An intimate look back at Ong Shunmugam’s first store

An intimate look back at Ong Shunmugam’s first store

As a new chapter awaits

Text: Dora Aljoofri-Shrestha Priscilla Shunmugam

Image: Priscilla Shunmugam

Today marks the last day of the local label’s first boutique. Designer, Priscilla Shunmugam shares with Buro 10 of her favourite memories of the atelier

Atelier Ong Shunmugam was set up with small pockets but big dreams on 1 Nov 2011. Since then, thousands of women have walked through the doors at the basement of Hong Leong Building looking for beautiful crafted clothes inspired by Asian heritage. To many, the store wasn't just another shopping stop — it was a pilgrimage.

"We've beaten a path to be proud of. I always tell my team that the shop is where the magic happens — it is the most important touch point and communicator for our customers", explains Priscilla Shunmugam.

Smack in the pulse of Singapore's Central Business District, how did the young label get there with such a short history? What business did a modest little house of old fashion have setting up tent in the face of nonchalant modernity? "I asked myself these same questions five years ago when I signed on the dotted line for unit B1-36 at Hong Leong Building. Everyone (and I mean everyone) I had sought advice from, advised me against opening a physical store so early in the label's journey. But we all know what happened", said the designer.

Five years on as the brand celebrates its anniversary, Shunmugam has launched eight collections, crafted countless numbers of bespoke pieces, won numerous awards; and while she may be closing her label's first store, she will be opening her first flagship boutique come August. As Alexander Graham Bell once said, "When one door closesanother opens". 

In this Buro exclusive, we look back at the designer's good times at the Ong Shunmugam atelier with her personal collection of photos she's collected over the years.

"Even with the impermanent nature of space and land in Singapore, I still find it hard to close the door on a place that gave us a home. May the memories live on." 

1. "The night before opening day. After two months of getting our act together, scrimping and saving from what little we had, we were all systems go. The next day was 1st November 2011 and the first day of a new beginning."
2. "Does anyone remember this thread wall? To me, it was an utter obsession. I'd been collecting all shades of  Gütermann thread (one of the best brands out there) since I was learning how to sew. I think it took me three hours to set this up and ensure even spacing throughout the spools."
3. "My nieces Zoe and Matilda were the first babies to set foot in Atelier Ong Shunmugam and within minutes they had conquered the black sofa. Boy, have I had my moments with this sofa — on days that I lacked sleep, I would turn off the lights, lock the door and catch a power nap."
4. "We had a tradition of getting VIPs to sign the Guestbook — a defunct dummy I found in a dumpster at the Far East Plaza carpark."
5. "As the years progressed, we were able to spend a little more on upgrading. But I've always felt that our best touch came in small and measured doses — even better when they were usually gifts from dear friends.  

Yi Lian from Yi Lian Ng Floral Atelier made that cute-as-a-button floral arrangement, Melissa gave us that big hourglass, Like That One were responsible for that even bigger scissors and my parents allowed me to nick that little hand carved coffee table from home."
6. "I probably feel more for the label's birthday than I do for my own, so it's always sweet to see our customers taking the trouble to come by and celebrate with us."
7. "On 25 May 2012, then Nominated Member of Parliament and actress Janice Koh walked in and out of Hong Leong Building and on to the ASEAN Festival of the Arts where she hosted the evening and I believe, wore Ong Shunmugam for the very first time. She insisted on paying for the dress — something she still does today."
8. "If you visited us in the early years, you'd be familiar with how this could be a Little Shop of Horrors. Before we opened our office in 2013 and production studio in 2015, everything and I mean "everything" was done right here. I'm trying not to use the word "messy", but go figure."
9. "Do Your Ancestors Proud" — this was couriered over from my maternal grandfather's house in Malaysia, some years after he passed on. It was gifted to him by the Hokkien Clan of Taiping, Perak when he was awarded a title from the Sultan of Terengganu. He had it hung over the desk in his study and as a child I always found it intimidating. It took me some years to convince my family to let me have it."
10. "It's impossible to count the number of shoots that have taken place at the shop. I'll always remember this one though: My dog, Cendoll and me had to get our smiles out for a local newspaper. Although pets weren't allowed in the building, I sometimes snuck her in. We only got caught once but the guard ended up snapping a photo of her on his phone and walked away."