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Ma Ke: Designing “Useless”


Text by Wang Danyang Photographs courtesy of Wu Yong Design Studio

Home-grown Chinese “Liyuan style” drew great attention around the world when China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan, accompanied her husband, President Xi Jinping, on his first state visit to Russia this March. As their plane touched down in Moscow, a Chinese designer’s international profile skyrocketed. Her name is Ma Ke, China’s answer to Jason Wu, the Chinese-American designer who rose to fame by dressing American first lady, Michelle Obama.

Specially designing clothes and accessories for Peng Liyuan’s four-country tour was a new terrain for Ma Ke. Backed by her own production team, Ma produced customized designs that meet the client’s needs while staying true to her aesthetics and values as a designer.

In 1989, then 17-year-old Ma Ke enrolled at Suzhou Institute of Silk Textile Technology (now merged into Suzhou University) in Jiangsu Province to study design and performance. After graduation, Ma was hired by a small apparel company in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, where she began her career in fashion design. In 1994, she took the gold at the 2nd Brother Cup International Young Garment Design Competition with Terra-cotta Warrior collection. A year later, the 24-year-old was listed as one of China’s top ten fashion designers and ranked in the top five by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun. In 1996, Ma Ke launched the label Exception de Mixmind and became the brand’s executive designer.

During Ma’s decade of experience after college, she realized that chic designers were a dime a dozen, whereas designers of stylish clothes that were still practical for everyday life were considerably rarer. For Ma, “fashion” is far different from “clothes,” which she believes should be ordinary. “Today’s fashion is no longer about fancy appearances that follow trends,” she explains. “Instead, being fashionable should mean pursuing a return to the ordinary. Real luxury lies in the spirit a garment conveys, not a high price.”

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