Women

Priscilla Shunmugam

The fashion designer threads through the problem with fashion.

BY LESTARI HAIRUL | Jan 23, 2016 | Women We Love

Photographs by Ivanho Harlim and Shysilia Novita. Styling by Janie Cai. Photographer assisted by Marie Liang. Stylist assisted by Joy Ling. Make-up by Larry Yeo using SK-II Beauty.Hair by Alvin Foh at Mosche Hair Salon using Redken.

Opinionated, with a savvy business head firmly on the shoulders of a design maven, Priscilla Shunmugam is the founder of local womenswear label Ong Shunmugam. Together, we dive into the problems facing the local industry, and in the wake of the jubilee, examine a possible way forward. Who says fashion is all empty-headed frivolity?

Fashion is a strange landscape of unfathomable things to the uninitiated, a carefully constructed world until you peek behind the veil of glamour and see the grit-mired hard work that’s involved. I see this now, hanging out with Priscilla Shunmugam, 34, at the warehouse facility that she rents deep in the boondocks of Bukit Batok. It is patently unglamorous. After the security locks, you pass through heavy plastic curtains reminiscent of a meat locker’s and into a cold building of stark white lighting with containers stacked up neatly together. One can’t help but think it would make a perfect set for a maze-like slasher flick.

But at the end of the path, flanked by nearly identical storage units, we reach Shunmugam’s sanctum of cloth. Here, bale upon bale are crammed together, all sourced from Asia and of varying degrees of dearness and historical significance, ready to be turned into beautiful clothes. Perhaps, that’s a slight exaggeration because the real effect is more mundane.

She is sitting on the floor, right by the open doors to the storage unit, because there is no space, and cutting a piece of Korean lace for a client. Her hair is in a messy bun and the neckline of her top is loose enough to fall down one shoulder. Letting out the occasional yawn, it’s clear her mind is drifting off to think about the other things that she has to do amidst the absurd simplicity of my initial questions.

“Yah, I’m tired, I’m... I have so many things going on in my head and I’m so... I’m just so sick of doing interviews. It’s nothing personal against you. I’m just, y’know, lacking sleep. Just struggling to do, to keep it all going, but that’s the reality of it,” she says.

I sense frustration.

“Sometimes, I just want to do what I’m supposed to do, but that’s how running a business is. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. You have to take everything in your...”

Somewhere in the warehouse, an alarm goes off and rings for a quick irritating bit.

“...Stride and accept the good with the bad, and I think with success or growth comes an underbelly, which people don’t really want to talk about or look at, but it’s important.”

In between answering my questions, she replies to texts on her two phones, takes pictures of the fabric, and then measures and cuts it. She moves about the cramped space, dragging bales here and there, picking the right ones, pausing occasionally to think through what needs to be done next, and perhaps how else to answer this journalist who’s by then eschewed her prepared set of questions and jumped into the fray.

What are the aspects of this kind of life that you really do not like?

“The difficulty of saying ‘no.’”

Like to this interview?

“No! I’m really happy to do this. I like the magazine. I like what you guys do. But it’s just waking up to a bunch of stupid emails. Imagine spending eight hours with a journalist, and then still being sent additional questions to which you have already provided answers.

I’m flying to New York on Saturday with my collection and I haven’t even packed. I have way better things to do. If I give you six hours of my time, you can’t come back and ask me to give you another two. Every hour counts and I have other things to do, but I can’t say ‘no’, nor can I possibly reason with her because it will come across as being, I don’t know, difficult, divaish, unreasonable. But the truth is, I’m not a celebrity! I have work to do!

That’s the reality of it, in Singapore, at least. People just take it that if you’re a designer, you want to be famous, you want to be glamorous, you want to look good all the time. Look at me; this is me all the time.”

She is standing now, holding her arms open in exasperation as she describes the journalists who ask the same thing over and over again through the years, or the one who comically enough, keeps coming back for more until the total interview time has stretched to eight hours. All while reassuring me, “It’s okay, Lestari, just hit me, hit me! And I’m here for you.”

