Our AI editor must know something that we don’t. One of the recommended topics from Squire when researching ‘Singapore’ and ‘fashion’ was Ong Shunmugam, which is unexpected. An interview with a womenswear designer for a men’s lifestyle publication? So Esquire Singapore sat down with Priscilla Shunmugam to talk about being synonymous with Singapore fashion, her thoughts on the local industry, how tech has changed the fashion landscape, and her approach to design. She also shares some exciting plans about her brand’s expansion into menswear. Like we said in the beginning, the AI editor must know something that we don’t.
ESQ: How are things with you and Ong Shunmugam since Esquire last sat down with you in 2015?
PRISCILLA SHUNMUGAM: We’ve been on a path of growth in many ways, from moving into our flagship store at Chip Bee Gardens to breaking into Hong Kong last year, which was our first time entering a major market.
ESQ: As you know, this interview is the result of our AI editor Squire’s recommendation because your brand generated the most number of results from a search of the words ‘Singapore’ and ‘fashion’. What are your thoughts on that?
PRISCILLA SHUNMUGAM: It’s bizarre to me, but Ong Shunmugam is in its the ninth year so I think it’s nice to be able to have things to show, whether tangible or intangible.
The tangible ways are perhaps when you can say, “oh I have a nice flagship store”, but equally the intangible achievements are quite important and I would classify this as one of those. It’s hard to quantify, but it really does reflect well and puts across a lot of things that we have been trying to achieve.
ESQ: In another interview, you said that you have a few good years left with your seamstresses. One of the things I notice in our fashion industry is that there are many people who are starting their fashion label by focusing on all the facets of running a label, except the ones that involve the actual know-how in making clothes. What are your views on how technology and social media marketing have become a huge part of running a fashion label and is this leading to a decline in the analogue discipline of sewing and pattern-making?
PRISCILLA SHUNMUGAM: That’s a great question, but also an uncomfortable one for many. On one hand, we are creating this barrier of entry and telling people that you can’t sit with us unless you have true-blue fashion training. But I don’t think that’s what you’re trying to say and I don’t think that is what I am trying to push as well. The question is, are you trying to run a fashion label or a fashion business? Because the two are different things.
The problem with Singapore is that we tend to confuse the two and we don’t seem to want to distinguish between them. There is a clear line that you have to draw between the two and accord each side the respect it deserves. I didn’t go to fashion design school. Basically what I did was to spend a year in the UK learning how to sew and draft patterns. I couldn’t possibly stand next to people who have had solid training in fashion school, but I recognised that from the start and have always been upfront about it. I knew I had other things I could supplement with that no one teaches you in fashion school—the ability to appreciate colour or proportion and understanding your market and the women you’re trying to dress or design for. I knew that as long as I plug the gaps with these things, I should be okay. At least that was my theory.
In the past nine years, I have always endeavoured to employ people who I think are better than me at something. It’s a different way of running a company, but it was something that I read a few years back which said that, if you truly want something that is disruptive or innovative, then you need to surround yourself with the best and brightest minds, or in my case, the best pair of hands. That ethos has very much driven our hiring policy here. If you look at our studio, all the seamstresses you see are 50 years old and above. Not to be reverse ageist or whatever (laughs), the simple truth is that in order to get to that level, you need to be doing this job for at least 15 years non-stop. It’s the only way to achieve that level of efficiency and excellence.
We all know that social media has created a different kind of animal, which sometimes allows people to get away with calling themselves a fashion label when in fact, they take a completely different approach which people celebrate and accept. To really go into this whole argument requires its own article, but I think it’s a question that is not asked enough. The better the difference is drawn in the media, the better it is for the industry and consumers to understand what they are paying for.
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“Back in the bold-faced early ’90s, lang – vegetarian, out-of-the-closet lesbian, woman with an androgynous hairstyle – was the epitome of hip, if harmless, edginess. She represents the difference between a provocateur and a pioneer. She’s not exactly edgy these days, but that’s not because she has changed – the world has simply caught up.” Greg Hudson on k.d. lang, FASHION. 3 weeks to OM. Image: Herb Ritts.
ESQ: What are your thoughts on the Singapore fashion industry from when you first started versus right now? I feel like it’s largely the same. As a menswear editor, I struggle to find new Singaporean menswear labels to talk about.
PRISCILLA SHUNMUGAM: I feel like the industry hasn’t really gone anywhere. I don’t really see any improvement or betterment. Even if you were to talk about new womenswear brands or designers to champion, I can’t really think of anyone. I also think that as an industry and collective, there isn’t any togetherness. It feels quite fragmented. If a designer asks for help or points out certain ways that the industry needs to change, their views fall on deaf ears, or the powers that be can’t understand what needs to be done. So designers put their heads down and try to focus on their work. Every major fashion capital is sort of struggling with questions like this so I don’t think Singapore is going through any weird moment of its own. But there are designers who are refusing to give up. People like Sabrina Goh and Reckless Erika, hats off to them for still being in the game and doing respectable work. And they don’t really get called out in the media all the time.
