Ma Ke: Designer of Peng Liyuan Style

                                            How long can a dress endure?

                                            Perhaps a lifetime. For a 92-year-old gramma in Qi'ao village of the city Zhuhai, it is certainly true. Till this day, she still wears her short gown and binds her hair tip with red ribbon to every ceremonial event like the wedding day, Dragon Boat Days, theatre days and New Year Eves as she did when she was 12 and her mother sewed her the gown with watered gauze for her wedding day. For 80 years, every time she wears it, she would remember the look of her mother and her black hair which could go down to her heel. In the reflection of her mom, she finds herself in her youth, also with long hair and dab hands.

                                            Clothes Mirror People's Face with Every Thread Alive to Tell Stories.

                                            This is what Ma Ke, one of the top designers, has been doing recently. Since this August, Ma and her team have explored many places so that she can curate and install an exhibition in her Beijing WUYONG showroom called "in search of the clothes with the best stories."

                                            "Clothes accompany us from dawn to dusk. They are a close relationship we need to keep in our life. From the first piece after born to the last piece to leave the world, clothes are with us through every event." The conversation with Ma started with her affections to clothes. In her opinion, clothes carry more than any object in our daily life.

                                            "There is no love more direct than mothers sewing clothes for their children. The bond between clothes and people as well as family intertwines between threads. It is depending on this understanding that makes me care about clothes and they should be made and treated with responsibility."

                                            A piece of watered gauze wedding short gown can follow a woman for 80 years yet in the river of time; it is still a very temporary interlude. Ma has a sensitive wording towards clothes. She said clothes have a fate of an object. They last at most a few hundred years before they are oxidized, decomposed and then disappear forever. From this point of view, clothes need to be treasured indeed.


                                            Only when people are connected with Nature in childhood, can they have roots.

                                            The interview to Ma Ke was conducted on the second floor of her studio WUYONG. Stair armrest remains the shape of the original wood; green painted wooden chairs and cement tables with naturally cracked surface reveal a sense of old times; the off-white linen curtains offer a subtle function to fade the traffic flow; the air is filled with light music and a fragrant hint of grains and vegetables.  

                                            Orange light spreads lightly on the table, and with a hot cup of tea and almonds on the side, it just suits to be temperature for family time on a Sunday afternoon.

                                            Ma dressed simple and elegant with her long braided hair and a scarf of different shades of grey. Her light grey cotton dress is designed and made by her studio WUYONG.

                                            Her dressing style and personality makes it difficult to imagine her glamourous titles and experience. Ma Ke is the founder of local brand "EXCEPTION" and "USELESS", the first Chinese fashion designer invited to show at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week and present her first collection, titled WUYONG/the Earth and WUYONG/Qing pin; starred in the award-winning documentary Useless by Chinese director Jia Zhangke.

                                            Ma Ke may reset your impression towards terms like clothes designers, fashion and commercial brand because she does not belong to any of these labels. 10 years ago, during the prime time of her line EXCEPTION, Ma and her partner had a huge difference in management principle and insisted leaving and started her new line WUYONG(Useless). Commonly enough, designers expanded their line and shops rapidly once they are recognized. However, Ma refused to do so. She defines herself as an idealist, not a businessperson who sees lucrative profits only. "In my vision, it (the brand) should always stay on the top to present Chinese concept and spirit to the world."

                                            Ma does not care much about money and could tune down her material need to just the basic. During her college years (the former Suzhou Institute of Silk Textile Technology, merged into Soochow University), Ma didn't want to put more financial burden on her parents so she spent as little as possible. Majoring in both designing and performance, Ma was the last girl who would invest in cosmetics and clothes in her class. She didn't enjoy shopping while spent most of her time in reading books about design and foreign journals in the library. "When you spiritual needs triumph your material needs, you would depend less on materials."

                                            Her criteria for good clothes do not belong to the so-called contemporary fashion world. When she was in college, she liked to wear oversized T-shirt and leisure shoes to be as free as the wind. She insists that clothes should make people feel comfortable and natural so that they wouldn't influence their feelings. The worst memory of hers was to be asked to wear tight jacket, suit skirt and high heels. "It was extremely uncomfortable and I didn't know where to put my hands and feet."

                                            According to an article called "my understanding towards fashion designers" written by Ma, "the world is in no lack of designers who can create trendy, elegant, sexy or pretty fashion but is in high demand of designers who design clothes." Her pursuit is different. "I want clothes to go back to its simplicity and people's exhausted senses to become sensitive again. In today's world, true fashion is no longer trendy beauty. It should be the extraordinary out of the ordinary."

                                            Nature, the earth, and folk life are where Ma's design thrives. In her childhood, she always spent her summer and winter holidays in the countryside where she found it fascinating to connect with Nature. "Once the seed is planted and the connection is made with Nature, one can feel it and empower by it." She is obsessed with old craftsmanship and natural materials and, in turn, brings art back to the earth.

                                            Coincidentally, the cotton clothes Ma was wearing during the interview is call "the root".