The transition from law to fashion, at least the repeated attempts of other journalists at broaching the subject, appears to be a particular bone of contention for Shunmugam. It’s been five years, as she rightly points out, but the on-going fascination with a person who’s turned away from the straight, narrow and confirmed path of conventional success continues to be the thing that defines her for many. Despite all the praise for the strength of her designs and the quality of her pieces, that peculiar issue still sticks.

For you, reader bros, who are quite unfamiliar with the world of women’s fashion, here’s the quick and the dirty: Shunmugam is a Singapore-based Malaysian who qualified here but left her law career behind, after a few years of practice, to learn dressmaking and sewing in London. All that achieved, she returned to Singapore, plonked down her savings, together with that of investors, and set up shop designing some of the most inventive takes on Southeast Asian women’s fashion, earning accolades and awards in the process.

In an industry stuck in the dismal state of “blogshops or Instagram stars suddenly deciding that maybe [they] should start [their] own fashion label, or talented kids, who went to LaSalle or NAFA, and spent years and effort, but are going nowhere”, she is effectively at the top of the game here. Ong Shunmugam is one of the few truly independent, and most importantly, thriving labels without a dynasty of investors to fall back on or a continuous siphoning of government grants. But forget the cleverness and the sheer beauty of the work; for the media, it’s a strange case study on unconventionality made good.

The alarm goes off again, as she is explaining this odd fascination to me.

“Sorry. What that is, is when someone opens a unit without keying in their passcode. So it’s like a bird going crazy,” she explains, before continuing, “Well, I think it’s a leftover, after-effect, of the social engineering that Singaporeans go through, which really just conditions them to define success or fulfilment in monetary terms. This usually needs to be accompanied by socially accepted professions like law, medicine or banking. There’s still that fixation with defining success in those terms. So when they see someone walk away from that, they can’t wrap their head around it. It’s like, ‘Why?’”

She mimics the curious ones going, “But why?” in a stage crescendo. Their incredulity shaped by a lifetime of being told that social categorisation is de rigueur and a constant reminder of where your place is in the social hierarchy based on Singaporean Pragmatism.

We talk further about the local fashion industry, which, despite having published an article about it a year ago, I have to admit I’m still on the fringes of understanding it, dominated as it is by women’s fashion. Shunmugam lays it out.

“Singapore’s really good at packaging things. We’re very good at putting on a big overcoat that says we are the hub of this or that. We are bla bla bla. But when you take the overcoat off, there’s nothing underneath."

“Singapore’s really good at packaging things. We’re very good at putting on a big overcoat that says we are the hub of this or that. We are bla bla bla. But when you take the overcoat off, there’s nothing underneath. We’re very good at organising fashion shows, but we have no fashion industry. We don’t have any of the basic requirements that you need to have a proper fashion industry. We produce fashion students every year, but they can’t sew to a decent standard. They don’t know their fashion industry well enough or their fashion history deep enough—some of them are just borderline ignorant.

“A lot of money is really just being wasted on people who are just very good at selling their ideas, and ultimately, quite self-serving. I don’t claim to be able to offer all the solutions, but I can pinpoint what’s wrong and what’s needed. On several occasions, I have spoken up about what needs to be done, but it usually falls on deaf ears. Not enough people are vested enough to make these changes happen.”

It appears that most initiatives set out by the State are in a dismal endemic state. In this post-SG50 world, surely we can see it for what it is. Shunmugam uses an interesting turn of phrase to describe the end-game of the rat race that virtually every young Singaporean is set on: office tower success. The great CBD swarms with these denizens: the OLs clad in blogshop staples and the men in the blues, the pinks and the whites of Robinsons Department Store offerings, plodding away in square-toed black shoes.

It’s a bleak spectacle of the result of policies and social conditioning intent upon letting the creative class wither in favour of top-grade drones who can work as efficiently and economically as possible along a prescribed route of PSLE, O-Levels, JC, A-Levels and local Uni. And if you fall by the wayside, there’s little hope or possibility that you’ll be able to crawl out of the cracks. You can only accept your lot in life.

