updated 12 Mar 2014, 23:35
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Wed, Feb 26, 2014
The Straits Times
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Best of both worlds
by Gladys Chung

As a child of mixed parentage growing up in Malaysia, Priscilla Shunmugam often had to deal with rude stares and comments from strangers.

"In front of me, complete strangers would come up to my mother and say things like, 'Your daughter very dark ah, how come?" recalls the lanky olive-skinned 32-year-old fashion designer, whose father is Indian and mother is Chinese.

One incident that happened when she was five remains etched in her mind.

"My mother, my two elder sisters and I were eating at a Chinese coffeeshop, and people literally stopped eating to stare at us. At the time, the sight of a fair-skinned Chinese woman with three brown- skinned daughters was something to be frowned upon," says the Singapore permanent resident.

"I remember asking my mother why people were staring at us and if we should leave the coffeeshop. But she just calmly said, 'No, let's continue eating'."

Mrs Shunmugam had learnt to take stares and whispers in her stride because her own family and her husband's family had opposed the marriage and distanced themselves from the couple.

"While growing up, we hardly saw my uncles and aunties, and were seldom involved in big family events," recalls Ms Shunmugam, who is single. "But my parents were frank about it. We knew exactly what was going on."

The story has a happy ending though.

Both sets of grandparents eventually reconciled with the designer's parents. The reunion with the Ongs came about when Ms Shunmugam was 13. Her Chinese grandmother was getting on in her years and finally agreed to be reunited after more than two decades.

Mr Shunmugam bridged the gap with his parents shortly after his two elder daughters were born. He flew the entire brood to India and "that pretty much sealed the deal", says Ms Shunmugam.

"So when I came up with the concept of my fashion label in 2010, I wanted to create something representative of where I came from," she says in an interview one recent evening.

And that is how the Ong Shunmugam moniker came about.

"Because of the difficulty of the two families coming together, there is a simple beauty of seeing both names printed on a paper bag and blown-up on a signboard."

Her label is best known for its modern take on the cheongsam - no high-cut slits, figure-forgiving peplums and pleats - and statement dresses made out of traditional Asian textiles such as batik, ikat, silk and songket. Prices start from $450 while the bespoke ones are $1,400 onwards.

The majority of the brand's customers are aged 25 to 50 and who buy her pieces for important events such as weddings and graduation ceremonies.

She opened a cosy 250 sq ft boutique in the basement of the Hong Leong Finance Building three years ago and also sells her clothes online. A small selection of her pieces is also stocked at multi-label boutique Pixie Market in New York.

It could be the brand's compelling back story or the fact that she is extremely articulate, but Ms Shunmugam has garnered lots of attention, not only from the media but also from the Singapore Tourism Board and the National Heritage Board.

In a Straits Times interview last year on the tourism board's latest strategy to woo travellers, its chief executive Lionel Yeo mentioned the label, along with Hansel, as two well-known Singapore brands worth being proud of and championing.

A collection of her fall/winter 2013 designs, dedicated to old buildings such as the Central Fire Station and the former Cathay Building, was exhibited at the National Museum as part of the National Heritage Board's annual HeritageFest event last July. She is the second home-grown label to have a show at the museum, after London- based Singaporean designer Benny Ong.

In August last year, Shunmugam was invited to speak on modern cheongsams at the Museum Of Chinese in America, in New York.

She has picked up numerous awards and nominations. She was nominated for the President's Design Award 2013 in the Designer Of The Year category.

Last December, she beat more than 900 entries from 19 countries to clinch the Grand Award at the Design For Asia Awards. The honour is given by the Hong Kong Design Centre to brands that help boost the vibrancy of life in Asia with design; past winners include home-grown bakery chain Bread Talk and Gardens by the Bay.

Come May, she will stage her debut solo fashion show at the 2014 Audi Fashion Festival - making hers the youngest label to have a standalone show there. The other Singapore brands who have had their own shows at the festival include international labels Raoul and Alldressedup, and veteran designers Thomas Wee and Tan Yoong.

