Priscilla Shunmugam Reveals What Kept Her Busy Amid the Covid-19 Pandemic
Even a pandemic can’t stop the prolific creator. Restless during quarantine in London this year, where fashion designer Priscilla Shunmugam has been based since 2018, she dreamt up a new expression of rattan, elevating the humble Asian material instantly into Insta-worthy creations the moment it launched last month. As with everything Ong Shunmugam—her eponymous label—the new rattan range augments its Suvarnabumi line of homeware. It also continues the brand’s philosophical conversation on culture, heritage and identity, traversing proverbial borders with its artful weaving of batik from Indonesia, jacquard from China and indigenous Iban weave patterns into a mixed medium medley of dining chairs and tables, divider screens and planters.
Indeed, the notion of identity has informed much of Shunmugam’s fashion career. “I never really fit neatly into categories, as a mixed-race kid having grown up in Malaysia then moving to Singapore and people claiming me as Singaporean,” muses Shunmugam, who turned 39 this year. Born in Kuala Lumpur to a Chinese mother and an Indian father, Shunmugam was an active child who displayed both right- and left-brained tendencies early on with interests as varied as piano and ballet to competitive swimming.
She then moved to Singapore to read law at the National University of Singapore. After working as a lawyer for a year, Shunmugam ditched a promising legal career to study dressmaking in England. It was there, surrounded by sewing machines and bales of fabric, that she found her true calling. It was the start of an endlessly inspiring tale where, with no formal design training, the largely self-taught designer launched Ong Shunmugam in 2010, funded with $20,000 from close friends—and sheer willpower.
“In Singapore, it’s very difficult to start a fashion label if you don’t have money, connections and pedigree. When I started my brand, I didn’t have any of these,” she discloses. It took the business just a year to break even, as her high-quality designs, a contemporary interpretation of Asian silhouettes and textiles, quickly won favour with hipster-heritage types. Shunmugam was as vaunted by the media for being well-spoken and articulate as she was for her daring aesthetic. In an exceedingly visual world, she also surprised with her atypical approach to design thinking, opting for bullet points over mood boards.
“My creative process is very bizarre: I design in words more than visuals. I’m very highly-organised so I always have mind maps and flow charts,” she reveals.
(Related: Priscilla Shunmugam Of Ong Shunmugam Launches Diffusion Line, OM)
Looking back on her journey over the past decade where passion has clearly triumphed over a lack of privilege, Shunmugam says pointedly: “I’ve never been daddy’s little rich girl. I’ve always had to work for everything. So, when you apply that to your career, and if you are willing to work hard, there is nothing that you can’t achieve.”
When Covid-19 hit though, a lot of that hard work was wiped out almost overnight.
“The one thing that shook us to the core was the closure of our London store—even before we could open for business. Two years of planning and investment were all gone in a matter of two phone calls with my lawyer and accountant,” she recalls.
Thankfully, the company is both financially and operationally resilient, with 2019 being a “bumper year” for the brand. Meanwhile, Shunmugam’s personal ability to compartmentalise both the joys and the disappointments has helped her weather the storm.
As working from home quickly became the new norm, it was almost prescient that the designer had put prior measures in place, which may have helped the company cope a little better than most.
First, remote working had already been in play since 2018 when Shunmugam relocated to London.
“It was almost like we foresaw there was going to be this kind of glitch in the system. So in some ways, we were quite prepared for this. But at the same time, I cannot downplay how seismic the effects of Covid have been,” she observes.
Second, the brand had introduced its homeware line in December 2019, just before the global shutdown.
“It meant that we had this alternative revenue stream we could focus on, even if fashion and clothing were not going to be the priority in 2020. With remote working becoming the name of the game, the home became the new focal point and during lockdown, wherever you call your home suddenly became really precious,” she explains.
(Related: Singapore Fashion Brand Ong Shunmugam Launches Suvarnabumi Tableware Line)
So when Singapore went into circuit breaker mode in April, Ong Shunmugam’s tableware sales “skyrocketed”.
“You couldn’t post any OOTDs or travel pictures so it was all about food and people became very conscious about the crockery, cookware and tablescapes they had at home,” she adds.
This month, Shunmugam has just introduced a collection of ceramics produced in Bali called Tropicana.
“It is the unabashed result of me being homesick for the tropics while I was trapped in London. I wanted to keep the mood light, playful and funny, as a kind of antidote to everything else that 2020 is serving us.”
- Photography Eric Seow/Beacon Pictures
- Photographer's Assistant Alfred Ng
- Styling Joey Tan
- Hair Delanie Wong-Bonnefoy using Keune Haircosmetics and Laura Mercier
- Make-Up Delanie Wong-Bonnefoy using Keune Haircosmetics and Laura Mercier
- Grooming Delanie Wong-Bonnefoy using Keune Haircosmetics and Laura Mercier