La créatrice Masha Ma à la Paris Fashion Week

Masha marvellous

Chinese designer Masha Ma at Paris Fashion Week

Born in Beijing 30 years ago, Masha Ma studied fashion at Central Saint Martins and apprenticed for Alexander McQueen before creating her own internationally acclaimed brand. K caught up with her just after she flew in from Shanghai to show her label, recently renamed Mashama, for Paris Fashion Week.

You were born in Beijing, trained in London, and now split your time between Shanghai and Paris. How has each of these places shaped who you are?

I don’t really have this nostalgia thing, that feeling I have to belong where I was born. China is a memory of childhood with my family. I lived in London for more than a decade—it’s everything that taught me how to design, and trained and formed me. And I think Paris is probably the best place to be in the sense of how and where I should present myself.

La créatrice Masha Ma à la Paris Fashion Week

Since your debut you have received positive response from critics and buyers. How do you explain this enthusiasm from both West and East?

I have to admit I was very lucky. There are so many talented people out there, and it’s always about doing the right thing at the right time. I was the first designer from [mainland] China to be selected for the Central Saint Martins MA Fashion press show, so that gained a lot of attention from China. And in Europe I think they see me as London-based, so they feel more connected to my work than to someone born and trained in China.

How would you describe your designs?

That’s an interesting question because this season for the spring-summer collection we decided to take branding a step ahead. We still kept the essence of the design, but I want to find a language so that people will be more connected, and relevant to the modern day. We used to say the Mashama woman is someone that is never shouting for attention, but never silenced. I think she’s still there, definitely. But fashion is changing, opening, and I want people to feel she is someone they can relate to more. Not just someone on the catwalk.

How does it make you feel to be a Chinese designer on the official Paris Fashion Week schedule?

People have been guessing that it must be like for the Japanese in the 80s, now it happened in China, or it’s the right time for China to prove they have creativity. The true story: I was in London, then I realised that I don’t see my woman in Shoreditch, I see her in Paris at a café having a cigarette and coffee, in my skirt and jacket - everybody’s in black, you know. So I just decided, let’s have a try in Paris. Then we started a PR office.

People have been guessing that it must be like for the Japanese in the 80s, now it happened in China.

One day somebody from the Fédération Française de la Couture walked into the office - I was not even there - she saw the collection, she dialled my phone and asked me, “We would like to offer you our calendar to show your collection; we liked it.” As simple as that. There was nothing else, like, I’m going to prove China made it or anything like that. It was purely just the work.

How did you feel when she called you?

To be honest, I thought she dialled the wrong number. I was like “Who?” because I’ve never seen the Federation, never been to their events or had contact with them. And you know, there are people waiting to go on the calendar for years. So she explained to me what she wanted, and that was in December or January [2012], which was two months before the show. And I was doing a collection, but I wasn’t really planning to show on Paris Fashion Week, which is one of the most prestigious scenes. People were telling me: “You’re not ready”, “You have to be careful”. I didn’t listen, I just did it. And now if you ask me, do you think you were ready, I’ll tell you, definitely I was not ready at all. Not even close. But hey, are you ever ready for anything in life?

Why did you decide to return to live in China?

After the MA press show, people began pressing so much from China, wanting the collection, shoots, and it became very cost-efficient to have an office there. So we started with a tiny office. Then there were clients coming over who wanted to buy the whole collection. So by the time they offered Paris Fashion Week I had three people in the office in China, and things just started rolling. Now we have a 550m2 studio in Shanghai with 45 people, and in the last eight months we opened 10 stand-alone stores in 10 cities in China. My plan is to have Mashama in Paris and MA by MA [a younger line] in China. And we’re aiming to build 80 to 100 stores, then we’re probably going to expand into Asia or America.

La créatrice Masha Ma à la Paris Fashion Week

Is it difficult to compete with global luxury brands in China?

Yeah, the competition is always going to be there. But I think the most important thing is to focus on the work and do it better. China has a very different sales system, and they don’t really have buyers for department stores. It is kind of a floor manager who decides. And somehow, luckily, those people got bored of monograms, big labels. And also a new generation, the generation born with Internet, they absorb information so differently, and they want a different product. So at the end of the day I think it was very lucky that we got space in the department store to have our own boutique, which was never possible before. And this generation is financially independent, and things are going well.

What inspired you to become a fashion designer in the first place?

I was very young, I started in fine art, I won a lot of awards. My family always assumed I was going to be a painter. Me, deep inside, I love art, I’m still drawing all the time. But I felt I wanted a physical connection towards what I do, literally. And I was reading this article about Alexander McQueen. And I was completely shocked about how fashion could be. It was not like what I was seeing in China on the street. When I saw McQueen something stopped me, and I felt like I want to do that. So that was the moment I decided to start sketching fashion. And then I got accepted by five different colleges, and it seemed obvious, Saint Martins was my choice.

When I saw McQueen something stopped me, and I felt like I want to do that.

As an accomplished entrepreneur and fashion designer from China, what advice would you give to a young woman today who is looking to succeed?

If she’s trying to do fashion, I would suggest her don’t do it [laughs]; think twice – because it’s really not as we imagine. I’m kidding. But once you decide, you really decide, then don’t turn back. You should be brave enough to chase your dream. In China, people think there’s no culture anymore, we lost it after 5,000 years of this dragon and phoenix thing, but I really don’t agree with that. It’s chaos, but chaos is a kind of culture. There’s such a raw energy there that I don’t find anywhere else in the world.