In the epicentre of Singapore’s central business district, lies a modest artisan’s space in a quiet basement, with pretty pale blue walls accented by framed family photographs, a rainbow of Gütermann thread spools, and piles of patterned silks waiting to be transformed into clothes that fit, flatter and amaze. This is Atelier Ong Shunmugam, where resident fashion designer Priscilla Tsu-Jyen Shunmugam has been staging a movement since she opened up shop in December 2010, with her trove of batik skirts, sleek jumpsuits and breath-taking ivory lace cheongsams.
When Shunmugam settles down on her immaculate black velvet couch for our interview, she is all red lips and luscious lashes, every bit the stylish woman you expect to see. But there is more to her than meets the eye, and with an audible grin in her warm voice, she shares how her foray into fashion was not something she planned or foresaw. While scouting career opportunities in London four years ago, Shunmugam signed up for dressmaking classes, realised that she picked up the skills very quickly, and suddenly found that the winds had changed. “Every day I would wait at the bus stop with my backpack and my tube full of patterns, thinking of what I would sell, what I would design. I spent months playing that in my head.”
When she returned to Singapore in late 2009, she started building the foundations of her label Ong Shunmugam (a combination of her parents’ last names), offering a thoughtful reinterpretation of traditional Asian ethnic wear for women. “I always say we design for an intelligent woman. We don’t think of her as being a celebrity, as overly sexual. We just want her to be interesting, no matter what she does. If you design for that kind of woman, then you know that when she buys something, she’s also thinking about the story behind it and who she’s buying from.”
Growing up cross-cultural
Shunmugam was born in Kuala Lumpur to an Indian father and a Chinese mother, who were frank, relaxed and unafraid to discuss racial differences, whether it was one group’s putative dislike for another (“Yah lah, Chinese don’t like Indians, you don’t know ah?” one of them might joke) or everyday encounters such as a food seller charging each parent different prices based on their skin colour. Shunmugam was baptised into the Christian faith as an infant, but that did not stop her father from bringing her to witness Hindu ceremonial rites, or her mother from blessing her at Buddhist temples. “My parents told me that they would bring me up with both cultures side by side, so that when I’m old enough, I can decide” – ultimately leaving her free to observe, question and make her own decisions about the worlds she wanted to be part of.
From a very young age, three things stood out to her: people were treated according to their ethnic group, she did not fit into a neat category and people would react differently to who she was because of this. “The Singaporean and Malaysian model of ethnicity seems to require the denial of significant internal variation for each ethnic category, meaning to say that we are all one Singapore, one Malaysia, all races live in harmony. But on the other hand, we are constantly highlighting the contrasts between categories – any form you fill up, you have to tick a box and answer, ‘Eh, what race are you ah?’ Why, when this is not relevant in any other developed country?”
Growing up, Shunmugam found that she had to consciously think about who she was. While people would say, “Wah, your name ah – power!’, for her it was a reminder from her parents that she didn't fit into a neat box. “I wasn’t born with a ‘default’ category or identity, and because there’s no default answer, you need to keep thinking of the answer. That is why I’m always thinking about my origins.” This perspective animates her approach to reclaiming traditional Asian fashion from clichés, and to engaging the modern woman in thinking about what it means to be Asian and how ethnic wear is still relevant. “When you deal with such concepts, the label is beyond time; your topic has no expiry date. It’s also beyond place. I’m not just looking at Indian or Chinese traditional wear, but also at Sri Lankan, Cambodian, Sikh and Japanese styles. Asia is my playground.”
Putting the cheongsam forward
Theories of fashion posit that we use it as an instrument of identity negotiation and symbolic profiling, but in Shunmugam’s view, these concepts are hazy when it comes to Asians and Asian traditional wear. “If you asked the current generation of Asians, ‘what is the cheongsam or kebaya to you’, you’ll find that they cannot give you a straight answer. You’ve got layers of ambiguity and contradiction surrounding traditional wear, and you’ll find that the boundaries are unclear and its significance in society is unstable. It exists, but where? In museums, in postcards, in beauty pageants.”
The cheongsam is a perfect example of these ambiguities, but just as the clothes on our backs can reflect what’s in our minds, it perhaps also sheds light on how divided society can feel about embracing ethnic labels. “For some women, the cheongsam is the most classical dress you can put on, and we have some women who say that ‘I must wear a cheongsam for my wedding because I am Chinese’,” Shunmugam recounts. “On the other hand, other women say, ‘Oh, I love your cheongsams because I can wear them and I don’t feel too cheena’. And I say, what do you mean by that?” I add that the cheongsam often draws to mind images of Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love, standing in the shadows, bound in snug floral sheaths. Shunmugam agrees; while those images are heartbreakingly beautiful, she points out the kitsch that was employed throughout the film. “It only reinforced the view of looking at the cheongsam through Western eyes. Surely the cheongsam plays to a lot of colonial fantasies of Chinese women being demure, ready to serve. It is worn by waitresses and hotel staff around the world, and is also associated with sexual services, whether direct or indirect.”
In contrast, in Ong Shunmugam’s Guardianship collection of cheongsams – launched in September 2011 and her bestselling collection to date – Shunmugam deliberately desexualised the cheongsam. Playing with traditional, sensuous fabrics such as lace and silk, her designs delicately tread the fine balance of being feminine and alluring, without surrendering to notions of sex and submission. For example, with an otherwise form-fitting dress, Shunmugam added a forgiving peplum to the waist (“perfect if you’re going for a buffet”). In another design, she used the illusion of vertical colour blocking to slim the wearer’s silhouette.
