Ong Shunmugam's cruise collection is the work of a woman in love

The seven-year itch

Text: Jolene Khor

Priscilla Shunmugam of Ong Shunmugam explores romantic language, experiments with textures and dabbles into risqué silhouettes in the cruise 2018 collection, titled 'Love Letters'. But what of her signature cheongsams? Those mandarin collars? Gone and gone. Anita Kapoor investigates post-show with a heart-to-heart chat

Priscilla Shunmugam and Anita Kapoor

Tell us your thought process behind 'Love Letters'.
Priscilla Shunmugam (PS): The inspiration is quite multi-layered. There were a lot of things going on in my head at the time of conception, therefore there were a lot things going on during the translation. Essentially, Love Letters is about my exploration of expressions of love through written words. We looked at the art of letter writing and how it's still relevant though there are far more sophisticated way of expressing ourselves, such as sending an email or a Whatsapp message.

You told me that the collection is a reflection of what comes before and after the expression of love.
PS: Yes. On our social media and on the show notes, you'll see quotes on a set of postcards that appear on five of the dresses from the collection.

These are five sentences that you've chosen specifically to convey love without actually using the word 'love'.
PS: Love is one of those things that you can try as hard as you want but you're never really able to define and explain; usually the best things in life can't be explained. When I write to someone that I love, I want to do it without using the four-letter word, choosing to express my fears, my hopes, my dreams, in a way that is raw and authentic and at the same time also universal, meaning to say they're open to interpretation.

How did you arrive at this concept?
PS: The original idea manifested in 2015. I was supposed to work with 10 different writers — journalists, poets, playwrights — to extract a quote about love from each of them to use them in the collection. But as time went by, I felt that the quotes needed to come from a more personal place. The more I spoke about it with my team, the more confident I became. Along the way, I fell in love. When that happened, the words flowed very naturally and I knew instinctively that I was going to be able to make this work in the most authentic way possible.

Ong Shunmugam cruise 2018 collection show notes

I know you have a favourite quote.
PS: [Laughs] Yes I do. It reads, "I'll always let you in, sayang. You can search me anywhere and everywhere. I want you to solve my mystery." I know you had very strong feelings about this one when I first shared it with you. 
Anita Kapoor (AK): Well yeah, when you express something so emotionally, it should bring a tear to your eye, make your heart beat a little bit faster.

What happens when you fall out of love with the person you send the love letter to?
PS: You recycle them.

You can do that with the frock as well when you don't feel it anymore.
PS: Take a marker and cancel the words out!

One of five dresses from 'Love Letters' bearing quotes about love

'Love Letters' follow a modestwear collection, which I love, it's a Malay womenswear collection. So what gives? How do we move from that to 'Love Letters'?
PS: With tits hanging out?
AK: [Laughs] I was saving that question for later.
PS: That was entirely intentional. It's one of the label's ways of saying this is the benefit of being a modern Asian woman in these times. You have this scope to play with, and you should be able to move from extreme to extreme whenever you want, however you want. You should never be defined solely by how you dress or how people say you need to dress. You should be comfortable in batik the same way you're comfortable in denim or a bikini.

There's a lot of black and white, which is not your traditional colours.
PS: This is actually the first time we are using black with white in our collection. I was looking at the concept of putting pen to paper, putting things in black and white — I really wanted to play on that. You'll find a lot of textures, different fabrics and fabrications, and pieces that make you want to touch them, lots of feathers...

Of course, you have traditional Asian textiles as well. Do you commission your own batik?
PS: This was the first collection that allowed us to do that so we went to Yogyakarta — we worked with a workshop there — where we spent 6 months developing our own batik. You might not recognise some of these fabrics as batik but upon closer inspection, you'll see that it is batik. They're all hand dyed; it's difficult to do which makes them even more valuable, but we construct them in contemporary shapes to look brave, bold, very graphic.

All the prints seen in 'Love Letters' are customised by the Ong Shunmugam in-house team

The prints are also customised?
PS: We did that. For the first time in the history of the label, I have a team that understands my quest for perfection, and not to accept anything less. We spent months in front of the computer and with the digital editors to design our custom prints, tweak the colours something like 500 times and print and reprint. The cost went up but we were just obsessed with getting it right. It's why we work in fashion. We love it, we take it seriously and that's all that matters at the end of the day.

This is your 10th ready-to-wear collection for a 7-year-old label and it's your first standalone show. Why now?
PS: It couldn't have come at a better time. Seven years is what it took for us to be mature, become this confident brand, label and company. The energy in the studio is palpable. We're not trying to be anything we're not. The team I have now is the best team I've had and when you have a team like that, the opportunity to translate your mind to hand to object is amazing. What you saw today is the product of teamwork. 

Ong Shunmugam's 'Love Letters' cruise 2018 collection is available for pre-order at Atelier Ong Shunmugam.


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