The Curious Allure of Ong Shunmugam

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Back in February 2012, in an interview with TimeOut Singapore, Priscilla Tsu-Jen Shunmugam was called a “cheongsam designer and tailor”. As though to validate the pronouncement, she went on to say how she would “dig deep at our sartorial and textile history and incorporate familiar influences into the modern wardrobe”. You got the impression that Ms Shunmugam was about to start a conversation about national dress—the elusive country identifier through clothes local authorities mooted in the Eighties and Nineties that came to nought. From the onset, the 4-year-old Ong Shunmugam label that she founded was built on the cheongsam (long dress in Cantonese), something Ms Shunmugam considered “too relevant a garment to ignore”. Relevant to what or who, we were not told. The cheongsam, like sweat, clings to her.

It made its appearance in various permutations again in the label’s autumn/winter 2014 collection, presented on Friday at this year’s Audi Fashion Festival. The Ong Shunmugam show was, arguably, the Festival’s most anticipated. The hype, however, fell short. As cheongsams were earlier reported—and, hence, expected—to appear, their emergence, not in their authentic form, was bereft of surprise. You waited for the pièce de résistance, but it didn’t show up. Ms Shunmugam sent out cropped tops and many dresses, nearly all crowned with a Mandarin collar. But a Mandarin collar does not a cheongsam make.

The dresses mostly adhered to the shape that Ms Shunmugam seems to love: lean, form-fitting, and waist-accentuating. Or, as so many of today’s fashion writers and bloggers have come to consider characteristic of Ong Shunmugam: “flattering silhouette”. This acclaim is hard to make out. The cheongsam is, traditionally, not an easy garment to wear, and not many women look flattering in it. Even women in Shanghai, where the genesis of the cheongsam can be traced to, avoid it. “They’re for slim girls,” is a common response, “and we have to wear our hair and carry ourselves in a certain way: too much trouble.” In addition to the figure-revealing contours, there’s the impractically high collar, not exactly a godsend to women who aren’t Nancy Kwan or Maggie Cheung. There’s also the nip-in waist, one that does not fare particularly well with mid-section protuberance. And, of course, there’s the side slits—clearly for trim thighs and lean legs.

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To be fair, Ms Shunmugam appeared to address these concerns. For the present collection, she reworked the proportion of the collar (they were at least half the traditional height and were less snug, but the fit, it should be pointed out, wasn’t necessarily evident); she added to the waist, panels in the shape of wrestlers’ championship belt (which, ironically, drew even more attention to the stomach); and she re-positioned the side slits (by moving them to the back, creating inverted Vs that arrowed the derriere). In cases where slits were not employed to facilitate ease of movement, she raised the hemline to above the knee. Yet, the sum effect seemed only cosmetic, more so if you consider the fixation with keeping mostly the front of the garment interesting by using geometrically placed patchwork, including, oddly, in one number, a centre-front (and back) panel that hung, way past the skirt hem, like a Dayak loincloth!

Prints are indispensable for Ong Shunmugam and the collection pulsed with them. The patterns were mixed up so that they yielded a calculated clash on the bodice and through to below the waist, some in combinations that vaguely recalled the 1930 Compositions of Sonia Delaunay. Unlikely pairings such as batik florals atop oversized zig-zags showed Ms Shunmugam’s bold touch, but the symmetry of not a few of the pattern placements had a whiff of those by digital-print maestro Mary Katrantzou. It’s a treatment that can now be seen from Bangkok to Barcelona, and is seriously on the verge of becoming an annoying cliché.

There seemed to be a vitality in Ms Shunmugam’s designs that was so thrilling to the audience who packed the Tent @ Orchard that you wondered how many will rush out to buy those dresses. The reality is that, for so many women today, the cheongsam (including its variants) is a special-occasion dress or one worn by senior womenfolk at weddings. Sure, there was a novelty factor to the Ong Shunmugam semi-cheongsam dresses. They embodied, although belatedly, popular design sensibility: mixed media assembled in symmetrical orderliness within contours that articulate unabashed femininity. This is especially conspicuous in an unrelentingly flooded marketplace of floaty fit-and-flare dresses cinched at the natural waist. To the uninitiated, there was newness in Ong Shunmugam.

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This admiration may be diminished if, despite the visual seduction, it could be noted that so many of Ms Shunmugam’s ideas had been expressed before. Whether to design the cheongsam anew or breathe new life into the use of batiks or find fresh pairing between East and West, they had their share of proponents. In the Eighties, Singapore’s Esther Tay created the hybrid sarong skirt (minis too!) that she was noted for with much commercial success. And she was never shy in her manipulation of ethnic fabrics such as batiks and ikats. Similarly, Malaysia’s Christopher Choo tempered the Eastern sensibility of his designs with songket, blurring the line between what was cultural and what was not. Indonesia’s Ghea, too, explored (and still does) her country’s textile heritage through her neo-hippie designs, yielding Western fashion that were cheekily Easternised. Presently, Guangzhou-born American designer Vivienne Tam re-invented the cheongsam with tongue firmly in cheek too frequently to be countable. Re-invention itself is so commonplace that you can find kooky versions in cheongsam outfitters such as Tong Tong Friendship Store on Beach Road. And if you thought Ong Shunmugam’s apron-like insets in her cheongsam-dresses were novel, you have not seen Phillip Lim’s 5th Anniversary show in Beijing in October, 2010.

(In the January 1993 ‘Ask Thomas…’ column that Thomas Wee wrote for Her World, the designer, who’s a skilled cheongsam maker himself, said, “The only women who look good in batik cheongsams are arty Theatreworks type. Otherwise, wear it only if you want people to call you Auntie!”)

It is admirable that Ms Shunmugam is keen to “fashion a rethink of traditional garments” so as to forge something a contemporary audience can accept. But was what she did a radical re-envisioning of the cheongsam, as some fans (including the National Museum of Singapore) seem to think? The hybrids she created married traditional elements of a cheongsam to contemporary dress shapes that, regrettably, were not on the side of exciting or innovative. To be certain, the cheongsam itself is a meeting of numerous influences, and, in the same spirit, the Ong Shunmugam dresses were a fusion of styles. They, too, could be lauded for their chromatic boldness. However, if you looked at the overall shapes, seam work, placement of darts, and the fit of sleeves, these harked back to dressmaking of a less technologically advanced past. It was hard to see why so many of the dresses merit showing on a catwalk.

It is not certain if Ms Shunmugam casts herself as cheongsam designer or tailor, but as an agent of change, she is not. Tinkering with icons of the past needn’t be a futile experience (or experiment). But to effect a persuasive synthesis of the old and the new, the sleek and the kitschy, Western and Eastern, it has to be done with finesse. Some things need to get better before they can be good.

Atelier Ong Shunmugam is at B1-36, Hong Leong Building, 16 Raffles Quay