The Masters: Ming Ma
The CSM MA designer is as elusive as his reference points, which span era, continent and medium to deliver a harmonious jumble of colours, prints and textures, unapologetic in their sartorial appropriations. Outside of the volume of his latest collection however, Ming is quiet, though not shy. He swoops over the details of his designs, not wanting to give too much away in terms of technique or inspiration, and mid conversation (and mid audio recording), he asks for his voice not to be taped – he’d like the clothes to speak for themselves.
In 2014 Ming stepped away from the studio, and the industry, citing a number of reasons for his departure– all emotional at their core. There was the untimely death of course director Louise Wilson, who Ming describes as ‘a control freak in the best way possible.’ “I loved working with Louise”, admits the designer. “She knew how fashion worked, she could tell you brutally what was right and what was wrong and I trusted her vision more than anyone’s.”
Alongside this, Ming experienced a loss of vigour and sense of self, which he accredits to the back to back BA and MA courses. “I just didn’t have the energy to get back into the course after my first year,” he says. “I went travelling after the summer, to work and explore new places and slowly, I felt excited to come back.”
A ‘gap year’ trip to Thailand was the necessary remedy for Ming’s creative reinvigoration, and it was there in abundance. The colours, fabrics and landscapes found formed the primary inspiration for Ming’s work, allowing the designer to move away from the clinical neutralism of his previous collection. “This collection was about a confrontation with antiquity. I wanted to mix new fabrics and references with the older, for each garment to be informed by a sense of antithesis.”
Travel may have ignited Ming’s imagination, but it’s his intense research into the techniques of draping and fabric manipulation, that allow him to produce a collection in the way he does. Trial, error and a dose of instinct form the basis of these ideas. During our conversation, he laments the sudden prominence of fringing and shredding in the shows, which prompted him (and his tutor) to doubt the large scale use of the technique in his collection.
In fact, until the news that Ming would not be featured in the MA show at London Fashion Week, he had omitted the shredding all together on the advice of his tutor. “Apparently there is too much shredding in the ready to wear shows already. It’s almost a trend, and I don’t want to design my collection around a trend.”
Ming’s initial design silhouettes were inspired by photographer Mark Borthwick’s editorials and the Dries Van Noten archives, and it’s here where silhouettes and styling found their inspiration too. Delving into the 90’s photographer’s archive (famous for Margiela campaigns and an instantly recognisable Chloe Sevigny shoot) ignited Ming’s penchant for oversized volume and thrown-on silhouettes. The natural lighting and un-digitalized look of the photos are similarly an aesthetic that the designer wished to create during the shooting of his lookbook, with these tiny details mimicking his uncomplicated back to basics approach to working. “I don’t work very well with too many people around,” claims Ming. “I like to be in my own head, just focusing on the clothes – I hate a muddled mind.”
Chinese-born Ming favours black sweaters and cotton jackets whilst working, and keeps his designs in the studio, preferring to separate his work from his home, just a stone’s throw away from King’s Cross. In contrast to the ordered nature of his working time, however, the designer’s MA collection is a pick and mix assortment of cultural references, colours and fabrics.
“Beyond Retro,” whispers Ming shyly when asked about the origins of an ornately printed jersey bodysuit. “The vintage prints are from Beyond Retro — they’re usually scarves.” Reminiscent of the designer’s hunter-gatherer method of obtaining inspirations, Ming’s collection is a patchwork of gathered fabrics, unique in purpose. The trousers? Upholstery materials. The shoe coverings? Power mesh. No fabric is unwelcome in Ming’s studio.
The clashing of fabrications seems natural in a collection inspired by Asian influences, though in this collection, such reference points don’t seem specifically eastern or orientalised, but more global, with the rich fabrics providing the collection with the grandeur more reminiscent of a museum-curated look at Asian culture and its history, rather than a snapshot provided by Ming’s student travels.
Whatever the inspiration’s origin, the designer’s emotional relationship to his work speaks in this collection. Through every rehashed detail, seam unstitched and fabric reselected – it’s there. It’s there, even if you can’t hear it at first and it’s there even if Ming would rather you didn’t hear it at all.