Ma Ke presented her 2005 spring and summer collections of Exception .
Despite having twice taken her designs to the center stage of Paris fashion, Ma Ke remains an exception in the world of fashion and a mystery to the media and admirers.
The 38-year-old designer lives a low-profile life and seldom shows up at fashion events. She doesn't like having her photo taken by the media and seems to be content to hide away in her workshop in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, far from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis.
This partly explains why people flocked to a conference hall of the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts a week ago when Ma spoke at a session of the ICOGRADA World Design Congress.
"I'm not accustomed to public speech at all. I prefer using my designs, rather than my image and language, to express this spiritual world of mine," she said, reading from her notes.
Later, she was in an easy-going and talkative mood for an exclusive interview with China Daily.
The costume Ma Ke designed for Chinese singer Dadawa's 2001 concert.
"I kept updating the lecture with my thoughts on others' speeches at the congress. I have never talked so much in public, yet I finished only half of the lecture," she says.
Ma wore no makeup, a simple white gown from her Wu Yong collection with her hair tied up behind her back.
This simple approach was not always the case for Ma, who used to be one of those chicly dressed designers busy around town.
A native of Changchun, Jilin province, Ma graduated from Suzhou Institute of Silk Technology in Jiangsu province in 1992. She landed jobs in clothing companies in Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
She was named one of China's best 10 fashion designers, but then found it difficult to realize her ideas working for companies that were motivated just by profits. In 1996, she started her own business in Guangzhou and launched the ready-to-wear brand "Exception de Mixmind". She developed the "Exception" idea from opposition to the usual appearance of models on the world's catwalks.
"The women are perfectly packaged, charming, sexy and elegant. They carefully tread on dangerous high-heeled shoes, and when they fall, the audience applauds them," she says. "That may be how the world of fashion perceives an attractive woman. But in my eyes, the beauty of women depends upon confidence, independence and naturalness."
Ma then moved to Zhuhai in 2006 to set up a new workshop. There she wanted to challenge herself and create something that had social benefits, rather than being market-oriented - hence the birth of Wu Yong (meaning "useless" in Chinese).
"I have been obsessed with handicrafts since I learned design," she says.
Ma made several trips to several remote villages after 2000 to study handicrafts. She lived and worked with rural people and was touched by the harmony between them and nature.
"The advances of industry and technology have marginalized handicrafts worldwide. But are those dying traditions we held dear for thousands of years really becoming useless?" she asks, rhetorically.
Wu Yong continues the theme of simplicity cut out by Exception, highlighting the quality of organic materials and the value of handicrafts. She and her colleagues weave, dye and tailor in the workshop, giving up the convenience of modern machines.
In 2007, Ma presented her collection at Paris Fashion Week. She covered the venue, a 100-year-old middle school playground, with soil from China. She dressed up 26 models, aged from 8 to 75, with clothes she had buried in sand for some time.
The Earth collection paid Ma's respects to laborers, telling the privileged world of fashion that every person is equal in the face of Mother Nature, and traditions should still be valued. She shocked the whole world with her sublime creations, philosophy and ecology. "Undoubtedly, she is another great talent," Paris Match magazine commented.
A year later, Ma surprised Paris Haute Couture Week with another show, Luxurious Qingpin (meaning "simplicity"). Set in the garden of Muse du Petit Palais, 39 yoga practitioners wore handmade cotton clothes.
Several Chinese women gave on-site demonstrations of weaving and dying. The collection was inspired by Ma's previous visits to China's countryside and her collection of old villagers' clothes.
"The purist Ma Ke sets up her own flag against the scrambling materialism, with a spearhead to numb and crazy consumerism," French newspaper Le Monde said of the show.
The Wu Yong collections won Ma the 2008 Prince Claus Awards, which the Dutch Prince Claus Fund has presented annually to artists, thinkers and cultural organizations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean since 1997.
The jury honored her not only for "the superb craftsmanship and aesthetic quality", but also "for highlighting the complex interactions of clothing, culture and the body, and for promoting socially, culturally and environmentally sensitive design and production".
Ma is usually referred to as an artist these days and international museums have invited her to display her designs. "I have alternative career choices. However, I find fashion design still the most familiar language to me. It is something I will never give up," she says. "And Wu Yong will be my lifetime practice."
Another thing Ma can't forsake is her secret world in a suburban garden in Zhuhai, where her workshop, a two-story white building surrounded by a forest of lychee trees, is located. She lives and creates with her designer-colleagues and handicraft artisans from across the nation.
She enjoys a plain and tranquil life. She seldom watches TV or goes shopping. She wears her own designs. She spends much of her time with her dogs and reading. "My favorite design is nature. It launches only four collections - the four seasons - every year, yet none of them has ever been boring," she says.
"Only when you are deprived of many material pleasures, can you find confidence inside. And only when you keep silent for a while, can you clearly hear the voices outside and truly open your heart to others. This is what Chinese designers should cultivate and what they should present to the world, the wisdom and tolerance in our blood."
Ma Ke's designs are now on display at the Design as Productive Force Exhibition at the National Art Museum of China until Nov 10.