SGFW Special: Priscilla Shunmugam talks about her Ong Shunmugam Cheongsam 2017 collection

SGFW Special: Priscilla Shunmugam talks about her Ong Shunmugam Cheongsam 2017 collection

Buro exclusive

Text: Dora Aljoofri-Shrestha

Image: Instagram | @ongshunmugam

In this exclusive interview, the designer shares her latest Cheongsam collection journey and gives us a sneak peek before its debut at Singapore Fashion Week this Saturday

You'll be showing your Cheongsam collection at Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW). Why cheongsams for this year's SGFW?
For the past two years, we've always released a Chinese New Year (CNY) collection which is basically our cheongsam line. Then we would do a cruise collection in the middle of the year to showcase at Singapore Fashion Week. This year, it's the first time SGFW has been pushed to October so it made sense for us to do a spring/summer collection, but that said we already stopped doing seasonal collections four years back. Seasons don't really apply to us in Singapore and what we do is quite different. It's called Cheongsam 2017 because we wanted to make it clear that it was going to be a cheongsam collection. It made sense for us to showcase it now so that our customers can purchase the pieces in time for CNY in January. We would also like to move forward with adopting this calendar where we will show our cheongsam collection when it's fashion week around the world. And if you think about CNY, it is after all a festival celebrating the arrival of spring in the Lunar calendar.

It seems like you're operating with a new model almost like the 'See Now, Buy Now' approach that some brands have recently adopted...
I was looking at what Burberry has done this year with the 'See Now, Buy Now' model. They have done away with seasonsal terms and I took that as a good cue. Brands and companies who operated according to the four seasons have acknowledged that these seasons don't apply to Asian consumers. It has its merits but not everyone can play that game. If you are as big as Burberry and you're vertical enough, it works. I think achieving an in-between is probably better. How we are approaching it is that we will be doing a trunk show after the collection hits the runway. The pieces will be housed at our boutique for a week and everyone can come try them on and pre-order. The benefit of doing so is to ensure our customers that they will be able to get their orders by CNY. Our pieces tend to sell out quickly and this is one way to ensure our customers avoid disappoinment. We've been doing something similar for the last two seasons and I think our customers, at least the ones in Singapore, are happy with this approach. And we always assure our customers that they can exchange or change their purchases for something else if they don't like their piece or the fit.

I just want to keep challenging what we are doing. Persuading Asian women to keep experimenting along with us. 

I like that personal touch you've added to your service. However, customers will still have to wait for a period of time for their orders?
Yes, our model is somewhere in-between where you don't have to wait six months to buy our dresses after seeing them on the runway. You can kind of quench your thirst by pre-ordering your piece right after the show, but you do have to wait a little. I still believe quality requires time. This is going to be the first year we are adopting this in-between approach. We're going to try it out and see how well it works. We have been taking pre-orders but this time, we really want to educate the Singapore woman on how to adapt to this fashion and retail calendar. It's really about giving them the experience.
Tell us a little bit about the Cheongsam 2017 collection.
First of all, we weren't actually supposed to show this collection. Up until September, we were going to show something else, but when I looked at the production schedule, I knew there was no way that we could produce that collection and then the CNY collection after. So I reversed things around and started working on the Cheongsam collection from September. I had the idea but I hadn't designed it yet nor did I have the fabrics for it.

The focal point of your designs has always been Asian textile and heritage. You've used fabrics from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Japan. Which country's textile will you be highlighting this time around?
There isn't a new country's textile we'll be highlighting this year, but we are introducing a different type of fabric. In 2013, I went to a fabric fair in China and discovered this supplier who had the most stunning printed pure silk. I was really blown away by the fabrics they make. However, I thought I had lost their namecard and that was the end of it. Two months ago, I was packing up to move to a new place and I found their namecard and brochure. I took it as a sign as the namecard reappeared just as I was putting the collection together.

That really is a sign...
Yes, and I quickly got in touch with them. But I will admit it was a nightmare trying to secure the fabrics I wanted. They were only willing to sell in bulk which meant 2,000 metres of fabric or above, and having not worked with this supplier before, I was not keen on buying in such a big quantity. So we persuaded them to let us order a smaller quantity to test out the fabric. There was just a lot of back and forth, and hurdles we had to get through just to get this fabric, but we eventually got it. I'm very excited to be able to use this fabric in this collection. I saw it three years ago and I knew I wanted to use it.