Shunmugam juxtaposes Singapore with Bangkok, a city with a lower GDP where English isn’t widely spoken, but where creativity and all the associated industries flourish because historically, they have rarely been viewed with disdain. “You have really healthy, thriving industries that aren’t dictated by any top-down action. They don’t need grants, they don’t need initiatives, they don’t need plans; it just happens. And that’s the problem in Singapore: it’s just not happening,” she observes.

But surely, there have been grassroots efforts by creative Singaporeans trying their hand at making it work? Look at the burgeoning artisanal and craft industries. As much as they are riding hard on the hipster wave that’s sweeping developed nations the world over, it must count for something?

“I think a lot of them are faddish pet projects by people who can afford to do them. It’s nice, but they lack sustainability, because they are operating with a very different business model, which isn’t based on the need to have it. It’s based on the want to have it,” Shunmugam says.

"My expectations are much higher, in the same way that I push this brand much higher. People may think that we’ve done quite well for ourselves, but I think we still have a long way to go.”

“It’s almost as if we can have this open farm restaurant because we already have all these successful businesses, and so we can do it since we have a bit of extra cash. That’s very different from someone who makes a living out of that. A lot of the leather goods are, I would say, very entry level. They’re a good start, but I want more. My expectations are much higher, in the same way that I push this brand much higher. People may think that we’ve done quite well for ourselves, but I think we still have a long way to go.”

Point well taken. She applies this to the fashion industry too, the way the initial applause and excitement fade, as tends to happen in a country where trendy novelties are valued all too readily before they are given a chance to grow. On a breakneck pace to success with not that many qualities of true longevity to show for, restaurants open and close, brands debut to much fanfare and fold.

“It’s going to take 50 years. It’s just that people are not willing to accept that. Or they think it can be solved just like that. No. It takes a whole society. It takes a whole mindset. And it really just takes failure. People need to fail. The problem with entrepreneurship right now is that it’s really an activity of the privileged. The people who are really taking risks in Singapore are those who can afford to take risks. So what kind of risk is that anyway?” she says.

“Creativity comes from limitations. I really think that’s why a city like Bangkok has a wonderful scene because the people who are taking these risks, in spite of the uncertainties, are those who don’t have money or cushions behind them. That’s what drives them to produce such good work. The motivation for doing something comes from a very raw place and we don’t have that here in Singapore.”

The subject matter clearly invigorates Shunmugam. Her fatigue drops away. This is clearly a pet topic. As I gather my thoughts for our next interview session, which will take place during her shoot for the photos that you see on these pages, her comments about entrepreneurship being a privilege sticks out in my mind. Isn’t she, too, a happy product of privilege?

In a photo studio in Lorong Bakar Batu, another light-industrial working-class area far removed from the white-collar districts, we begin the final session. After greeting the crew, with whom she is well acquainted, she settles into the make-up seat and tells me why she’s been forced to have separate phones: the constant hounding and lack of respect for her personal time on the part of some unprofessional professionals. But everyone wants a piece of something that actually works.

“If you look at my case, it’s really one out of 10. If you look at 10 fashion designers in Singapore, you will know exactly what I mean. At the end of the day, entrepreneurship is very much tied to market forces. If you don’t have enough capital, or have that network of people who can open doors for you and make things happen, you won’t make it. I see that all the time, but I don’t think that it is insurmountable.”

She adds, “On the one hand, it’s fair to say that, yes, entrepreneurship in the 21st century, especially in developed countries, is very much dependent on privilege. But that’s not to say that someone like me can’t beat the system through a combination of determination, late nights and, of course, talent. If you have a weak product, all the government grants, connections and brown-nosing will not count, and that is very evident in the fashion industry.”

What about privilege in terms of social capital?

“Yeah for sure.”

Wouldn’t that make you privileged in that sense?

