Cheongsams M.I.A.

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Ong Shunmugam opened her Singapore Fashion Week ‘Cheongsam 2017’ show by sending out all the models at one go. They strode hurriedly by, as if in haste to exit the Supreme Court Terrace due to some unknown dishonor. We saw just as quickly that despite what designer Priscilla Shunmugam had been touting, this was not a cheongsam show. Were we duped?

When the first model re-emerged after the march past in a tri-panel peplumed number with stout Mandarin collar of contrast white like a clergyman’s, you knew immediately that Ms Shunmugam was going to take liberties with the cheongsam. Again. Not that that’s a bad thing, really, but our stand has always been unchanged: if you’re going to deconstruct or re-imagine a classic dress, do that dress faultlessly first!

By the appearance of the second outfit—a red, Mandarin-collared dress with a fitted bodice and flared, knee-length skirt, which looks uncannily like something OG would inevitably stock during the CNY season, we knew this was going to be just a stylistic update of what she’s been doing rather than a real re-imagination. This was the fashion equivalent of mobile app users’ regular confrontation—“bug fixes and speedy performance improvements”. Serve our dim selves right for taking the title of her show so literally!

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We’ve always been delirious with joy by Ong Shunmugam’s serious, wit-free, and intelligent (a popular media description) take on traditional Asian wear. But if our adrenaline runs uncharacteristically low this time, what else can we say about the clothes? We were fanning ourselves with hopefulness even when dress after dress was two steps away from trite, but stronger was the feeling that the brand could be experiencing a slow exhaustion of ideas.

To be sure, there were details previously not seen in Ong Shunmugam cheongsams. Admirers would no doubt be thrilled, for instance, that the cheongsams now come with cold-shoulder treatment, arguably the high-street’s detail du jour. The rest of the sleeves—in bishop and bell-shaped styles (a pair on a white and blue dress looked like lampshades, to be more precise)—fell from the armpit level so that skin of the upper arm could be revealed to catch a bit of sunshine or conditoned air. Is this to make up for the concealment of the thighs since the side slits that distinguish the cheongsam were done away with?

Some of the pieces comprised of juxtaposed fabrics that appeared to be a take on the placement prints that Ms Shunmugam previously had a weakness for. The mix bore the spirit of colour-blocking that could back-tracked to the Seventies, with some pieces tracing the top outline of the bust as if there were bras worn atop the dress. It is understandable why purists consider hers “angmo pai” (红毛派 or Western) cheongsams. Indeed, her aesthetic sensibility differ not drastically from Lisa Von Tang of Chi Chi Von Tang. Why, both designers paired their cheongsams with flat-soled shoes! How uncanny was that? Just a trend in the making?

Singapore Fashion Week 2016 is staged at the National Gallery from 26 to 30 Oct

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