Her dresses don’t discriminate against those who don’t have the ‘right’ body type or height either. “We have so many cheongsam virgins. They come in here and say ‘I’ve never worn a cheongsam before because I could never fit into one.’” In Shunmugam’s own words, what she’s doing is “breaking all those myths that used to run about a cheongsam and a woman: that you need to be slim, and it needs to be sexy, otherwise you can’t wear it, you shouldn’t be wearing it because you can’t pull it off. To this, we say no. And suddenly you realise how important it is to think for women – real working women, with kids to go home to and people at work to manage.” Her cheongsams don’t have permutations such as halter necks or high side slits, as these elements “do not make the cheongsam look better, but were introduced to show more skin, which is not what the cheongsam was about during its heyday. It’s meant to be an envelope. It envelops the body in such a way that it shows you the woman’s silhouette, but that’s it.”
In fact, one of the most satisfying things for Shunmugam is seeing smart, successful women come into the shop, try on a cheongsam and say, “Ah, finally.”
“Do you know what they tell me?” Shunmugam says.
“They say, ‘You don’t know ah? You wear a cheongsam to a boardroom, and see what you get.’” Referring to Michelle Obama and Tin Pei Ling as examples, Shunmugam observes how the media and society make snap judgements of women’s appearances, in ways they would never do to powerful, successful men. “This is what matters to me, that a woman should not feel afraid of wearing a cheongsam to chair a meeting - or the fear of inviting thoughts from any male in the room, the fear of putting across the impression that she’s trying to look sexy. That’s an undercurrent I’m trying to fight against.” She adds, “I don’t like how it’s quickly assumed that fashion or consuming fashion has to be a mindless experience or an indication of one’s weakness or frivolity. You work hard and earn your own money – why can’t you buy things and dress well and how does that in anyway compromise what’s going on in your mind?”
Ironically but happily, it is in progress-driven, fast-paced Singapore that the Ong Shunmugam label has been born and based, seeking to protect tradition while prodding at its deeply entrenched clichés and associations. “In Singapore, anything that’s old has this looming expiry date. If you’re a very nice old house, or building, or a very nice old cemetery, you don’t know how long you’re gonna be there. History is so transient here, so undervalued that it’s considered a waste of time, an obstruction in the long road to progress. So you know what? This is the best place to kick up a fuss. People might not know what you’re talking about, but when people finally understand what you’re saying, it will speak really loudly.”
Informed by that perspective, Ong Shunmugam supports cottage industries, brocade weavers and seamstresses in Singapore and the region. While travelling in Europe, she observed how people dressed and consumed and perceived fashion. “People were proud to work in the garment industry – not just to buy, but to make and create. This was something I never felt or experienced back home. We have a lot of magazines and malls, and we’re very good at buying but we’re not really asking where these things come from. There seems to be some embarrassment about admitting that your product is made in Asia – why?” Prior to opening shop, Shunmugam spent a year travelling and looking for manufacturers in Asia, chatting with pattern makers, bosses and staff in the factories. With a natural poetic flow and a gentle pride in her voice, she says, “I’m happy to say that from swatch, to sketch, to shopfloor, everything here at Ong Shunmugam takes place in Asia. We’re proud of that.”
For example, Shunmugam buys her vintage buttons from a Chinese man who’s been running his shop in Malaysia for 50 years. “These businesses are not meant to survive on housewives buying five buttons for a jacket, they need big orders. So it feels really good to be able to go there and clear out his whole drawer of buttons, or help him dig out stuff from his storeroom and there’s dust falling on the both of us, or when I have to clean the buttons because they’re covered in dust from the 1970s.” Besides turning the ‘Made in Asia’ notion on its head, these encounters also serve as quiet reminders of trades that are slowly dying out. “I asked him, uncle, what are you going to do? And he said, his children are not interested in the business. It’s when you come into contact with people like this, from our parents’ generation, that you see how displaced they are in today’s society. But it feels nice to have one leg in that past and one leg in the future, and do whatever little we can to sustain them.”
It’s also important to Shunmugam that Atelier Ong Shunmugam was conceived as a workspace and not a boutique, because she values putting passion, the willingness to research and an obsession with quality on display. “There’s a process involved, which is why it’s so messy here today, to see all these fabrics folded up waiting for their turn, buttons, trimmings, my design books. I put them there so if someone asks, I can say, this is it. Everything is done here.” She adds, “Fashion is now all about the flash, no longer about the back room or the process. Why? Because it’s not prestigious enough? Craftsmanship is not about manual labour. It is a mental process that involves a strong passion for what they do and a strong desire to be better at it. These are all tangible expressions of someone who is dynamic, committed to good quality. I want people to understand where things come from, how things are made.”
At the end of my two-hour chat with Shunmugam, I feel like I’ve just received welcome lessons from a long-lost friend in the art of delicate balance, conscious consumption, heritage and personal boldness, and the dresses hanging on the silver racks seem to hold much more in every stitch and fold. “It’s not about nostalgia. It’s not about looking back into yesteryear and saying, wow, things were so lovely back then. I’m about taking the past, bringing it with us, taking it along. Not just standing back and watching it, but saying: come, evolve. You cannot be stagnant.”
Words Julianne Tan
Images David Ee