Fashion Is A Conversation, And Priscilla Shunmugam’s Nine-Year Dialogue Is Opening Up New Doors

If the Internet’s multi-billion-user social media platforms is the people’s microphone today, then surely, a key takeaway would be that it’s wise for businesses — big or small, fashion or otherwise — to listen sometimes. Those who choose to turn a deaf ear quickly fall out of sync with what their customers truly want (more plus sizes! less unnecessary packaging!), and in extreme cases — like Stefano Gabbana’s initial mockery at the outrage towards Dolce & Gabbana’s culturally tone-deaf campaign — endure a publicly-sanctioned timeout not just on social media, but in the real world. For those who listen, deliberate, and answer in the best interests of all parties, the fruits that multiply knows no bounds.

The conversation about Priscilla Shunmugam and her label, Ong Shunmugam has always been anchored in Southeast Asian heritage, with modern interpretations of the cheongsam, baju kurung, baju kedah and kebaya. The often intricately patch-worked garments (Priscilla says: “Sometimes we have a dress in the main line with eight, eight, different fabrics in one dress.”) are delightfully nostalgic, yet whimsically contemporary, and have accrued a loyal customer base that’s buoyed Ong Shunmugam for nine years now.

“Nine years down the road and for whatever reasons — whether it’s our price points or how small Singapore is as a market — our main line was in danger of becoming quite classist, or quite ageist,” Shunmugam says. This was never her intention, and it made her feel “uncomfortable”.

Ong Shunmugam, Cheongsam 2019

With a standalone atelier-cum-store at Chip Bee Gardens and a collaboration with Rimowa under her belt, the label was poised for growth. Perhaps that meant going international, expanding retail points to the region and beyond. More collaborations in the vein of fellow Rimowa alumni Virgil Abloh’s Ikea tie-up? Just imagine Ong Shunmugam rugs. Which is it, if not both? It would have been easy for her to forge ahead without so much as a second thought, just as many of her contemporaries have. Instead, Priscilla chose to listen.

Titled OM (pronounced Ohm, not O-M) and spelt with the first and last alphabet of Ong Shunmugam, Priscilla’s latest endeavour is an affordable diffusion line with none of her immediately recognisable prints and textiles in sight—just like how she’s done away with the middle letters while christening it. The clothing are easy-to-wear, solid-hued pieces in a modest colour palette, designed to seamlessly become wardrobe staples, and built with comfort and functionality in mind. For a designer whose bread and butter is her take on traditional wear, and has a knack for creating visual feasts with prints and colour, OM, without Ong Shunmugam’s distinctive aesthetic, didn’t come out of nowhere.

From left: D2 top $149 and L4 skirt $199; L7C jacket $349 and D11 dress $399; and D7 dress $249, all OM

“It came from years of consistent and direct feedback from customers of the main line who would tell us they wished a particular dress, skirt or blouse they have came in black or navy. A neutral colour that can be paired with many things, and used across different purposes, occasions or functions,” Priscilla says. OM was simply the natural step forward.

Sans prints, rich textiles, and rousing colours, the label’s principles lie in the precise fits and silhouettes, where 70 per cent of OM cuts are brought over from the main line—ones painstakingly perfected in-house, and that Priscilla felt deserved more life than just a season. It’s in every single shade and hue, where she matches fabrics to her skin and that of her team, to ensure they’re flattering on Asian women. It’s in the overall colour palette, a finely balanced equation of classic and experimental hues (60 versus 40 per cent).

The thoroughly thought-out offering is tailored to its customers, and while its quiet, everyday appeal diverges from the main line, it speaks volumes of the Ong Shunmugam anatomy. “I think sometimes as a designer, you feel that your job is to come up with and propose ideas, and the ball is very much in your court. But it’s also important to be able to keep your ego in check and listen to what your customers want and need. Ultimately, you’re having a conversation with them. If you’re saying something and no one is listening, then it means you’re having a conversation with yourself,” Priscilla explains.

From left: J25 top $199 and J26 trousers $299; D11 dress $399; and D7 dress $249 and L19 trousers $299, all OM

Like a promising Tinder date that ends off with talk of the future, we pry about what else is in the pipeline. An e-store? A permanent accessories line? Priscilla laughs, and then pauses. It’s on the tip of her tongue, but she’s deliberating if she should let us in on it so early on. “I’m actually taking a jewellery course this summer in London. I’m so crazy and I don’t even know why I’m doing this to myself (laughs). I told my husband and he had a classic reaction.” She pauses again, before giving us the back story to the jewellery line in its inceptive stage, “It’s quite bizarre because I’m not a jewellery person. On the rare occasions when I wear jewellery, I always get people asking me where I’ve gotten it from.”

