A Singapore-based label showed it before an Italian. How about that!
At its recent spring/summer 2017 presentation in Milan, Prada sent out five sets of samfus, distinguished by kitsch and a healthy dose of camp. For fans of Ong Shunmugam, Prada’s take on the samfu (衫裤 or shanku in Mandarin) is as new as frog buttons since their preferred homegrown brand had shown the Oriental top-and-pants combo before—in 2014 and 2015. See, Prada, Ong Shunmugam is ahead of you.
Why does it matter? Because Ong Shunmugam’s designer/founder Priscilla Tsu-Jen Shunmugam is the darling of the local media, not to mention the Singapore Tourism Board, all completely charmed by her revivalist approach to modern sartorial reinterpretation. It isn’t really known if her popularity (or 2015 Her World Young Woman Achiever award) has been good for business. Yet, this Malaysian daughter of Singaporean fashion can now be affirmed as the visionary that so many inexplicably think she is. Prada’s samfus, several seasons later than Ong Shunmugam’s, validate the latter’s “rethink of traditional garments”, and, possibly, posit the brand was right all along.
The remake of the samfu cannot, of course, be considered new. Designers of the West—Giorgio Armani, one among many—have looked at the cheongsum’s much dismissed (and dissed) sister when they cast their source of inspiration to China, or when they think they can sell noodles to the Chinese. The thing is, for many here in Singapore, the samfu is closely linked to the early years of our country’s founding and not the later boom years of stupendous economic growth. The samfu was mostly worn by the working class—amahs (or majie) and Samsui women, not primarily by ladies of leisure or admirable financial standing. Until Ong Shunmugam came jauntily along. It is, however, uncertain if their samfus enjoyed widespread adoption.
One of the most visible samfu appearances on the world stage of recent years was the USD1,190, limited-edition Michael Kors version worn by Grace Coddington at the 2015 Met Gala to celebrate the opening of China: Through the Looking Glass. The “pajama set”, as the US media called it, stood out in a glittery sea of sheer and body-hugging gowns that have become gala-night standards of red carpet habitues. To the Americans, Ms Coddington’s choice of dress for “the Super Bowl of social fashion events” may be exotic or, according to the Hollywood Reporter, “dreamy”, but to many of us in Asia, it was, at best, underwhelming.
So the Italians now show the Americans how to do what is essentially an outfit of Chinese origin. Ong Shunmugam could have assumed the mantle, but maybe it is not easy to manoeuvre from Chip Bee Gardens. Moreover, to go in front is possibly not on the cards for the 6-year-old brand that, until recently, operated like an alteration service in the basement of Hong Leong Building, mainly an office tower. Prada, on the other hand, has always been the pied piper of fashion, and they have led many a willing into their unconventional but charming, surprise-filled world. To followers, Prada always plays a hypnotic tune.
More importantly, Prada has Miuccia Prada, Ong Shunmugam does not. One ignores convention, the other sticks to the commonplace. The difference between the two—not that comparison is in order—is really chronology: Prada is about what’s next; Ong Shunmugam what’s now. Where wit and whimsy are characteristic of Prada (check out the flared cheongsum with breast pocket!), it is, even if it sounds censorious, the opposites, banality and nothingness, that has clung to Ong Shunmugam.
Prada’s introduction of a two-piece very much associated with southern China, though now outmoded, is not cultural revivalism, but in the wake of Marc Jacob’s recent New York Fashion Week show of white models with dreadlocks, a do that quickly spawned unwelcome online backlash and Internet memes, is Prada as guilty of what the Americans deem “cultural appropriation”? The Europeans, familiar with the adapting of design codes not from their own culture for re-imagining, knowledge, and expression—Chinoiserie, dating back to the 18th century, comes to mind—are probably less concerned with American sensitivities born of US race-relations woes. The thing is, fashion has always intersected with other fields—art, for one, not just culture. In a globalised world, cross-pollination—the way the sanguine among us prefer to call it—can yield happy hybrids and ethically diverse entities.
And beauty too, such as Prada’s take on the samfu. Yet, for the brand that pitches “ugly is attractive” so seductively, there is subversive sophistication as well. Sure, it is hard to imagine any Chinese woman wanting marabou fringe for the seams of sleeves and pant legs (“Because it was the most silly piece to put with reality,” Ms Prada told Suzy Menkes), unless she is Fan Bingbing, a diva who could carry herself with the delicacy of a songstress of yore, who would not look too self-indulgent, as she lounges, between sets, in a backstory-filled changing room. Prada, in Milan, can evoke the bygone extravagance of a faraway world, even if it is more Pearl S Buck than Pearl River Delta.
However appealing their samfus, Prada does not share Ong Shunmugam’s noble intent of restoring the distinction and conspicuousness of ethnic dress. It does not crusade for the tag of “an Asian label, by an Asian designer, for Asian women”. In fact, it mines from dress styles that span continents for consumers everywhere. It does not trumpet the need to use cloths of historical importance, but those fabrics that speak of its past dalliances with ugly prints and unappetising colours. It does not need to cross Asian lands to score traditional textiles to lend authenticity to its experiments with Asian dress forms.
Unlike Ong Shunmugam that wears Asian-ness like a badge, authenticity obviously isn’t Prada’s main aim. Although the tops of the samfus—worn belted—are beautifully cut close to the actual garment (the piping and button treatment are graphic counterpoint to the busy print of the fabric), the pants are veritably too tailored, which, of course, run counter to the pyjama-bottom-like floppiness of Ong Shunmugam’s fus. Prada’s foray into the past fashions of Chinese womenfolk is possibly a token embodiment of Asian modernism while Ong Shunmugam’s is so steep in cultural references that they have a contrived anthropological ring to them.
Prada, you’ll never surpass Ong Shunmugam’s deft hand for the hackneyed.