The rest of the world may have their eyes on China this week as the Olympics enters its first stages, but one Chinese designer, at least, has her eyes turned toward Paris.
This July Ma Ke, whose studio is based in Zhuhai in the Guangdong province, became the first fashion designer from China to follow in the footsteps of Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, and be invited to show in Paris – although unlike Kawakubo and co, it was not ready-to-wear that Ma Ke was presenting, but haute couture. As a result, says Didier Grumbach, president of Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, “Designers from the orient, starting with Japan, will look at occidental fashion from a new perspective.”
Ma Ke debuted her ready-to-wear last year with The Earth, a collection that was later presented at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Fashion in Motion: China Fashion Now series. “There is a concept to her work that can be applied to any kind of product,” says Grumbach. “That’s why she is so far ahead of any other Chinese designer. She is unique.” This uniqueness also won her a nomination at the Design Museum’s Brit Insurance Design Awards this year and explains her haute couture debut in the Jardins du Palais Royal.
More of a performance piece than a fashion show, the event was choreographed by Shen Wei, artistic director of Shen Wei Dance Arts in New York. In addition to the 42 cotton, linen, wool and silk outfits shown on models, women from Ma Ke’s Zhuhai workshop spun cotton and weaved fabric on a traditional loom dating from the 19th century while a Mongolian singer transformed the public spaces of the Jardin into an ethereal world. Modern dancers, yoga and tai chi practitioners stood motionless in Chinese-style loose tunics and trousers. After five minutes, the models broke into two groups and walked towards each other in slow meditative steps.
Titled Qing Pin, which, loosely translated, means “simplicity”, the collection represents “a condition of living life”, says Ma Ke. “It means you can achieve a high spiritual state without material needs. It’s about passing on the values and stories from one generation to the next.”
Whether she is expressing her ideas through her clothes or working with local people and materials, there is a seriousness in the way Ma Ke creates her singular, and distinctively Chinese, vision. “The way she works, the place in which she works, her attitude ... It can only come from China,” says Grumbach.
“The change in our appreciation of China will depend on personalities like Ma Ke who burst on to the international market with something so creative it can only be Chinese.”
Karen Leong is managing editor at i-D magazine