Far from useless

Ma Ke, China's most celebrated fashion designer, has ben creating haute couture for her brand Wuyong, for nearly a decade. She speaks to Tom Pattinson at her Beijing studio

Tucked away, just north of Beijing’s Forbidden City, is an old print factory. It takes a second for your eyes to adjust to the low lighting as you enter the cavernous room. The red, bulbous faces of spear-carrying door gods loom out. Woodcut prints hang from a maze of dangling light boxes, where previously they would have been pasted to the front doors of rural homes in 19th century Hunan to keep out evil spirits.

Those who have an appointment can weave past these gatekeepers and enter the studio of China’s foremost designer, Ma Ke.

Born in 1971 in China’s northeast city of Changchun, Ma Ke graduated from the Institute of Silk Technology in Suzhou – a city long famous for its production of the finest silks and dresses. By 1996 she had established her ready-to-wear retail brand EXCEPTION de MIXMIND and in 2006 launched her haute couture line Wuyong – meaning ‘useless’ in English.

“About 10 years ago, I was travelling around rural China looking for traditional craftspeople and artisans and the word I heard most often was ‘useless’,” explains Ma. “They would ask me why I had come all the way from the big city to such a rural place to see these handmade items, which were already of no use. Handmade products had been discarded and just weren’t desirable any more. These artisans were very pessimistic that their items had no future.”

Ma explains that the last decades of China’s scientific and economic growth have made it very difficult for these rural minorities to make a living from producing handmade items – but for her these items are anything but useless.

“I know it doesn’t sound like a good name for a fashion brand, but the word ‘useless’ is used ironically, as I think they have a huge value and, over time, they will be recognised for how valuable they really are. Not the financial value but the cultural value,” she says.

Ma has worked with some of the biggest names in China, designing costumes for the singer Dadawa and starring in Wuyong, the Jia Zhangke documentary on fashion named after her brand. However, it was her first show in Paris, in 2007, that really made the international fashion world take a close look at Chinese haute couture.

Ma’s Paris show was more an art installation than fashion show, eschewing the traditional catwalk format and instead having models standing stationary on plinths, allowing the audience to have close-up looks as they walk among the ‘art works’. The line between fashion and art is very fine for Ma Ke, a woman who is often regarded as ‘anti-fashion’. “I am not really a designer who works within the fashion industry,” she explains. “I don’t really take part in fashion shows and I don’t go to fashion weeks. I just do my own thing.”

And this is clearly visible in the Wuyong studio. Past the glowing door-god bouncers it feels like you have been transported through time and space into an era without high technology, where walls have been made from mudbrick and reclaimed wood. Industrial meets rural with the feeling of being in an ancient provincial village.

The walls in the bedroom are made from reclaimed wood from old Italian boats and the former lift shaft has been turned into a meditation space, where Ma sometimes sits under a single dim light. Each room in the preposterously large space is allocated like that of a house – the sitting room, kitchen and bedrooms each displaying handmade clothing and furniture pieces. Bed linen and winter jackets, kids’ shirts and wooden glasses cases (on display in the library), every item is unique, exquisite and handmade.

Handmade is a term that is all too often used for products that are not factory made. But Wuyong products are not just stitched together by hand, every element is created manually.

White clouds of raw cotton sit in baskets next to bags of stringy raw silk. Old wooden looms from south China stand waiting to turn the puff balls of cotton into strong, clean material. Every step of the process is done by Ma’s team of experts, including creating the material, the weaving process, dying the materials and sewing the final products.

“Dying this jacket takes about 30 days,” explains Vito, one of the staff who has worked for Wuyong for six years. All the dyes are made from natural plants and materials and created in the same way they have been for centuries.

“The drying time depends on the amount of sunlight and heat though,” he says.

Due to the entirely natural materials, dyes and methods used, earth tones dominate the clothing, but there is a clear Sinocentrism in both the clothing and furniture on display.

“I’m a designer who is very passionate about traditional Chinese culture,” Ma adds. “I have always been very proud of our country’s minorities, so when I was studying, I intentionally moved away from popular Western trends to do something for myself that was related to Chinese culture.”

And it is this passion for her own heritage and culture that has made Ma’s work stand out on a global stage.

“Our own culture is where we stem from, so we are more sensitive to it,” she says. “We absorb the culture we have grown up with. To use symbols and references from other cultures is just a visual aesthetic. To use your own culture is to use your own inner spirit.

First published in SIGNED magazine