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Masha Ma talks about future of fashion in China

Masha Ma is down to earth when it comes to fashion design and building an international brand, writes Vivian Chen

 

Masha Ma might be a romanticist of fashion yet, when it comes down to business, she's a pure realist.

"Anyone can be a designer. I want to build a brand - an international brand from China, based in China and made in China," says the 30-year-old as she meets with us at W Hotel Hong Kong.

Wrapped in her own design - an all-black cocoon jacket and skirt ensemble, matched with chunky Stella McCartney kicks - Ma means business.

Ma is acknowledged among the new generation of Chinese contemporary fashion designers, often mentioned in the same breath as Qiu Hao, Zhang Huishan and Xander Zhou, who share a foreign education, modern style and prolific activities on the international stage.

Born in Beijing, Ma honed her fashion design skills at London's prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. While she was at school, Ma worked as an intern with Alexander McQueen and Veronique Branquinho.

"Working alongside McQueen has taught me to do fashion for fashion's sake and to put my emotions into making the dresses," she says.

Her graduation collection was a hit during London Fashion Week, and Ma has been riding in the fast lane to fame ever since.

Since her debut at Paris Fashion Week in 2011, Ma has been showing her collection twice a year there and has won positive response from critics and buyers.

"Those 15 minutes on the runway have always been magically attractive. It's something I don't want to miss," Ma says. "I want to be able to communicate [with] people. It makes me feel my existence has made a difference."

Ma, who splits her time between her 5,000 sq ft studio on the Bund in Shanghai and her office in Paris, counts as fans numerous A-listers, such as Naomi Campbell and Lana Del Rey. Even Lady Gaga wore one of Ma's white suits to meet United States President Barack Obama in the White House.

Ma's impressive success comes from her business-oriented outlook. While there is a growing popularity of designer ateliers offering bespoke and made-to-measure fashion on the mainland, just catering to wealthy tai-tais and celebrities is not enough for Ma.

"I enjoying talking to customers, but inviting them into the work environment doesn't make much sense to me," Ma says. "If I see two clients a day, half of my day is gone. If I see 20 clients a month, I would end up doing nothing but having Champagne and [chatting with] my clients."

Ma seeks a business model that will eventually sustain itself. Last year, she launched her diffusion line MA by MA Studio, and she is looking at expanding into five commercial lines by the end of this year, and establishing her presence in more cities across the globe.

Ma's name is firmly posted on the international fashion map, and the busy designer lists pop culture, arts and literature as her sources of inspiration. Ma - who once cited Oscar Wilde poems as her design references - finds that literal works are often helpful in getting her creative juices flowing.

She says visual imagery is restricting. "You look at the same thing and you'll pretty much end up with the same direction. I think reading text is far more interesting. To be able to create and be original is something that I believe [defines] luxury today."

Regularly commuting from Paris to Shanghai once a week, the designer finds plenty of time to read during the long-haul flights, but the books she picks up are not everyday fashion magazines. Instead, Ma's reading list includes everything from business magazines to computer engineering titles.

"I'm currently reading The Castle by Franz Kafka again," she says. "You need to keep an open mind and have common knowledge. People think designers always read fashion magazines and art books. That's so '90s."

Breaking out of moulds seems to be a regular occurrence for Ma, who also has to deal with the stereotypes and misconceptions that come with being a Chinese designer. In recent years, there has been a surge in designers of Chinese descent taking the helm at major fashion houses and an increase in Chinese celebrities taking front rows at fashion shows, not to mention Chinese models opening shows. Ma, however, sees no point in capitalising on the hype.

"Being labeled as a Chinese designer is not something you get to choose. It comes along with the package - it's automatically attached to you," she says. Nevertheless, the reality is that without the solid infrastructure of a fashion industry in China, it's nothing more than a splendid mirage, Ma says.

" The problem is 'Made in China'," she says. "That's the concept we need to change, rather than desperately trying to [come up with] artificial hoo-hah designs and calling them avant-garde."

You won't find Ma pandering to any demand for oriental designs.

"For me, Chinese elements are something philosophical," she explains. It's not the appearance but the meaning behind that matters, she argues. "The figurative dragon and phoenix motifs are simply exotic points of view from the Western world."

Ma says she designs for the woman "who is never shouting for attention but never silenced either". For her, elegance and femininity lie in luxury fabrics, expert craftsmanship and modern design concepts.

"I want to design for real women. [I want my designs to be] elegant, classic and cool."

 

MILESTONES

2006
Finalist in Lancome Colour Designs Awards

2007
Apprenticeship with Alexander McQueen

2008
Graduates from Central Saint Martins and starts eponymous label Masha Ma

2009
Wins the Mouse Ji Best International Innovation Award at China Contemporary Design Contest

2011
Makes her debut at Paris Fashion Week; shortlisted for WGSN "Breakthrough Designer" of the year; Lady Gaga wears one of Ma's creations when she meets United States President Barack Obama

2013
Wins the New Design Talent of the Year at the Audi Arts and Design Award. Launches diffusion line MA by MA Studio

 

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