What is it about this fabric that's so special?
It's a beautiful Chinese watercolour painting and motifs on pure silk. This is the first time we're using Chinese silk. It's really premium and costly. While this fabric is so stunning, it does have its challenges. It only comes in a small width which means we really need to think about how we could incorporate such a narrow fabric into the designs. I'm happy to say we've found a way and you'll get to see it on Saturday. This is definitely one of the highlights of the collection.
Speaking of highlights, every season your collections always has an element of surprise. What can we expect this time?
The other highlight is the colour palette. The collection is actually called RGB. It'a direct reference to that colour space model. Why RGB? It's actually a very embarrasing story. Just a few weeks ago when I was designing the collection, I made an embarrasing discovery. All my life, I've always thought that the primary colours are red, green and blue when it's actually red, yellow and blue. I always remembered seeing the chart with those colours. No one has ever corrected me and I've never talked about it to anybody until my boyfriend, a graphic designer, corrected me. He spent over two hours explaining to me what RGB was. It was a revelation. Every single collection I've designed has always been plotted according to those three colours.

For this collection, the main colours are red, green, blue and white. In the RGB colour space, it's an additive colour theory, so combining all three colours equally makes white. And since I was finally corrected and now know that yellow is a primary colour, we've introduced yellow into the colour palette but in an expected twist. Instead of using a predictable shade of yellow, we're using fluorescent yellow.

That's another first for Ong Shunmugam, but why neon yellow?
Neon is a shade that doesn't exist in the Southeast Asian colour vocabulary. If you look at batik, you're never going to find neon there. So when we combined the pure silk fabric with neon yellow and saw how the colours came together, it was quite amazing. To throw this bold shade in the mix is another step forward for us. The shocking yellow also represents my reaction to discovering that yellow is a primary colour [laughs].

This collection narrates your personal journey and I really love how you weave that element in with such details...
I just want to keep challenging what we are doing. Persuading Asian women to keep experimenting along with us. The other thing we're experimenting with is making our own accessories for this collection. We're making our own earrings and shoes. Everything is handmade. We bought white plastic flowers and hoop earrings, and my team has been hand painting the flowers with colours of the collection and sticking it onto the earrings.
For shoes, my team convinced me to go with canvas sneakers again this year when I really wanted heels as I wasn't keen on repeating what we did last year. However, they told me that we've received a lot of positive feedback from our customers. They love how we've made it acceptable to wear sneakers with occasionwear. I took that feedback and decided to go with sneakers but in a different way. My team has been hand drawing floral motifs and then painting them in shades of blue — on all 20 pairs of Vans.

Will the accessories be available for purchase?
[laughs] No, we haven't branched into all that, but hopefully one day. We created the accessories because it was only natural that we want to start expressing our aesthetic into different mediums. We figured that debuting this first step early and getting a sense of our customer's reaction gives us a very good understanding of how receptive people will be to these kind of experiments. So if people like it, we may just create our own line of accessories.

Why is it so important to you to use Asian textiles even after all these years of using them? Does it come from a personal place?
Not really, but it makes the most sense. After all, this is our playground. It's going to be far easier for us to gain access or understand the fabrics than it would be for foreigners. We're just playing with things that we are comfortable with. Firstly, it's practical. Secondly, we almost feel like it's our responsibility to give Asian fabrics a new lease of life. Typically, they've been used in rigid and set ways, and many times, their use has not been questioned — just followed. That's another aspect of the Asian philosophy and mindset I hope to change. I feel like we don't challenge or question enough. We just follow and do what we're told to do. I know that the work we do doesn't appeal to everybody and not everyone agrees with the approach we take, but I think that's a really good sign. It's becoming more and more clear what our purpose is as a brand. 

What do you think that puprpose is?
To challenge assumptions and stereotypes when it comes to Asian tradition and history by defining it in our own way, instead of waiting for someone else to do it.

Ong Shunmugam will be showing its Cheongsam 2017 collection at Singapore Fashion Week on 29 October at 7.00pm.