Masha Ma: leading the Chinese revolution in fashion design

2015
14th July

It may be a bold thing to say that Masha Ma is at the forefront of a Chinese revolution in fashion, but armed with scissors as sharp as Louise Wilson’s wit, a headstrong 50-man work force and an ambition to open 100 stores, it’s fair to say she’s doing away with the west’s outdated view of ‘made in China’.

“I ALWAYS HAD THIS FUNDAMENTAL FEAR THAT I WAS NEVER GOING TO BE ABLE TO CUT MY EAR OFF LIKE VAN GOGH.”

The fact that Masha ended up going to an art school was never really a surprise, as the Beijing-born designer studied Fine Art when she was very young and enjoyed everything about it, “but even at that age I always had this fundamental fear that I was never going to be able to cut my ear off like Van Gogh — that I would never be that successful or dedicated in this field.” Instead, she turned around the artistry spectrum, preferring to look at Alexander McQueen’s world of imagination, or that of Galliano: the Great that the teenage generation in China aspired to be. Subsequently, she enrolled at Central Saint Martins and went through the entire boot camp: “Foundation course, the BA, the MA. I was there at Back Hill, Tottenham Court Road, Holborn, everything.”

The first thing that Masha noticed, was the difference between her and other Chinese students that were in her surroundings: “Unlike them, I didn’t have much of a problem speaking English,” she tells us over the phone, “because my mum had taken me to America all the time, and since I was young she had often talked to me in English.” Reflecting upon her college years, she mentions that while on her foundation, her favourite as well as most hated course was fashion. “It was such a difficult course to succeed in, and people were so competitive. However, I did love the competition, I have to be honest; it was so energetic and dynamic, and people were so up to it. You would sit in the canteen and some random people would come up to you and say, “hi my name is … do you want to come and do a photoshoot with me?’ out of nowhere! You wouldn’t even know them, and then you’d take that model and go to Hyde Park Corner, shoot in the park, do this, do that. All that shooting was completely pointless — looking at it now — but at the time, every day a new thing would be happening and you would think you were creating the most important art piece in the world.”

“LOUISE WILSON WAS THE FIRST PERSON WHO TAUGHT ME HOW TO BE A DESIGNER RATHER THAN JUST A STUDENT. WHEN YOU GO TO THE MA, YOU’RE WORKING WITH HER, YOU’RE NOT TAUGHT BY HER.

She looks back with fondness at the memories of the old Soho building on Charing Cross Road, and the door guy Patrick who would be coming up late at night, jingling his key-ring and telling the students they’d have to leave. “We used to try and stay in class by hiding under the tables. So when we used to stay really late — everyone did, everyone was very hard working — we would probably go to Soho which was right on the next street, and along Shaftesbury Avenue. The best drinking place would be the Phoenix bar opposite the school, literally right opposite the school — it was this random classic old theatre bar that had photos of actors who weren’t famous among all the walls, and classic British Lager. We would go there and drink the hell out of the place.”

The minute she graduated from her BA, Masha was offered jobs — at Liebrich Horne, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Alberta Ferretti — for which she did not apply; “they came to the show, saw the collection, and just decided they liked my thing.” Then at the final BA presentation Louise Wilson came into the room, and saw Masha’s coat hanging there. “She walked over to my tutor and said, ‘whose coat is this? I want to see her.’ So she practically picked me from the BA.” Studying under the tutelage of the notorious educator became a unique experience that Masha tells us she will benefit from until the end of her life. “She was the first person who taught me how to be a designer rather than just a student. When you go to the MA, you’re working with her, you’re not taught by her. She told all of us, ‘you come to the studio and this is your office, and we’re working together as designers — and you need to be prepared because after this course you’re going to be able to go into the best companies straightaway.’ We had all the leading companies coming over all the time and watching us — Chloe, Puma, all the best photographers — so we were constantly being trained to work with people from the industry.”

“YOU CAN PLAN TO GO TO CSM; YOU CAN PLAN TO BECOME A DESIGNER; YOU CAN DESIGN AND PLAN PRODUCTS — BUT TIMING IS SOMETHING THAT’S COMPLETELY OUT OF YOUR CONTROL.”

When Masha was selected for the MA Fashion press show, she was actually the first mainland Chinese student who ever made the cut — though funnily enough Louise apparently always said that she was not a Chinese person, but definitely British. “It was said that she loved you enough to hate you — I think that is the best description of the relationship between her and her students. You properly felt like she just hated you — torturing you, ripping you apart, and then putting the pieces back together again, every day. She would call me on my cellphone at like 7:30 in the morning before I went to college and say, “I thought about your design last night and in those pieces you should do more flowery in that, and you should do this and those shoes will be better…” It was that kind of relationship, she was constantly pushing things. Since I grew up practically by myself, I was always alone, I think I had a slightly different character from most of the other Asian students. I was not as fragile. I didn’t take myself so seriously and I didn’t take the things she said so personally. I saw everything as a process of work. There were so many terrible, terrible jokes that she would make which I found hilarious in a very British, dry way; most people couldn’t take it, some people thought it was racist, it was difficult, not right… I just felt it was her way. I’m not saying tough love is a route everyone should take, I’m not saying it was the best way to educate people, but for me it was a unique experience.”

A lot of young designers are now coming back to China from Central Saint Martins, but the question is: what makes Masha Ma as a brand so unique among these young talents? In her own words, it’s because they had a vision a little bit earlier than others. “timing is something you can’t really plan,” she starts, “you can plan to go to CSM; you can plan to become a designer; you can design and plan products — but timing is something that’s completely out of your control. We decided to come back to China with a strong, solid plan rather than just, ‘oh, we’ll come back,’ or because we couldn’t stay in Europe. It was a clear decision, planning what we’d do for the next ten years. The vision is to become a true fashion brand internationally. It should become one of the really successful international fashion brands from China. The next move is a massive retail move — we’re expanding retail in China to open more stores, to sustain ourselves financially so that we’re able to deliver what we’re capable of delivering in the next decade.”

Interview Tian Wei Zhang

Words Jorinde Croese

Portrait courtesy of Business of Fashion