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One of Singapore’s most successful fashion designers, Priscilla Shunmugam of the equally successful brand Ong Shunmugam, has just signed a deal with the country’s top fashion school Lasalle College of the Arts, to support emerging Singaporean creative talents.
The Fashion Forward Bursary and Lasalle x Ong Shunmugam Mentorship Programme is the “first-of-its-kind initiative to support the next generation of fashion creatives in Singapore”. Ong Shunmugam has pledged a total donation of $30,000, disbursed as $10,000 per academic year from 2022 to 2024, toward the establishment of the bursary.
“Our fashion programmes are constantly developed in response to the demands of the fashion industry in Southeast Asia and globally,” explains Circe Henestrosa, Head, School of Fashion, Lasalle.
“We want the industry to become the classroom and expose our students to a network of professionals and partners coming from the industry that can help them expand their educational experience. The school’s mentorship programme with Ong Shunmugam specifically includes a bursary, which will support one Level 1 student at the bachelor’s degree or two diploma students in financial need. We want to support this for them to be able to pursue their freshman studies here at Lasalle with us.”
Ms Henestrosa explains that alongside the bursary programme, there is a mentorship programme “to support the personal and professional development of the students through different aspects”.
“We have an industry-led project that we created between Lasalle and Priscilla through her OM Ed diffusion line. And she will be giving dedicated mentorship, like a programme composed of different critiques and sessions to all our Level 2 and Level 3 students.”
The launch of the bursary and mentorship programmes correspond with the 10th anniversary of the Ong Shunmugam brand. “This initiative signifies Priscilla’s commitment to giving back after a decade of having for her brand in Singapore and globally, and contributing towards the industry,” says Ms Henestrosa.
“And we’re very grateful to Priscilla, for this programme we have started with her.”
Ms Shunmugam, who trained initially as a lawyer, is known for a personality as elegant, precise and detailed as her iconic garments, having managed the process of learning to design and run a business at the same time. She doesn’t beat around the bush, being forthright and direct in her critiques and opinions, but she is also heart-warmingly honest about her reasons for establishing the bursary.
“The only way I could make it through university was with a lot of financial aid. To just illustrate it, I received a tuition grant from the Ministry of Education of Singapore, but that wasn’t enough. On top of that, I needed to apply for a tuition-free loan from DBS bank. On top of that, I needed an interest-free loan to purchase a laptop in my first year. And I also had family friends who wrote cheques for me to purchase textbooks or to just kind of give me pocket money,” states Ms Shunmugam.
“Just to kind of paint a picture, I needed a lot of help. And even though I had a grant, it wasn’t enough, and there were always things [to pay for]. So the kind of experience or education that you had was very much tied to how much you could afford. And it wasn’t just books. When it came to projects, when it came to extracurricular activities, or even just being part of something on campus."
I had a great five years in law school, and it obviously changed my life, and it really got me thinking that one day, if I could, then I should try and do the same for another young person who was trying to carve out a future for themselves.
“This is why it’s couched as a bursary and not a scholarship because I wasn’t a straight-A student, and I think trying to measure a young person’s academic value is a little bit outdated. Also, in the creative or design field, I don’t think it is the sole way to measure someone’s abilities, talent, or potential. So, when I approached Lasalle, I was quite clear that it should be a bursary, which just releases the need for an applicant to produce straight As because that’s not what a bursary is about.”
As an extremely busy individual, making the time to work with the Lasalle students has been difficult for Ms Shunmugam, but something that she believes has been extremely worthwhile.
“It’s extremely difficult to carve out the time,” says Ms Shunmugam, “but since clearly COVID has prevented me from moving [away from Singapore], and knowing that I would be physically in Singapore, I am not working the way I used to.”
“And if I have this valuable time, what should I do with it? How should I use it? What’s the best way I can turn this year of (sic), whether it’s languishing or just maybe feeling physically stagnant? Like how can I take that and turn it towards something beneficial? It’s not impossible. So it becomes the priority.”
While it’s obvious that the students benefit from working with fashion industry professionals, the experts are also gaining something.
“I’m learning a lot because I think that I’ve never really understood how fashion students in Singapore are being taught. I’ve never really understood the progression that they go through from year one to year two to year three,” says Ms Shunmugam, a mainly self-taught designer.
“If there’s any feedback from a practical point of view that I can give to the members of the faculty about how maybe a syllabus can be strengthened or how maybe certain practical aspects need to be more permanent modules or need to have a member of the industry as a sort of permanent fixture, [I can offer those suggestions]."
“This is a chance for us to test it out, road test the idea to see how close we can bring industry members into part of the syllabus. So those students are already exposed to getting practical feedback.”