There is a way of anticipation earlier than an encounter with enigmatic Chinese clothier Ma Ke, who was on the town final week for the primary time to satisfy native artisans and go to heritage websites.
She is without doubt one of the most prolific designers in China, however can also be reclusive, not often granting interviews and declining requests to pose for images that can seize her full face.
Simultaneously well-known and obscure, she is the girl behind the favored Chinese label Wuyong. She operates her business out of a 100-year-old backyard in rural Zhuhai – a metropolis on China’s southern coast that could be a world away from the glitz and glamour of trend capitals Shanghai and Beijing.
Ma, 46, was the primary Chinese designer to be invited to point out at Paris Fashion Week in 2007, and her handmade couture items have been a part of a line-up at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
She can also be the designer who clothes Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan, in the identical method that former United States first girls Jacqueline Kennedy had Oleg Cassini and Michelle Obama had Jason Wu.
Yet when Ma enters the room, there may be little pomp and circumstance about her.
Reed-thin and with waist-long hair tied neatly right into a plait, she is wearing considered one of her personal items – a unfastened ruby-red costume with a woven, rough-hewn high quality to the fabric – and slippers.
She is sporting neither jewelry nor make-up, save for some henna designs that had been painted on her fingers whereas visiting Little India the day earlier than.
In individual, she comes throughout as considerate, pensive and barely shy. “I’m very happy to finally visit Singapore, this is my first time here,” she says when she meets The Straits Times at Lasalle College of the Arts, following a workshop with some college students.
“In many ways, this is a country that feels familiar to me, even though I’ve never been here before. Outside of just being able to speak Mandarin here, it feels very international, as though it is a gateway to the world,” she says in Mandarin.
Her four-day journey to Singapore, hosted by the Singapore Tourism Board, concerned visiting native websites in addition to partaking in native crafts, of which she is a big advocate.
She had a hands-on batik session with artist Sarkasi Said on the National University of Singapore Museum and a Peranakan beading session with Mr Edmond Wong, the company social duty director at conventional Peranakan rice dumpling and snacks specialist, Kim Choo Kueh Chang.
The easy life
Her personal couture label Wuyong consists of muted, earth-toned items which are handmade, using conventional methods reminiscent of loom weaving, hand stitching and colouring materials with pure dye.
“I don’t know yet how this trip will influence my own work and designs in the future,” she says when requested about whether or not the native arts scene has impressed her.
“But there was a lot of common ground that I saw between our traditional crafts, such as the use of natural dyes in henna, which were used to create these beautiful patterns on my hands. I relate a lot to this as I use natural dye in my pieces as well and I am very inspired by how culture here is preserved through traditional art forms.”
Indeed, it’s this preservation of conventional crafts that appears to gas Ma’s work right now. For the maverick designer, garments should not synonymous with trend and he or she appears extra within the spirit and tales in a garment than the limitless pursuit of developments that the trade is related to.
A graduate of the Suzhou Institute of Silk Textile Technology, she began her profession working as a designer in a company in Guangzhou for 3 years. But even early on, she developed a distaste for enterprises that work to maximise revenue, saying she all the time yearned to work in a company that “saw clothing and design as a dream, rather than a business”.
Failing to search out such an enterprise, she arrange her personal ready-to-wear line, Exception de Mixmind, along with her then-husband in 1996 and used it as a platform to create Easterninspired items, as an alternative of chasing Western developments.
The label is thought for combining a conventional Chinese aesthetic with trendy fashion, and the duo constructed it into considered one of China’s first premier high-fashion manufacturers. Her ex-husband continues to run right now.
But it was throughout this time that Ma additionally discovered her curiosity for Chinese conventional craftsmanship rising, impressed by her many journeys to distant villages in China.
While looking for conventional garment-making methods, she noticed how the lives of the villagers had been insulated from trend but their garments had been handled like treasures, every with its personal distinctive story because it was handed down from one era to the following.
For Ma, this was a turning level. In 2006, following her divorce, she cut up from the profitable Exception model to arrange her personal design studio, Wuyong. Translating to “useless” in English, Wuyong was so named as a result of she needed to select up what had been deemed “useless” conventional abilities and use them to come up with transcendent and galvanizing creations.
Her high fashion items noticed her grow to be the primary designer from China to be invited to point out at Paris Fashion Week in 2007. Useless, a documentary made the identical 12 months about her business, had rave critiques on the Venice Film Festival.
Despite the accolades, Ma flew nicely beneath the radar till 2013, when it was revealed that she was the designer accountable for most of the First Lady’s appears to be like throughout her first state visits overseas.
The refined items – a far cry from the subdued fashion of Chinese first girls of the previous – established Ms Peng as a trend icon and noticed her added to Vanity Fair’s 2013 International Best Dressed record, even because it snubbed Michelle Obama.
Ma has all the time performed down the curiosity about her function as Ms Peng’s designer, stating prior to now: “If you eat a tasty egg, why would you want to see the hen?”
Still, Ma says, her relationship with Ms Peng – which began again in 2003, lengthy earlier than she was the First Lady – continues to be going sturdy right now and he or she enjoys very a lot the prospect to design for the assured and impartial lady.
Today, the reclusive designer appears half designer and half thinker, strolling the discuss with the way in which she designs, retails her items and lives her life.
“In my closet, I used to have multiple hundred items of clothes and dozens of pairs of sneakers however after I moved to Zhuhai, I had a 3rd of the full.
“Today, I only wear Wuyong pieces. My cosmetics, perfume and jewellery are also gone and the only thing I keep is an ordinary watch on my wrist – we really do not need too much other than some simple and austere things,” she says.
Her model’s flagship retailer in Beijing, the Beijing Wuyong Living Space, occupies greater than 1,200 sq m and is cut up into three components: Home, Exhibition and Real Food.
People should buy her clothes, textiles and furnishings right here. They may go to the exhibitions she levels on disappearing handicraft abilities and purchase vegetarian meals and drinks which are freed from chemical compounds and genetic modification.
Every Wuyong piece has a reputation and birthday as a result of it’s thought to be a reminiscence to cross on over time. The lifelong after-sales service is maybe the most effective instance of the model’s philosophy of treasuring issues and lowering pointless consumption.
For Ma although, the last word purpose is to see Wuyong grow to be a worldwide model, one which is ready to carry Chinese tradition and custom to the world.
“I don’t think Chinese culture is just for Chinese people – I think it will bring a lot of benefit beyond China to the world,” she says.
“I consider there’s a uniqueness to our conventional tradition, which emphasises peace, acceptance and a religious nature – issues that I’m attempting to advertise by means of my label.
“As Wuyong travels beyond China, I hope for it to play the lead role in reminding people to relook their own local traditional art forms and inspire them to keep these crafts alive.”
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