ESQ: Do you think it’s beneficial to call yourself a Singapore fashion label?
PRISCILLA SHUNMUGAM: I think it’s only beneficial if you’re trying to get featured by the local media in one of their usual National Day compilations.
ESQ: I am guilty of doing said compilations. (laughs)
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Very amused to discover that after I wore it at last month’s unveiling of the redesigned UOB Lady’s Card, we experienced a resurge of orders for this dress from Joy In Repetition, a good 6 months after the collection went live. 🤭 Let me tell you this dress really has powers – I’ve been clocking 21 flights since January, working across 3 cities, not been exercising one bit, finding it hard to eat consistently clean (spot the bloat ugh!) plus was wearing the wrong bra that day 🤣 – but when I slipped the dress on, the lining was so supple on the skin, the contoured waistband hoisted things up and the warmth of the colours did wonders in every photo I had to pose for. Everything just kinda went OK. And you know, sometimes it can really be as simple as that. A good dress is a good investment in yourself. So nice to see so many other women making their own magic with this. ✨ xx Priscilla
PRISCILLA SHUNMUGAM: Even if it’s not a National Day story angle, or whenever editors feel like, “it’s about time to feature some local creatives, let’s just string a bunch of locals together”, then I guess it’s helpful. But I don’t think it matters that much. The truth is good design is good design. The day you can take your designs and pitch them to an audience and say, “look, I don’t want you to judge me based on where I am from, I want you to judge my work because it is good and I believe in it”—that’s an important milestone for anyone, and in the case of Singaporean designers, that’s a milestone that we need to achieve. You need to let your work stand on its own, but this means being able to discard your comfort zone and put yourself out there to be judged.
ESQ: Do you incorporate technology into your design work?
PRISCILLA SHUNMUGAM: We’ve been incorporating technology in our work since 2015. The old-fashioned way of drafting is done with pencils, a couple of drafting tools and paper, but when my drafter joined me in 2015, she introduced a drafting software. I was sceptical when she first told me about it because even I draft patterns the old-fashioned way, but she managed to convince me that it was the way to work moving forward. It cost a bomb and came with its own computer set-up, and to this day I still don’t know how to use it, but she does and that’s good enough for me.
ESQ: It sounds like AutoCAD for fashion.
PRISCILLA SHUNMUGAM: Yeap, it’s precisely that. We also invested in a high-quality scanner that allows us to scan all our fabrics into a high-resolution file that we can manipulate digitally before printing it. For example, we can change the colours and proportion of our prints or add things that weren’t there, like a rabbit motif in a tartan print. Another example is Indonesian batik, which I have a whole collection of. The scanner allowed me to change the colourway digitally. This coincided with me hiring staff who were well-versed with such software because I am completely clueless when it comes to these things. It comes back to what I said at the beginning regarding one of my hiring mantras—that I wanted to employ people who are smarter and better than me. Technology enhances our designs and also protects our work.
ESQ: Protects your work?
PRISCILLA SHUNMUGAM: We were being copied left, right and centre. We commission a batik factory in Indonesia to produce a design, which takes six months of laborious work, and we release a collection using that print and a year later we see other brands putting out designs on the batik that we had commissioned. We realised that we have to create work that is proprietary, and one of the ways is to take prints that we commissioned and add or subtract certain things to further personalise it. Technology is one of the enablers of that.
ESQ: Have you ever thought of expanding the Ong Shunmugam universe to menswear?
PRISCILLA SHUNMUGAM: I do not want to tease you (laughs), but I will say that since this is Esquire, I will give you guys an exclusive. Yes, we are doing menswear. It is not something that I foresee being launched this year, but next year is a good timeline. We have started research, and towards the second half of the year, we will start development. It has taken me a while because it’s not something that I wanted to go into haphazardly. I do appreciate menswear as a segment that deserves its own respect and its own kind of treatment, but applying our particular design signatures to menswear can be tricky.
ESQ: Can you give us an idea of how it might look?
Priscilla Shunmugam: At the moment no because I am still building a mood board of references. My plan this year is to set up conversations with stylish Asian men based in Southeast Asia. It should be a nice reflection of what we do for womenswear, but the fine line for us is to make sure men are comfortable with the prints and colours, and that we are sensitive to the climate and surroundings of Southeast Asia. It is very unlikely that we are going to do suits, for example. There are enough brands in the market doing that. For us it’s about finding that corner that we can own, a corner that I think is under-represented. Even if there is representation, it's not eloquent and elegant enough. So yeah I might come to speak with you as part of the research.
ESQ: But we have never met, and seeing that this is a phone interview, how would you know that I am stylish? (laughs)
Priscilla Shunmugam: If you are not stylish, how could you work for Esquire? I am sure it's a job requirement, even though it's not on the job description.
ESQ: Fair enough. (laughs) Thank you very much for your time.