Ms Shunmugam left her parents' two-storey bungalow in Kuala Lumpur for Singapore when she was 20 to study law at the National University of Singapore.

"Among my siblings, I was the most academically inclined. So my dad wanted me to apply to law school," she recalls.

Her eldest sister Elizabeth, 38, is in the IT industry, while the second one Veronica, 37, is a homemaker.

After graduation, she became a junior corporate lawyer in an oil and gas company.

But during her one year there, she found herself staring out of the window most of the time.

"I was just wondering what was out there, and what alternative life I could have. I thought, if this is right for me, why would I keep searching for something else?"

So in a "now or never moment", she quit her job and left for London in 2008 because she was still under 30 then and eligible for a working holiday visa there.

"I just went. I had no idea what I was going to do, and I thought if worse comes to worst, I'd get a legal job, earn in pounds and travel."

Although she hated her sewing assignments in home economics class in school, it was a different story in London.

"I had always enjoyed fashion as a consumer. In London, I saw how people took pride in working with their hands at markets and museums, and I was seduced into thinking that I was at the right time and place to learn dressmaking."

So she bought a sewing machine and course books and enrolled in a nine-month pattern-making course at the London College of Fashion. She also took dressmaking classes for 11 months.

Over the course of a year, she rented a flat with a friend and ploughed in almost $30,000 of her savings to follow her newfound passion.

Shortly after she learnt how to use her sewing machine, she e-mailed her parents to inform them that she wanted to quit law to design clothes.

"At first, there was silence. I knew they were disappointed although they didn't articulate it," she recalls.

Mr Raja Shunmugam, 73, remembers being "appalled" when he received the e-mail.

But he accepted it. "My wife and I felt that she had had the best education we could give her. But if, with all that education and some exposure to working the trade, she chooses to do something else, it had to be an informed decision," he wrote to Life! in an e-mail.

"We went along with her decision and prayed for the best."

Mr and Mrs Shunmugam are now retirees; he used to own a printing business, and she was a secretary.

When Ms Shunmugam returned to Singapore in 2009 to start her own fashion brand, reality hit her hard. "I had spent all my savings, and was painfully and shamefully broke.

"By then, many of my friends were progressing comfortably in their careers. I would decline their dinner invitations because I was worried that I wouldn't be able to afford to split the bill.

"I couldn't even keep up with my insurance premiums."

On hindsight, she says the challenges re-affirmed how much she wanted to be a fashion designer.

"I could have just walked away, but I wanted to continue."

Fortunately, she had a couple of fast friends who "saw the spark in my eye and took pity on me".

With her remaining savings and a loan from her friends, she sunk in $30,000 to start Ong Shunmugam and opened an online store in December 2010.

Once she finished sewing her first batch of 50 dresses, she went on social media to publicise her label. She wrote her own press releases and sent them to editors of fashion and lifestyle publications.

"Often my e-mail would go unanswered but I would just try again and again until I got a response," she says.

To further create interest in her brand, she held pop-up shopping parties at the Post Museum and a friend's apartment at Dakota Crescent.

She would display her dresses like art on the wall, and serve Asian-fusion nibbles such as nasi lemak maki rolls and lemongrass creme brulee to tie in with the theme of her pieces. At each of these events, she would sell an average of five dresses.

Shortly after she took part in Blueprint Emporium in October 2011, the shopping component of the Blueprint trade show under Asia Fashion Exchange, she was featured in local newspapers and magazines. The momentum of the business picked up and 10 months after she founded her brand, she broke even and was able to repay her friends.

She has not taken on any other loans or fund injections since. "Maybe it's pride; I want to prove that I can do this on my own".

Grants that she received from Design Singapore ($12,000 in 2012), and later, the National Heritage Board ($17,000 last year) helped to keep her going.

Her first customer was a friend. "But no, a discount was not given. I was always firm about this. I wasn't doing charity and I didn't expect it from others," she says firmly.

