'INTELLIGENT, CHARISMATIC and strong both in their personal and professional lives - these are the women I design for,' says China's biggest home-grown fashion designer Mary Ma. Actually, there is no one more appropriate to talk about these qualities than Ma, one of the country's first international models, a past champion rower in her native Hunan province, and wife and mother of one. With her fashion business to run (Maryma Series) and a family to keep up with, the 'hectic schedule' she flippantly refers to is an understatement. But despite the often difficult balance between the two, Ma remains determined to turn her fashion line into a fashion empire. A strong work ethic and dedication is what Ma swears by and this go-get-'em attitude has carried over into her personal style. 'I know there is a stigma attached to being a model, or ex-model even, but I was never high maintenance. As a child, I was a tomboy. I was very athletic and wore masculine clothes: ties with shirts tucked into jeans. I always wore trousers. Because I was so tall, I rarely wore heels.' Growing up, Ma never imagined she would ever grace the catwalks of Paris and Milan, much less become a fashion designer. 'I was training to be a professional rower but after a major injury, I was left unable to compete. I took time off and while shopping in Shanghai, a woman stopped me and asked if I was a model. She invited me to join a modelling competition. I wasn't sure at first but on a whim I decided to go for it - and won.' After taking the crown at the first Shanghai International Modelling Competition in 1995, Ma went on to win the annual Top 10 Chinese Model contests in 1998 and 1999. Through modelling, she gained exposure to international designer brands that weren't readily available in China. Her enthusiasm for fashion grew and in the late 1990s she decided to stop modelling and focus on fashion design. 'Modelling was just a job to me,' Ma says, 'but fashion is a career.' Last year, Ma took it upon herself to fill the niche for haute-couture designers in the Chinese fashion market with her label Maryma Series - a made-to-order service available only in Beijing. Already her line has gained a following with mainland celebrities, earning her the reputation of the go-to designer for any major event. Now in her early thirties, Ma has stayed true to her minimalist roots, favouring solid colours, basic knits and trousers over flashy accessories. 'My style is of understated luxury. Of course, I like big-name brands as much as the next woman, but I like to keep things simple. I don't like to wear too many accessories or embellishments. I focus more on fabrics and silhouettes rather than logos.' Jeans and a loose shirt are her style staples for work. 'I can spend hours at a time in the studio so I wear comfortable clothes that will also allow me to just pick up and leave to see my daughter or go run errands. I live in my D&G jeans, which are comfortable yet stylish.' An athlete at heart, sport still plays a large role in Ma's life. And of course, being a fashion designer, she knows the importance of remaining stylish whatever the activity. 'My favourite sportswear brand is Y-3. I love the [Yohji] Yamamoto style and his partnership with adidas means I can wear functional activewear and still look unique.' Ma's interest in sports may not have waned but she has waved goodbye to the masculine theme that dominated her wardrobe in her youth. When attending cocktail parties and fashion events, Ma loves wearing Versace gowns and Gucci cocktail dresses ('simple silhouettes yet always stunning'). 'However, simply wearing big fashion labels doesn't make a woman stylish,' Ma says. 'Style isn't about what clothes you wear. It's about how you wear them. To me, truly great style is about exuding a confident, carefree attitude. When you're happy and loving, it doesn't matter what you wear - you will always look good.' Looking calm and chic at Chinese International Fashion week, 2002. Mary Ma wins the Shanghai International Modelling Competition, 1995. Ma is named the year's best fashion designer at the MTV Global Music Festival, 2002. Ma, model-turned-designer, appears on television, 2003. The designer after her show, Chinese International Fashion Week, 2000. Ma picks up another modelling prize, 1998. Looking casual in jeans at the China Fashion Awards, 2006. Ma sports the masculine wardrobe of her youth at Chinese International Fashion Week, 2005. Simplicity is the key to Mary Ma's style. Photographed in 2005. Wearing her usual black as a special guest at a Mont Blanc event, 2005.