Now juggling Ong Shunmugam, OM, and an impending e-store launch (yes, that’s really happening too, and it’s slated to go live by the end of May), Priscilla says, “To be realistic, I don’t think it’ll be ready this year, but hopefully by next year. I hope to be able to start rolling out a small capsule to see how the reaction is. Definitely in the works, and I think it’s just a very natural extension of our brand.”

The one way to ensure that kind of consistency is when you just create from the heart. It will trickle all the way down into the product.

ELLE: Ong Shunmugam has such a strong identity for being the modern fashion perspective on Southeast Asian heritage. Was it daunting for you to start on OM by paring back on such key markers?

Priscilla Shunmugam: Not many people have dared to ask this, but it’s such an important question. It was quite daunting, and definitely a challenging move because if you’re going to stick to the tried-and-tested formula that got you where you are, you kind of have a guaranteed rate of success. Leaving all that behind, you’re stepping into this unknown area. But certain things are important, like looking at your customer base and women in general and saying look, we’ve always treated you as intelligent customers who think about how they spend their money, and who they’re choosing to wear. As we’ve always treated our customers with so much care and respect, I felt that if we were to do a diffusion line and basically repeat ourselves—stick to the same formula but undercut by pricing it lower—we would lose a lot of trust.

ELLE: And also cannibalise your main line.

Priscilla Shunmugam: Yes, but more than that, we would lose the trust and respect of all these women we worked so hard to build a relationship with. We would basically be telling them that you can get the same thing, but at half the price, and that’s already what our copycats are already doing. We would sell a lot of dresses and make a lot of money, but we would lose the hardest thing to gain—respect and trust.

In terms of my creative output, I don’t want to repeat myself. I don’t think that brings the same kind of fulfilment. I have 100 per cent creative freedom [with Ong Shunmugam] and sometimes we have a dress in the main line with eight, eight, different fabrics in one dress. I give it to my studio and they shake they heads and ask if I’m crazy, but I’m like, “Come on, let’s do it.” We have so much internal arguments in the studio, but I’ll say no, this is what we said we were going to do nine years ago—we’re not going to backtrack. Having a main line as your channel to express that relentless creativity, beautiful workmanship, and commitment to quality—at whatever cost—is a very sacred corner that I want to keep. I didn’t want to dilute it, cannibalise it, or pollute it in any way.

From left: L7C jacket $349 and D7 dress $249; L7C jacket $349 and L19 trousers $299; and D2 top $149 and L4 skirt $199, all OM

ELLE: You’ve said OM retains the quality and key cuts from the main line. Tell us what this means.

Priscilla Shunmugam: There are many ways to design and produce your own products. The traditional way, like how most self-respecting fashion brands around the world do, is to design it in-house, and have a small room of technicians—a small sampling room—to help them create all their prototypes and whittle it down to perfection. Whatever designs that have been passed, they go into production. At Ong Shunmugam, that’s how we do it too. I design, pass it on to my drafter and she drafts based on my sketch. Sometimes I don’t even sketch because I suck at drawing and I would explain it to her in an email. I would use a photograph and say, “When I say curve, this is what I mean by curve.” The process is not easy. It’s very technical and quite tedious, but what it means is that for all our designs, we spend an average of six to eight months perfecting these silhouettes in-house. Once it’s perfect, then we start producing.

It’s no different from R&D. When you spend that amount of time on it, you need to value the objects that you’ve created. If you’re just going to issue them in one season and that’s it, it does feel like wastage, and it feels sad. We know how much time we spend on these pieces and when we see how well they sell, we know that it is a really great design that deserves to be worn by more people—whether in a myriad of colours, or in different fabrics. That’s basically 70 per cent of OM. But, we’re tweaking the fabrics, the colour palette, and making them much more wearable and accessible. 30 per cent are brand new silhouettes that we have come up with exclusively for OM that don’t exist anywhere in the main line. This is done through the same traditional process, where everything is designed and perfected in-house. In terms of carrying over that commitment to quality and cut, this whole process pays attention to both principles at all times.

As we’ve always treated our customers with so much care and respect, I felt that if we were to do a diffusion line and basically repeat ourselves—stick to the same formula but undercut by pricing it lower—we would lose a lot of trust.

ELLE: How do you keep the price points for OM so affordable?

Priscilla Shunmugam: The only way we were going to make the price point accessible is to scale up our quantities for OM. We’re not playing that game where we tell customers we only have two pieces of a certain design. However, we are also not mass producing; we’re not doing like hundreds and hundreds of pieces. We discuss with the factory how we can get this at a certain price point. The factory will tell us a quantity, and we negotiate based on that.