                                            Reaching Out to the World for Chinese Charm While Rooted in Local Dreams.

                                            Ma's fashion label is the distinguished Chinese traditional charm. The beginning has to be dated back to 1994 when Ma attended the second "International Young Fashion Designers" competition. Unexpectedly, the 23-year-old Ma Ke won the first prize.

                                            When she was researching for the competition, she saw an art album for terra-cotta warriors and was deeply impressed by them. She grabbed the qualities of a great nation-simplicity and honesty from the figures of the warriors, which inspired her design. In two months, she stayed in the countryside in Hunan Province where she employed handmade ramie fabric, waxed twine and palm leaves, sewed by hand and sewing machine and even dyed the material by hand to complete her work "Qin Yong/terra-cotta warriors"

                                            The success of Qin Yong encouraged Ma and laid solid groundwork for her career. After 22 years, last month, a friend who is also a designer went to Hangzhou Silk Museum and encountered Ma's Qin Yong on exhibition so sent me photos immediately. Seeing those photos brings back a lot of memory for Ma, "you see that is the work from 1994. Now over two decades have passed, but the striking similarity between Qin Yong and WUYONG now still exists. I still use cloth made by hand in the traditional way, just as before. It says my career path, style and my position have set in stone since the beginning. I am still me who walk on the same path and I never changed." Ma said these words with a great relief. Instead of a beautiful coincidence, it is better to describe the similarity as her pursuit to her unshaken truth.

                                            Her persistence amazed people around her. In 2007, Ma showed the first time in Paris Fashion Week with an exhibition of WUYONG/the earth and received exceptionally well. According to Ma, the show was not earned and she intended to decline it because April in 2006, Ma established WUYONG and was busy doing her own research for craftsmanship in folk life. In June, the chairman of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture paid a personal visit to her and hoped she can represent China to show on the Paris Fashion Week for the first time while Ma was occupied by her own undertaking and decided to say no. "I was very clear. I am a Chinese designer. Although Paris is the dream stage of any designer, it was not my dream. My true dream is here in China, in the countryside. If I must, I can only present an exhibition and will not stay there because I have my work to do here."

                                            Under repeated invitation, Ma decided to make up the blank for China in the fashion week and brought WUYONG/the earth. The next year, she showed again in the haute couture fashion week. On the boulevard in Petit Palais, 42 dancers from different countries, singer Na Ren Qi Mu Ge from inner Mongolia and two silk and cloth weaving craftsmen put their strength together to present WUYONG/Qing pin. "In today's world, luxury is no longer luxurious. Qing pin(being modest and virtuous in material life ) becomes luxury." Ma once said to the reporter, in her understanding of Chinese culture, "luxury has no price tag and it is the representation of spiritual value or personal quality". The girl who was in the library all day and admire spirit over material never left Ma Ke.

                                            Astonishing as fashion week goes, Ma still need to go back and root in the soil of traditional culture with peace. Catwalk stage is just a splash that goes away with wind but extinguishing craftsmanship is true art that is worth searching for. Weaving and dying gauze and cloth, laboring in the field and dancing and singing the traditional dance help to reveal the old mystery.

                                            In the recent opening for her exhibition "in search of clothes with the best memory", some audience sighed, "in the last 3 minutes, the sound of the loom in the dark was absolutely amazing, especially when you sat on the futons! I couldn't describe how I felt but I just knew I had goose bumps when I heard the sound of our ancestor!"


                                            From Clothes to Living Space, I Help Chinese to Remember

                                            "Yesterday a visitor said something great, 'Chinese should live like a Chinese.' Don't you think many of us don't even live like a Chinese? Our lifestyle is westernized and has no bond at all with our local culture. What I do is to help Chinese to remember," according to Ma.

                                            The restoration of memory near at hand is to visit the home space of WUYONG studio. With Ma's deliberate design, once opening the old wooden door, you will feel instantly falling into a beautiful dream. In a corner of the yard, there is a bundle of hemp grass, silkworm cocoons and raw silk. A wooden horse is rocking in the children's room and a line of pottery lined neatly on the shelf in the kitchen. My visitors are surprised that such a familiar life scene has been lost for so long.

                                            "We lived in an era of gaps. We have lost almost everything our ancestors left us for almost a hundred years. WUYONG helps to restore the memory for society. There are many media to restore memory for example clothes, words and grocery even. How did Chinese people live before? How can we connect this with our daily life?"

                                            If WUYONG/the earth is pure artist expression for her, WUYONG/Qing pin is already extending to daily life. With no experience to refer, Ma started from scratch till 2014 when WUYONG opened. After 8 years, we finally have a window to speak out. In these years, we have established our first group of WUYONG family who really support us and our products.

                                            "The meaning of life far exceeds that of clothes." This is Ma's reflection after ten years of effort. The responsibility of creating her clothes cannot meet her need now. Ma still tries to wake up a lot of things like the family bond, respect to Nature behind clothes or even the shared memory for a random group of people.





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