The little Singapore label that could

The National Museum of Singapore is opening its doors to a local fashion designer once again. Designer Priscilla Shunmugam, 31, will show 22 pieces from the fall/winter 2013 collection of her label, Ong Shunmugam, from today till July 28.

The show is part of the National Heritage Board's (NHB) annual HeritageFest event, a community outreach programme which runs from July 19 to 28.

The last time the museum exhibited the work of a local designer was in 2007, when the clothes of London-based Singaporean designer Benny Ong were showcased.

The Ong Shunmugam collection at the museum, called Whenever I Fall At Your Feet, features traditional Asian textiles such as batik, ikat and kimono fabric, and recognisable silhouettes such as the cheongsam.

The designs were inspired by old buildings in Singapore, including the former Supreme Court and Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

Mr Jervais Choo, assistant director of audience development and partnerships at the National Museum of Singapore, says the fashion exhibition offers a unique way to explore Singapore's heritage.

"Fashion, being part and parcel of many people's daily lives, is a theme that we cannot miss," he says, adding that the collection shows how "the dialogue between the past and present never ceases to exist in any medium".

The idea for the exhibition came after Shunmugam applied for funding support under the NHB's Heritage Industry Incentive Programme last year.

Part of the proposal included an exhibit to highlight the heritage inspiration behind the collection and the NHB decided that HeritageFest and the National Museum would make for an appropriate setting.

The clothes will be displayed at the Stamford Gallery, together with photographs shot by photographer Clarence Aw of the buildings that served as inspiration and videos by film-maker Jacky Lee of local residents talking about significant spaces.

The National Museum exhibition is the latest coup for the fledgling brand.

Shunmugam, a Malaysia-born Singapore permanent resident, was an in-house lawyer at an oil and gas company for two years prior to becoming a designer. Feeling that law was not the right fit for her, she quit her job in 2008 and applied for a working holiday visa in Britain.

But the bleak economic outlook there meant she could not find work. So, she took up a sewing class offered in her neighbourhood in London.

"It was a humbling experience, for someone like me who had come from a very academic background," says Shunmugam, who is single.

"This was all about your hands and coordination."

With her teacher's encouragement, she went on to take a patternmaking class at the London College of Fashion. The fire was lit and she realised she did not want to just make clothes for herself, but for others.

Upon her return to Singapore in late 2009, Shunmugam decided she wanted to create a label with a clear Asian identity. "We always seem to be chasing modernity, chasing the West," she says. "I wanted to reclaim and redefine Asian culture and its centuries of craftsmanship and creativity."

The youngest of three girls named the brand after the surnames of her Chinese mother and her Indian father, who are both retirees - he previously owned a printing business and she was a secretary.

Shunmugam started selling her clothes online in 2010 and in November 2011, she opened a 250 sq ft storefront in Hong Leong Building.

The label, which she lovingly calls "the little label that could", offers ready-to-wear pieces from $299 and bespoke services from $900.

The business has been growing quickly. Shunmugam says that sales figures for the first quarter of this year have already surpassed the whole of last year, when she took in around $500,000.

Part of the brand's success is due to the immense exposure and recognition it has received since its inception.

It is one of the brands carried by Future Fashion Now (FFN), a local website that lets shoppers pre-order the latest runway designs from upcoming labels.

FFN also gives its brands a chance to showcase their goods on an international platform, by putting on shows alongside fashion weeks around the world for the international media.

Shunmugam was given the opportunity to show in Paris last October and at the Audi Fashion Festival in Singapore in May.

Last year, she won women's magazine Cleo Singapore's Breakthrough Local Label award and fashion magazine Elle Singapore's Designer Of The Year award. Ong Shunmugam was also singled out this year by Singapore Tourism Board chief executive Lionel Yeo as an example of local fashion that could be a draw for tourists.

Shunmugam hopes that the exhibition at the National Museum will be the start of more widespread institutional support of local fashion.

"If we want to take fashion seriously, we have to give it the respect it deserves."