We know how women spend on clothes for Monday to Friday, and that is very different to how they spend for occasion wear. Whether you have a $1000 or a $100 to spend, you can find something at OM. Over six months, you can have six really good wardrobe staples that you can mix, match and wear again and again, and not worry about it shrinking, the colour fading… All those things that are typically associated with cheaper clothing.

From left: L7C jacket $349 and L4 skirt $199; J18 dress $399; and L7C jacket $349 and J26 trousers $299, all OM

ELLE: You love your research, and it shows in the main line. With such a clean canvas at OM, would you consider the psychology of colour?

Priscilla Shunmugam: I think colour is so, so important. There are colours that I really hate, but there are also colours that I am automatically drawn to and I keep going back to again and again. I think it’s only natural. Everyone has this relationship with colour. We all interpret colour differently too, not just emotionally, but visually. Some of us are colour blind, but some of us look at a certain shade of blue and see varying hues. It’s like computer screens—it just depends on the calibration that you have internally. Because of that, colour is so fascinating to work with.

With a collection like OM—purely solid fabrics, no prints, textures or distractions— colour becomes so crucial. I spent quite a bit of time working out the colour palette and what I wanted to do was to devote 70 or 60 per cent of the garments to very neutral colours—your black, navy, white, beige, sand or brown. The only way it can be a staple is if it falls in that colour category. But at the same time, at least 40 per cent of the collection encourages women to experiment using teal, or a light power blue, and we try to spread it across the pieces. For the next OM collection, we’ll probably stick with the same formula.

Having a main line as your channel to express that relentless creativity, beautiful workmanship, and commitment to quality—at whatever cost—is a very sacred corner that I want to keep. I didn’t want to dilute it, cannibalise it, or pollute it in any way.

ELLE: Will you consider setting up an e-shop, given that OM’s pieces are easier, both in design and price point, for the customer to make a decision to purchase online?

Priscilla Shunmugam: Yes (laughs), we are actually in the final stages of putting up our e-shop. It’s the first time we’re launching an e-commerce platform. We have a website but we’ve never allowed people to buy, it was purely like a gallery, and we’re now making that huge transition. We wanted to make sure that the experience would still be very personal. By the end of the May, it will go live.

ELLE: You have your main line and now OM, and you’ve done collaborations on accessories in different shapes and forms. What do you think of a permanent accessories line?

Priscilla Shunmugam: Absolutely! That’s already in development right now. Okay, I’ll give you an exclusive (laughs). I’m actually taking a jewellery course this summer in London. I’m so crazy and I don’t even know why I’m doing this to myself (laughs). I told my husband and he had a classic reaction. Andrea, I’ve told less than five people.

ELLE: I’m honoured to be one of them.

Priscilla Shunmugam: It’s a recent development. I’ve signed up for it maybe a month ago, but my interest in developing an accessories line has been going on for years. It’s the same with the diffusion line. I don’t have endless resources so a lot of the things that I want to do, I can only do when I can afford it and the business is able to do it. It’s quite bizarre because I’m not a jewellery person. On the rare occasions when I wear jewellery, I always get people asking me where I’ve gotten it from. Putting that together with whenever we have a fashion show or we are shooting our lookbook, I get frustrated that I can’t find the accessories to complete the look.

With whatever design signatures that we have, I can already picture what the accessories need to look like. It’s so exciting that I’m going to get a chance to learn how to translate my aesthetic into a different kind of manifestation. Maybe it’s also with a bit of confidence, as I know how the jewellery should look like—I just need to know how to do it.

ELLE: You’re very intuitive to how people respond to your designs and the way you dress. In how you react to it and then translate it to your label, it feels organic.

Priscilla Shunmugam: When I think where my brand needs to go, I think of it from a very personal point of view. When it launches, the translation is very natural. People don’t need to be forced, and we don’t need to engage influencers or spend money on advertising because people get it. I feel a bit worried now because I’m not able to meet my customers being based in London. I do worry sometimes if I’m not there, how would the brand perform, and if the products still sell. My staff tell me that it doesn’t even matter. They don’t ask for me anymore. They know what the brand means and the product stands for. They know that I’m still the driving force, and what I do is still the brand. Just because I’m physically not there, it doesn’t lessen the products in any way. The one way to ensure that kind of consistency is when you just create from the heart. It will trickle all the way down into the product.

OM ($149-$399) is available at Atelier Ong Shunmugam located at 43 Jalan Merah Saga, #01-76. The main line, Ong Shunmugam, starts at $399 for a top. Find out more about a custom piece here.