“Me? If I’d remained in the legal industry, I would have definitely benefitted from my years spent rubbing shoulders with the elite few. But the problem was, when I entered fashion, suddenly everyone I met didn’t come from JC, and they didn’t like people who came from JCs. I found that nothing I had learned in law school worked to my advantage, nothing at all. I had no social capital. I had to unlearn a lot of things. Like my view of Singapore, which was very much determined by that group of people in law school. Suddenly, I was exposed to very different social strata, and the differences do exist. You cannot deny it. It’s just nice to be able to see both sides.”

There’s something gleefully satisfying about ragging on the ones who don’t quite get it. As she describes the way her law school friends reacted to her decision to switch careers, I am tickled by the utter horror in their remarks. Shunmugam only attended Uni in Singapore and was spared the life of Junior Colleges. Despite that, she too was subjected to the brand-name judgments of people who’d gone through life categorising humanity based on the schools that they had the misfortune of ending up in.

Which raises the question of identity. Here, she is Malaysian-born but Singapore-based, and a minority of mixed-parentage in both nations, but people consider her the Singaporean designer who has made it. It’s perhaps a strange turn of events, if we want to get pedantic about labels, but absolutely fitting for one who wants to elevate the Southeast Asian dress. And to work with it outside the purview of the West or the looming spectre of its fashion industry in determining what is of high taste and value in the global market.

“Identity is very much defined by people themselves. It’s a fluid concept, which is why it constantly needs to be worked on."

“Identity is very much defined by people themselves. It’s a fluid concept, which is why it constantly needs to be worked on. This is also why I think what Ong Shunmugam does is important. If no one actually reclaims and pays attention to these neglected aspects of our culture, then who defines it?” she says.

“Do we wait for a Hollywood movie to show us what Asians are, based on stereotypes, or depend on Gucci to rework a cheongsam, and then put it on the cover of our magazines and say that is what the cheongsam is in the 21st century? Because it is so fragile, identity is open to interpretation in the same way that it is open to misinterpretation. Some of us need to spend more time working that part out.”

Apropos then, for an industry that’s precisely calibrated on the identities that people carefully craft and try on for size or discard with the ease of a few pieces of clothing.

As the interview draws to a close, she reflects on the meaning of it all, the madness of a business that she loves but the associated curses that it can’t do without. The 24/7 on-the-ball nature of the job is tiring and while monetary success is gratifying—she concedes that it is important after having spent extremely lean years with very little of it—she treasures other aspects of her life.

For a bit, she considers the state when it is all done, when there’s no more of this busyness and tells me what is important, away from the glitz and the glamour that loads of money can furnish you with.

At the heart of it, Shunmugam is a family woman. The surnames of her parents on the label reflect her love for them and her roots, and one can never forget that, even amidst the bustle of daily work. She values the ever-impermanent moments spent with them, and her other loved ones, without the sterile mediums of digital communication—though ironically, she relates a story that is peripherally about the digital.

“My mum is going partially blind. SK-II was kind enough to pay for her flight to Hong Kong [Shunmugam’s story is part of the Japanese skincare company’s global Change Destiny campaign], so she came with me. When we were in Hong Kong, I bought her an iPad, because she has to use a magnifying glass with her iPhone and it takes her a very long time to see things.

We got back to Singapore on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, I had so many things to do it was ridiculous, but I saw her sitting in the corner, trying to turn on her iPad. I had actually programmed her fingerprint and taught her that she doesn’t need a password, but she kept pressing the home button anyway. And I’m like, ‘No, don’t press. Just tap.’ But she couldn’t even get that.

“At that point, you can get frustrated with your mum and say, ‘I just taught you that’, or drop everything and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to sit here and spend an hour teaching you how to use an iPad.’ For me, I’ve reached that stage where I can make that decision very easily.

I dropped everything and told the person whom I was supposed to meet that I was going to be late. I just sat there and taught her how to use the iPad. That, to me, is more important than anything else. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to make that choice. I would have just run to my meeting and told my mum, ‘I’ll come back later.’ But now, I’m different. Now those things are more important.”

And so they are.

First published in Esquire Singapore's September 2015 issue.