Ong Shunmugam's Twist on Malay Heritage

“What does it mean to be progressive and to be inclusive? How do we empower ourselves to question rules or divisions that were set by those foreign to us and that continue to define how we perceive others as well as ourselves?” Those are the uncomfortable questions Priscilla Ong says she aimed to address when designing her latest collection, a riff on Malay traditional womenswear.

“Ong Shunmugam was started seven years ago with the precise aim to investigate topics, textiles and traditions that nobody in fashion was interested in exploring. When we started, we coined the term contemporary Asian womenswear and we really meant each word,” she explains.

Concerned not to be pigeonholed as a “cheongsam brand,” a silhouette that had recurred often in her collections, the Singaporean designer dedicated her ninth ready-to-wear collection to Malay women’s clothing, bringing her contemporary twist to traditional outfits like the Baju Kurung (a loose-fitting full-length dress, consisting of a skirt with folds on one side and a collarless boxy blouse with long sleeves) and the Kebaya (another traditional blouse-dress combination which is more fitted and with the blouse fastened at the front by a brooch, and a wrap skirt that is actually a tube that is folded at the waist)

 Photo @Couturenotebook

Photo @Couturenotebook

Titled Gadis Perkasa (Mighty Woman), the collection of 12 outfits revisits these traditional silhouettes with a fresh approach. Instead of bringing a westernized twist to these outfits, the designer stays close her Asian roots giving the traditional designs a gentle twist: delicate small lace capes provide added coverage over shoulders and arms but can also be pushed back to give an elegant effect to the back, bodices are slightly shorter than traditional versions to give a more flattering figure, fan pleats are found at the back instead of the front, an sarong is transformed into an A-skirt with side pockets , micro-pearl tassels replace the need for traditional fastenings (jewelry and chains) and a traditional chain-belt is rendered in fabric with bead tassels..

The designer stayed faithful to her familiar approach of mixing fabrics, matching batik textiles from Indonesia and Malaysia with guipure lace from Italy or an intriguing Chantilly lace from Maison Sophie Hallette, which has swimmers embroidered on.

Ong was keen to stress her collection of modest wear was not designed for Malay women, but is “a collection of Malay womenswear that could be worn by anybody.”

“This is our way of continuing to take the stand that we have intuitively held: that fashion design should be inclusive, that it can and should be thinking of all women, all skin tones, all faiths.”