And by November 2011, she had enough cashflow to rent a unit at Hong Leong Building at 16 Raffles Quay.

When her parents - whom she sees once every couple of months - came to the opening of the store, she knew that they had come round to her decision to pursue fashion.

"My dad walked around, saw the amount of effort that went into my business and said, 'I never knew that one day, I would have a shop with my surname on it, right in the heart of Singapore'."

But the real turning point for the brand came in October 2012, when she was given the chance to showcase her spring/summer 2013 collection at Paris Fashion Week by home-grown online e-tailer Future Fashion Now.

She showed off her boldly-printed and lacy cheongsams that were inspired by Japanese, Islamic and Indian architecture to a roomful of Parisian media and celebrities.

"It changed the perception of the brand. Ong Shunmugam was no longer just a small label tucked away in the basement of Hong Leong building. After that, every customer came in to ask how Paris Fashion Week was. People still remember it today."

She says her revenue grew by three times last year, but declines to reveal exact sales figures and says they are "in the mid six-figure territory".

Apart from her 250 sq ft boutique, she now has a 250 sq ft workspace, also at the basement of Hong Leong Building, and a 400 sq ft warehouse in Bukit Batok, and she employs two full-time staff and four local home-based seamstresses.

Ms Shunmugam, who loved art classes in school, says that she draws quickly and can finish designing an entire collection of 15 designs in three hours sitting alone in her rented colonial walk-up apartment in the Portsdown area.

She lives alone with a Siberian Husky. To unwind, she goes for ballet classes twice a week and yoga three times a week. She keeps company with friends she has known from her law school days and in recent years.

She travels twice a year to source for fabrics from places such as Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

She no longer sews but is still involved in the production process.

Veteran fashion designer Wykidd Song says Ms Shunmugam's strong brand DNA sets her apart from her peers.

The Singaporean, who is now based in Hong Kong, met Ms Shunmugam in 2011, and has been mentoring her since.

"It is important to have an angle and point of view in one's designs. She can make heritage contemporary, such as using and styling batik in such a way that it looks feminine and urban, so that the market can see that batik does not just belong on an old man's shirt."

Ms Shunmugam is clear about who she is designing for.

"I like to champion the everyday woman who has to do her make-up in the morning before work, make breakfast for the kids, manage her work and come home to do the laundry in the evening. Just like what my mother used to do," she says.

She ensures that she uses a breathable polyester silk-blend lining that absorbs sweat and fabrics that do not crease. She also road-tests her signature fitted cheongsam prototypes such as wearing them to drive, climb stairs and bending over to put on shoes.

Her cheongsams are the brand's "bread and butter". On average, she sells about 50 pieces a month. During the peak pre-Chinese New Year period last month, she sold more than 200.

She plans to take her spring summer 2015 designs to trade shows in London, New York and Paris this year.

She was approached by American retailer Anthropologie last year for "a big order" but it did not go through because she could not produce enough stock for them.

"The important lesson I learnt from it was that we ticked all their boxes in terms of design, quality and price; we'll know what to do next time."

Ms Shunmugam has rejected proposals from venture capitalists.

"I've found them to be too opportunistic. The key is to meet someone who sees more potential in the brand than I do and I haven't met that person yet.

"It has always been a difficult decision to say 'no' but there is a time and place for everything. I am in this for the long run, so there is no rush."

My life so far

"My Chinese grandmother strongly objected to my mother's marriage to an Indian man. But my parents reconciled with her after more than 20 years; my grandmother eventually became very fond of my father."
On her parents' marriage

"My parents have come round on my decision to be a fashion designer. Now they will follow Ong Shunmugam activities on Facebook and watch my interviews on TV."
Ms Shunmugam on her parents being supportive

"My mum used to dress me in samfoos because she thought I looked the most Chinese."
On her childhood dressing

"My first two years in law school were miserable. The competitiveness was such a shock, and I was scraping through. But things got better by the third year when I could choose to focus on areas I was interested in."
On law school

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