In Vogue

Updated: 2014-02-16 08:37

By Rebecca Lo(China Daily)

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Shanghai-based designer Masha Ma wants to become the next big brand. Rebecca Lo catches up with her at W Hong Kong as she prepares for Hong Kong Fashion Week.

The first thing that strikes most people about Masha Ma is her confidence. Born in Beijing in 1985, she is petite and greets us in her W Hong Kong hotel suite dressed in her signature black. The ubiquitous cigarette dangles from rouged lips, making her fair complexion appear all the paler. But this is no China doll. Opinionated about much more than style, she personifies the Chinese fashion diva of the new millennium and doesn't really care if you're on board or not.

Of course Ma has talent. No one who graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design can get away with faking it.

What Ma also possesses in spades is attitude. Her "up yours" demeanor exemplifies the country's post-"cultural revolution" (1966-76) babies who grew up never questioning the boundless possibilities available to a new China.

"I lived in London, then Paris and New York City," says Ma. "I originally studied fine arts in China. But I knew that I was never going to be another Vincent van Gogh."

Even before she graduated with a Master of Arts in womenswear from Saint Martins in 2008, she was raising eyebrows with a host of honors and accolades. She won the Mouse Ji Best International Innovation Award at the 2009 China Contemporary Design Contest and was shortlisted for the 2011 WGSN Breakthrough Designer of the Year.

In 2012, Ma was one of the participating designers in the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund's China Exchange Program. She lived in New York City for a month and spent a day at Vogue's offices where she got to pick legendary editor-in-chief Anna Wintour's brain.

"We talked about what's going on at Vogue and the next generation of designers," Ma recalls. "I didn't find her intimidating. She came across as honest and straightforward. But I forgot my sunglasses in her office and her staff was terrified that they had to bother her again in order for me to fetch them. Everyone is scared of her. But I didn't find her at all devilish! And I learned a lot through the CFDA program."

Although Ma famously counts Lady Gaga and Laure Shang as customers - Lady Gaga wore her white jacket and pencil skirt to greet US President Barack Obama in 2011 and Shang wore her custom designs for an album cover shot in Iceland - the designer recalls that fashion was a tough industry to crack.

"It was a nightmare," she says. "I was begging people to give me a break. That period taught me to never believe people who say that I can't do it."

She is also somewhat tired of being labeled a Chinese designer, as she feels that it imposes limitations upon her. "It's a fact that I am Chinese," Ma shrugs. "And China has one of the biggest fashion markets in the world. But what we design doesn't have much to do with traditions or kitschy dynastic symbols. I am more influenced by contemporary society. Chinese motifs like dragons and phoenixes belong to another place and time. It is a misunderstanding of Chinese culture. Yet in the West, these motifs are considered exotic.

"I incorporate the core of Chinese elements. For example, a Chinese painting is two-dimensional while in the West it is three-dimensional. That 2-D is a personal feeling and informs my designs philosophically. I take Chinese elements and express them in modern ways. My cuts and fabric choices are Chinese.

"Fashion equals power. For me, the ensemble that Lady Gaga wore is just as elegant as a little black dress. The pencil skirt brings out the silhouette of a woman that has universal appeal in the East and West."

For Ma's Spring/Summer 2014 collection debut at W Hong Kong, pencil skirts and crop-tops showing bare midriffs are presented in black and white, with icy blues and lemon yellows rounding out the color palette.

Body-hugging shifts lend a sexy edge to dresses cut just below the knee. Below the hip, jackets paired with mini skirts straddle formal and casual. Balloon sleeves and sheer fabrics add romance and volume to the collection, while precise fabric cut-outs in abstract patterns give the garment a chameleon quality as the body moves.

Ma credits a stint at Alexander McQueen's for showing her the importance of technique.

In Vogue

"I'm not a paper designer," she says. "I can cut and sew. I am good at sketching. Talent is something that is necessary in this business. I feel that vision is my strength. It's the balance between creativity and practicality. I don't believe in simply delivering a service. I want to be a brand, not just another designer."

Talking about Chinese fashion brands, she sighs: "Everyone is asking me who would be the next Chinese Prada or Armani. China needs a solid fashion system first. That will then allow room for the avant-garde. Right now, avant-garde in China is shallow because the structure isn't there. We need people with different business models."

Ma explains that if a brand has a diversified range of products, there is less pressure placed on the success or failure of individual collections. Eventually, she anticipates that she will design menswear and accessories such as perfume to complete her brand's scope beyond womenswear.

She currently operates out of Shanghai in a 550-square-meter studio with 40 staff members, while her Paris studio has a fluctuating number of between seven to 15 people.

"The atmosphere is healthier for independent brands in Shanghai," Ma says.

"Beijing is my hometown but it's a media center and it can be difficult to get proper resources in the north. As a port city, Shanghai has the former French Concession and was a hub for fashion. Its tailors understand how to do things. Beijing is about politics, power and modern art. Shanghai is better at producing delicate products."

For her Fall/Winter 2014 collection, Ma plans on designing something completely different. "It will be whatever I want. I don't care if it sells. I want that 15 minutes of doing something that will bring me happiness. I have something to say to the world."

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 In Vogue

In Ma's spring/summer 2014 collection, jackets pair with miniskirts and balloon sleeves to add romance and casual appeal. Photos Provided to China Daily

 In Vogue

Masha Ma, dressed in her signature black, presents her Spring/Summer 2014 collection debut at W Hong Kong hotel.

(China Daily 02/16/2014 page8)