2019 and 2020 saw homegrown fashion label Ong Shunmugam venture into the world of homewares with two covetable lines of luxury porcelain and rattan furniture. To wrap up the year, founding designer Priscilla Shunmugam has dipped back into her archives to unveil a retrospective collection of the brand’s most recognisable cheongsam silhouettes, Cheongsam 2010-2020.
It’s a timely walk down memory lane for the label, as it marks a decade since the launch of its first cheongsam back in 2011. Revisiting its most pivotal pieces, the collection is an ode to Ong Shunmugam’s core tenets of conscious craft and tradition. Vogue Singapore catches up with Priscilla Shunmugam as she ponders on the significance of the cheongsam, the state of creativity in Singapore and what sustainability means for the brand.
Congratulations on 10 years of Ong Shunmugam. What inspired you to look back at your archives for the Cheongsam 2010-2020 collection?
In any journey that charts any kind of ascension, I think it’s only natural to look back with fondness. The beginnings of any creative endeavour can sometimes give away the clues that form the bedrock of a designer’s purpose and I knew I wanted to give equal attention to the very start, the middle years and the most recent ones. We have pioneered so many contemporary cheongsam silhouettes and I thought it would be nice to collectively pay tribute to them.
Take us through your creative process—whether it’s alone in your studio, or a specific playlist—what gets you in the zone of productivity and inspiration?
I function best when left alone, so perhaps this is one silver lining of lockdown for me. It always starts with reading and writing, and taking copious amounts of notes. I think, feel and try to string together some thread of thought. The actual designing comes much later in the process, once I’m quite sure of what it is I’m trying to communicate or explore in any particular collection. Sometimes I need complete silence, other times I may listen to the same few tracks on repeat. Most of all, I just need plenty of natural light and a ruled notebook.
What prompted your exploration of the cheongsam back in 2010?
You mention the duality of how the cheongsam is perceived—how it’s sophisticated to some, yet traditional to others. As a local label, how do you think Ong Shunmugam has shaped Singaporeans’ perception of what is fashionable?
10 years is probably still too early to say what it is we’re actually doing for contemporary Asian womenswear and for Southeast Asian women, but I suspect we’ve come this far because our designs have in some way allowed wearers to achieve a psychological reassurance about their proximity, both physical and symbolic to their cultural origins. Having said that, I still think the positioning of traditional wear within the context of the current generation of Singaporeans is stuck within layers of ambiguity and contradictions, rendering its significance unstable, its boundaries unclear, while its status and importance in our collective consciousness remain relatively minor and subdued.
“We are still championing a different approach to fashion—where we’re not playing the numbers game, we’re not cutting corners, we’re not selling gimmicks”
The cheongsam has gone through notable changes in fashion history, from tightened silhouettes to shorter hemlines. Take us through the evolution of Ong Shunmugam’s cheongsams—what does the cheongsam represent today?
In the Singapore context, the cheongsam has existed and thrived since our Chinese ancestors first brought it with them. When we came onto the scene in 2010, I had a sense that there was a space for an alternative way of looking at and handling the cheongsam. To me, its evolution up till that point seemed quite static and misaligned with the 21st-century emancipation of Singaporean women. A decade later, I’d like to believe that we have contributed in some small way to articulating that it’s perfectly alright to have an alternative and that this alternative can be Southeast Asian specific, can be culturally inclusive and can be appreciated even if these sentiments originate from someone who isn’t Chinese.
How much has the Singaporean fashion landscape changed since you started your brand in 2010, in terms of cultural value or structural support?
Fashion in every major capital has seen unimaginable change in the past decade, and Singapore is no different. The smartphone, social media and the accessibility of China, in particular, have effected lasting shakeups that have impacted in both positive and negative ways. Ultimately, I think every city gets the fashion industry it deserves—you’re only as good as your audience. I do think there’s been a shift in priorities, and to pretend that we still value the quality, originality and design value the way we once did, is sheer folly. The instantaneous and cheapness of fashion is prevalent in Singapore as it is in London or LA, but perhaps those cities have deep enough reservoirs of talent on the other side of the spectrum to balance things out.
“I’m still coming to terms with being a fashion designer and business owner in a post-pandemic world”
That’s what’s worrying to me. But perhaps that’s just not what we want anymore. From a top-down view, I think there continues to be good intentions and good money being assigned to the industry. The bugbear, as it tends to, always lies in execution and I wonder if and when we will ever be able to align the right initiatives with the right people. It’s fashion anyway—so there’s never going to be one answer for all.
Given the backdrop of COVID-19, what does fashion mean to you now—both personally and as an industry?
Because I spent six months in the thick of COVID-19 in London, I’ve not spent long enough in this “safe bubble that is Singapore”. I’ve seen and heard the slow devastating effects and watched a highly developed country lose control of the virus. I’m still coming to terms with being a fashion designer and business owner in a post-pandemic world. I’m trying to understand things from both camps of intuition and logic, toggling between the two as I try to strike a balance between being reactive but not opportunistic. It’s impossible for me to ignore the changes we have endured in 2020 and I really feel the need to be sensitive as possible to how women still want to have beauty, fashion and consumerism as part of their lives. There are questions that I’m still trying to answer myself, but yes, I am thinking differently about how to design, how to produce, how to market.
Looking back at the brand’s journey, what would you say has been the biggest shift in terms of your approach to craft and design?
The twin concepts of craft and design have had voluminous change in the past 10 years, driven by digitalisation, cheap labour and perhaps a new disregard for anything other than price. As of today, we are still championing a different approach to fashion—where we’re not playing the numbers game, we’re not cutting corners, we’re not selling gimmicks. Instead, we’re prioritising transparency and traceability, we’re paying our technical staff competitive wages, CPF and bonuses, we’re putting authorship at the forefront when everyone else is pretty much proud to copy and get away with it. Not many people are actually creating these days—it’s just a little embarrassing to admit this.
Artisan support, mindful making and responsible sourcing have always been at the heart of Ong Shunmugam. Given heightened awareness surrounding fashion’s impact on people and the planet, what does sustainability look like at Ong Shunmugam moving forward?
Keeping things as vertical, local and circular as much as we can. Growth is imperative, but I really believe it can be measured against our conscience and our cleverness. We save so much time, money and effort by changing the way we measure cost and profit. It took me a while to be convinced, but I see it so clearly now. We’ll keep figuring things out as we go along, and as long as we have customers who are willing to pay for responsibly-made fashion, we will be just fine.
Finally, what is your biggest hope for Ong Shunmugam moving forward?
That I can continue to sense, either through critical or commercial feedback, that the label has achieved and maintained a style that is clearly identifiable, influential to some extent and consistent over the years. And that with every collection we release, the brand continues to challenge contemporary Asian aesthetic and provokes us to question, reflect and feel deep in our bones.
Cheongsam 2010-2020 is open for preorders physically at Atelier Ong Shunmugam and online via the Ong Shunmugam Personal Shopping Service. Prices range between $488 to $888.