Does ethnic heritage have a place on the 21st century fashion runway?

Does ethnic heritage have a place on the 21st century fashion runway?

The pua kumbu is a ceremonial blanket used by the Iban people of Sarawak. What happens when top designers such as Ong Shunmugam and Tom Abang Saufi take them from the museum to the catwalks of Kuching and beyond?

Sarawak fashion (tribal women)
Tribal culture gets a cameo at Sarawak: Theatre Of Clothes, which also featured creations by the likes of Ong Shunmugam, Tom Abang Saufi, and Edric Ong. (Photo: Rainforest Fringe Festival)

KUCHING: As the creative brains behind the trendy Singapore fashion label Ong Shunmugam, designer Priscilla Shunmugam has made a name for herself with collections that incorporate traditional Asian textiles and motifs.

But when she recently posted images of her latest creations on Instagram, there were some people who weren’t quite happy with what she had done. 

Priscilla Shunmugam
Ong Shunmugam's Priscilla Shunmugam. (Photo: Ong Shunmugam)

As part of the Rainforest Fringe Festival’s recent fashion show Sarawak: Theatre Of Clothes, the 35-year-old Malaysia-born designer was gifted four “rare and valuable” pieces of traditional cloth from Sarawak by an anthropologist. She then used them to create nine clothing items that included a peplum, some obi belts, a couple of sarongs, and a sarong wrap.

The cloth used was called pua kumbu – it wasn’t your typical textile but a ceremonial blanket traditionally used by the indigenous Iban people for their rituals.

It often sports intricate motifs and designs of water serpents, crocodiles, and warriors, recalling mythological gods and stories about headhunting.

Sarawak fashion (Ong Shunmugam runway)
Ong Shunmugam's Pua Kumbu 2017 collection at Sarawak: Theatre Of Clothes featured accessories made from the traditional Sarawak ceremonial blanket, which were combined with the label's greatest hits. (Photo: Rainforest Fringe Festival)

“When some Sarawakians saw on Instagram what we had done, not everybody took to it well. The pua kumbu is normally left intact as a blanket and not cut up. Some felt quite sayang about it,” Shunmugam told Channel NewsAsia.

“But there are many ways of preserving tradition, heritage or culture, or expressing your identity. Some people are not interested in challenging the status quo, but we want to stand on the side of progressiveness.”


The collection, which was paired with some of her label’s popular pieces, eventually proved to be a hit during Saturday’s fashion show, which included Sarawak’s own fashion heroes and a hometown audience. 

It’s not the first time Shunmugam has encountered some criticism in using traditional textiles and motifs. The same thing happened when she started using batik and songket in her collections, she said.

The reactions to Shunmugam’s experiment with the pua kumbu is just another reminder of the occasional friction that arises when age-old tradition meets modern innovation.

One person who understands what happens when you look to the past to create something new is Tom Abang Saufi, one of Malaysia’s most respected designers and Sarawak’s very own fashion doyenne.

Sarawak fashion (Tom Abang Saufi)
Malaysian fashion designer and proud Kuchingite Tom Abang Saufi (right). (Photo: Tom Abang Saufi's Facebook page)

Back in the 1980s, the 64-year-old Kuching native took the pua kumbu out of the museums and into the fashion runways of Europe – literally.

“Growing up, we had no television, so my playground was the museum. That was the environment I was born into – the culture, stuffed crocodiles and hornbills… My mother always had beautiful songkets and my brother’s girlfriend loved the pua kumbu,” she recalled. 

In the late 80s, the designer, who also dressed then-rising pop star Sheila Majid, took her pua kumbu knitwear to Paris Fashion Week.

Together with Carmanita, an Indonesian designer who was exploring batik, the two presented regional ethnic-wear to the west.

Sarawak fashion (Tom Abang Saufi fashion)
Pua kumbu and songket meets hip-hop bling in Tom Abang Saufi's Tradkacak collection. (Photo: Rainforest Fringe Festival)

“It was too early for ethnic back then, but two years later, Armani actually did an ikat collection,” she said.

It was an unusual look three decades ago and Tom (whose real name is Fatimah) admitted there will always be purists when it comes to traditional textiles. 

“There are a lot (of people) who do the beautiful weaves and keep them in the museum and they do beautiful work with it. But I have to let people who don’t really have the time to find out more about all these weaves, and to understand and proudly wear them. I myself love to wear it and I’m sure others do, too.”

Sarawak fashion (Tom Abang Saufi past photos)
Malaysia designer Tom Abang Saufi (left) with her pua kumbu-inspired collection at Paris Fashion Week in 1987 and 1992. (Photo: Tom Abang Saufi)

Through the years, Tom has continued to tap into her heritage and adapt according to the fashion of the times.

During the fashion show, which also featured a younger generation of Sarawak designers as well as true-blue tribal folk, she presented Tradkacak, a futuristic hip-hop collection that included stylised headphones and songket-inspired harem pants and cape.

“I have to keep up with the times and I’m hoping to reach the hip hop community, to make them understand heritage fabric. You have to be relevant,” she said.


But moving forward also entails respecting what has come before.

Sarawak fashion (pua kumbu)
The four pieces of pua kumbu that Priscilla Shunmugam worked with to create her recent fashion pieces. (Photo: Ong Shunmugam)

Aware of sensitivities attached to the pua kumbu, such as certain imagery and colours, Tom only uses motifs that are considered neutral.

“There are certain communities where you can’t even use red – you have to know all these things,” she said.

Even an “outsider” like Shunmugam made sure she did some research before taking out her scissors.

“We took it very seriously. We studied the motifs and made sure we’re not disrespecting anything, like using it upside down. We did our homework but we were also confident enough to go for it,” she said.

Sarawak fashion (weaver)
A traditional weaver demonstrating how they make the pua kumbu. (Photo: Mayo Martin)

For Shunmugam, respecting the need for that relevancy in today’s world is the best way to keep tradition or heritage alive.

“We’re now probably more comfortable in denim and Vans than we are in kasut manik (beaded slippers) and a sarong. I don’t think it’s realistic to deliberately turn back the time. It’s about juggling those tensions between modernity and the kampong you grew up in. I guess we try to use fashion as a medium to express that,” said Shunmugam, who is launching a new collection in August, which will also incorporate traditional Southeast Asian textiles and motifs.

But, she also warned: “The truth is, we might be one of the last few generations to really feel this tension. In 20 years’ time, I’m not sure if it will still be strong.”

Sarawak fashion (Tattoo)
Tribal tattoo as fashion. (Photo: Rainforest Fringe Festival)

For now, these tensions still pop up once in a while, and perhaps will continue to do so every time designers like Tom Abang Saufi or Priscilla Shunmugam create contemporary fashion inspired by ethnic cultures.

And for their fans, such as Meena Mylvaganam, who has been following the latter’s hybrid east-meets-west designs from the beginning, these innovations will always be something to look forward to.

“I have always loved how she has juxtaposed Javanese batik with Indian jacquard and Japanese obis into clever modern designs we can wear with pride. We’ve seemed to have lost our appreciation of (these traditional Asian textiles) and she is putting them back in the limelight,” she said. 

Source: CNA/mm