Priscilla Shunmugam: Beyond the dresses

Priscilla Shunmugam: Beyond the dresses
Local fashion designer Priscilla Shunmugam is the founder of womenswear label Ong Shunmugam.

It is one thing to meet designers whose work one deeply appreciates, but quite another to discover that they are even more inspirational as people than they are as artists.

As a designer, Priscilla Shunmugam, 34, who is of Indian and Chinese descent, needs no introduction. Since the launch of her womenswear label Ong Shunmugam in 2010, she has consistently produced original and beautiful designs with a keen cultural awareness.

However, when Urban trailed the designer on the day of her Fashion Futures showcase at Singapore Fashion Week 2015, Shunmugam revealed herself not just to be a serious craftsman, but also a jovial person.

She spent five months poring over books, researching the Japanese Occupation of South-east Asia for her designs - but also used the sound of a dog barking as her cellphone ring tone just because "it was kind of funny". She spent every break she had working out the logistics of her show on May 15, but did so using an Apple iPhone cased in a chunky cover featuring Japanese cartoon character Totoro.

A day with Shunmugam revealed that behind the progressive label selected for the Fashion Futures talent programme, behind the dresses catching the attention of industry watchers beyond Singapore, is a disciplined, sincere and spirited woman striving to understand the nuances of her own Asian heritage.


Arrives at the Tent@Orchard in front of Ngee Ann City for the runway rehearsal

Dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of ripped jeans, the designer sits with her head bent over her cellphone, switching calmly between blinking chats and e-mail accounts.

The lights are dimmed and a textual explanation of the collection is projected onto the screens.

"There is no might stronger than a peace of mind rested and full of grace."

The former lawyer has remarked several times that all her collections begin primarily as academic projects and this Cruise 2016 collection is no different. Since last year, she has been studying the history of the Japanese Occupation in South-east Asia, drawing on their socio-political evolution as inspiration for her designs.

The result is a diverse re-imagination of the Japanese kimono, rendered in textiles sourced from across South-east Asia. Wary of cultural appropriation, Shunmugam broke the costume down into individual components and re-constructed them into contemporary silhouettes.

During the rehearsal, the first model who emerges is Asian, and so is the second as well as the third. The designer says with a smile that this is going to be the first all-Asian show in the history of Singapore Fashion Week, which is in its ninth instalment.

Shunmugam tells show producer Jeremy Tan that she needs the models to walk slower for the finale. After practising four times, the models manage to get the pacing exactly right and the effect is almost surreal; juxtaposed against the fast beats of the music, they look like they are walking in slow motion.


Allocates front-row seats and briefs her team

"Don't panic. Every time you panic, it gets worse," she tells the two interns assigned to receive guests at the front of house.

"Remember, it doesn't matter how young you are, it is about showing that you are in control."

The girls nod earnestly and begin working on the rest of the seat allocations. Just as the designer gathers her things to leave, she pauses and says with gravitas: "Also, don't lose my eraser. It's my lucky eraser."


Drops by Takashimaya to get lunch from the food court and heads home


Arrives at Pavo salon in Nassim Road

Two hairdressers blow-dry her hair while Shunmugam applies her own make-up. They move around her intuitively and seem to know exactly when to stop so that she can apply her foundation evenly.

"This happens a lot," explains the designer with a laugh. "So we know how to make it work."


leaves Pavo salon for the Tent@Orchard

In the car, Shunmugam receives pictures from her team who are backstage. "The hair and make-up are so dope," she coos.

She arranges for all her models to have petroleum-green, winged eyeliner with a single dot of the same colour below their lower lash line.

When she arrives at the tent, a make-up artist from Nars applies the same eye make-up for her.


Journalists and photographers begin to flood backstage for interviews

Shunmugam personally inspects her garments from head to toe. At any point in time, there are approximately six cameras within a 2m radius of her and even more reporters.

The designer remains remarkably unfazed. When a photographer clicks the shutter button or moves closer to her, she does not even flinch.

In a 2013 interview, Shunmugam said she is less interested in the "lights and runway" of fashion than she is in the actual craft of dress-making.

Watching the designer now - brows furrowed, eyes fixated on the clothes, unconcerned with who is taking her picture or from what angle - it is clear that she meant what she said about being, first and foremost, a dress-maker.


Inside the Tent@Orchard

The crowd hushes as the bass kicks in. It is showtime for Priscilla Shunmugam.


6 staff on the Ong Shunmugam team

17 Asian models recruited from China, Malaysia, Mongolia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam to walk for the show

28 looks sent down the runway

This article was first published on May 29, 2015.
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