Chinese-American fashion designer Mary Ping channels old Shanghai and New York
Ping is part of a generation of Chinese-American designers that have built successful commercial businesses while injecting creativity into New York's fashion scene
Chinese designers are having their moment in the spotlight, and the recent exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is a prime example. That makes it perfect timing for Chinese-American designer Mary Ping to launch her official comeback at New York Fashion Week this September.
Although her name is not instantly recognisable, the 36-year-old Ping is part of a generation of Chinese-American designers that rose to fashion fame in the noughties, alongside Jason Wu, Alexander Wang and Phillip Lim. Thanks to their cross-cultural perspective, they were able to build successful commercial businesses (leveraged by strong connections to the garment/manufacturing industry) while still injecting much-needed creativity into New York's fashion scene.
"It's true that the foundation of my aesthetic values comes from my elegant grandmother who was very modern, having lived in a very colonial European Shanghai … but it is important to mention, that era was a very hybridised and different experience. Mix that with my own childhood growing up in New York in the 1980s and '90s, the results are complex and atypical," says the designer who likens her childhood memories to scenes from a Woody Allen film.
From the moment she launched her signature line in 2001, Ping's work won praise from fashion insiders and accolades including the Ecco Domani Fashion Award in 2007. In 2013 she was guest curator of the acclaimed Museum of Chinese in America exhibition, Front Row: Chinese American Designers. But while her contemporaries basked in the spotlight, Ping chose to stay behind the scenes, preferring to let her work do the talking.
"I wasn't a red carpet person, which didn't necessarily work in my favour," says the soft-spoken designer, who could be mistaken for a university student with her youthful looks and penchant for quirky accessories. "No one cares what Junya Watanabe looks like in Paris, but New York cares. New York expects you to be out there."
Ping first caught the fashion design bug at the age of four when her grandmother taught her how to sew - and more.
"More than sewing she taught me the value and integrity of design. She was, if anything, the tiger mum. She was very classic - when we did these sewing projects, she would show me the sophisticated way of doing it - how to sew a button, or create blind hems," she says.
Although Ping went on to study art and art history at liberal arts college Vassar, she kept her creative side going by designing costumes in her spare time. After graduation, she completed fashion courses at London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins, while working with several designers and retailers on various projects.
She returned to New York in 2001 and launched her eponymous label. The line featured elevated yet timeless wardrobe staples executed with a fresh eye and the utmost attention to detail.
"Everything I design has a strangely emotional motivation. It was about things I believed in, that I felt were beautiful and what could work in a woman's wardrobe. I design from my gut and time and again it always lands on this concept of timelessness. It doesn't mean boring or conservative, though," she says.
After two seasons, Ping simultaneously embarked on another fashion endeavour called Slow and Steady Wins the Race, which can best be described as an anthology of fashion essentials. Presented as a quarterly clothing diary, each collection reinterprets classical elements of the everyday wardrobe, be it knits or shoes, with only 100 pieces of each style made. It started to amass a cult following, much to Ping's surprise.
"It came out of the blue, unsolicited, all the stores I hoped would carry it wanted Slow and Steady. They liked the concept which basically says that design doesn't have to be obsolete," explains Ping.
For several years, she pushed aside her signature line to focus on Slow and Steady. But in 2014 it was resurrected, Ping showed her first collection to industry insiders at a showroom in Paris. "I restarted Mary Ping because I had so many ideas piling up and Slow and Steady was something I could do in my sleep. I just needed more."
For many in the industry, the rebirth of Mary Ping couldn't come at a better time. Her philosophy clearly resonates with the current mood as women are searching for luxurious clothing that they can keep in their wardrobes forever. For the designer herself, however, it's like picking up where she left off.
"I don't think it's any different from the original line, although it has more depth and is less serious. One of the best compliments I got was when I showed the new stuff alongside old pieces and people said you couldn't tell it was from the past.
"For me, the style is something that I can't articulate or quantify. When I look at something, I'll know if a woman can pull that out of her closet five to 10 years from now and still wear it.
"Perhaps I am still naïve - I hold on to the belief that good design transcends everything and you know it when you see it. I cannot toss something frivolous onto the garment if it doesn't have a purpose or give something new," she says.
Her first two collections, for spring-summer 2015 and autumn-winter 2015, featured only 18 looks. Many signatures from her past collections have reappeared such as the classic white shirt (updated in Swiss cotton jacquard with covered buttons), while another style has deconstructed shoulder elements. A white top is given a fresh twist and is made from five panels of silk in tonal colours.
Other styles are hybrids merging old and new ideas. Her autumn line, for example, has new items such as a red silk tank dress featuring an exaggerated alligator print, a jean jacket taken to new heights with Italian lambskin and straight-legged jeans with extra large buttons and rivets. A black mid-length dress in heavy hammered silk features geometric necklines and slits, making it a cool and contemporary LBD. Everything is made in New York using European and Japanese fabrics.
Looking ahead, spring-summer 2016 could be a watershed moment for the designer, as she will host her first runway show in New York and then sell the collection to retailers. Alongside the 30 looks, she will also show accessories.
"There is no inspiration or theme - it's more about an attitude. The signature collection is always an evolutionary cycle [but] I am building some fresh ideas with a completely separate point of origin. Think stealth, wealth, elusive and exclusive," she says.
In the long term Ping hopes her work will bring back an emotion to fashion that she believes has been missing for a while.
"I come at it like an anthropologist. I am fascinated by people, what they respond to, their behaviour, why they do something. I used to scurry away when people have these clichés about being a fashion designer. Instead of fashion, I say I want to make interesting things. I am forever investigating the emotional trigger that is activated when you respond to something. When I build the collection, I put each piece through that test. What's my response? Why would I purchase it? Is it desirable?"