my life where I was hoping to change.

What gave you the idea to start a fashion brand steeped in South East Asian heritage?

It hadn’t been done before, and fashion was sort of neglected in this region. Fashion has very good representation from North America, South America, Western Europe, and increasingly in Eastern Europe – but you can safely say that South East Asia is very underrepresented. It’s a sad situation because there is a lot of history and heritage when it comes to textiles and costumes here. You go to every single South East Asian country and they have their own type of fabric, their own kinds of costumes or traditional outfits, but it’s never really been bought into the 21st Century. I felt like this was an area that was worth talking about.

Do you feel a sort of responsibility to tell these Asian stories in an authentic way that reflects your own heritage?

Yes. It didn’t really start out that way, but it has evolved into that because the deeper you dig, and the more research that you do, you realise that the reason why it’s neglected is simply because either no one is interested or no one is really capable. It felt like a duty to take on this job, because it didn’t feel like anyone else was keen.

Read the rest of Priscilla’s interview in my new book Lost Guides – Singapore, which you can order on my website here.

Order Here!