Karen Zhou

Designer’s Choice: A Conversation with Mary Ping

We both remembered the fashion house’s Van Gogh jacket with its exquisite hand-embroidered jewel toned flowers, but it was Mary, who, without a heartbeat, recalled the year, telling the archivist to pull from the 1988 collection.

By Christina Moon
September 24, 2013 |

Mary Ping’s fashions are clever and sharp-witted, humorous, and anthropological from the inside out. Her clothes and designs critique the fashion world through jokes, nuanced readings, and an ever-present playfulness. She’s the quintessential designer’s designer–exposing both the contradictions and creativity of a life lived in clothing.

I was a grad student in anthropology when I first met Mary in 2005. She was on campus at Yale for a talk and I was lucky enough to be tasked with helping arrange her visit. Now, when I’m stumped with a research question, I often consult her encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history and theory. Once on a trip to Paris, we were at the Yves Saint Laurent Archive reminiscing about the Vogue covers that impressed us as teens. The archivist indulged us, pulling out old vintage YSL pieces. We both remembered the fashion house’s Van Gogh jacket with its exquisite hand-embroidered jewel toned flowers, but it was Mary, who, without a heartbeat, recalled the year, telling the archivist to pull from the 1988 collection.

It’s no wonder then that she was recently asked to curate the the Museum of Chinese in America’s Front Row: Chinese American Designers.

The exhibition was recently extended until Dec. 1, 2013. As Herb Tam, Curator and Director of Exhibitions, explained to me on a recent visit: “This exhibit is bringing in people from the community that you wouldn’t normally see at the exhibit, who may have never even realized where the museum was.”

We caught up at the Museum to talk fashion, Manhattan’s Garment District, and the designers highlighted in Front Row.

Who immediately came to mind when you were approached to curate this exhibit?

Well I think people forget that the first wave of Chinese designers were predominantly women and so you have people like Vera Wang, Anna Sui, Yeohlee Teng, Vivienne Tam. The four of them are all very different. They started in the eighties. They’re household names by this point now, but it’s very different than the second wave, the younger generation, which were mostly men. So I thought that was an interesting contrast.

I think that would be a very interesting show on its own, it would be almost like a career survey, a retrospective of all these four women because their styles are so different and their companies are so different. But I think that what we decided on seems like a really nice introduction into a very topical, cultural, phenomenon now.

MOCA’s “Front Row: Chinese American Designers” exhibition has been extended until Dec. 1, 2013.
Photos by Karen Zhou.

How did you end of choosing the designers?

I mean it wasn’t hard. It was just going through the roster of designers who were Chinese-Americans, and who all chose New York to be their base to establish themselves.

Seventh Avenue…were all Russian immigrants, Jewish immigrants, Italian immigrants that started carrying over their trade. Seventh Avenue had these sort of actual factories existing, and the transition into Asian manufacturing started happening.

Why New York instead of Paris?

There’s just more openness here, it’s more conducive.

So…what does that mean for someone who doesn’t know anything about the fashion industry?

Well, I think New York has a long history of accessibility to manufacturing based on this existing industrial demographic of different people taking on the role of manufacturing and establishing businesses for garment manufacturing.

On the sidewalks of the busy Garment District in New York City, 1955. From the World Telegram & Sun Newspaper Collection. Photo by Al Ravenna.

Carts of clothing are transported on the sidewalks of New York City’s busy Garment District. From the World Telegram & Sun Newspaper Collection, 1955. Photo by Al Ravenna.

Seventh Avenue in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, were all Russian immigrants, Jewish immigrants, Italian immigrants that started carrying over their trade. Seventh Avenue had these sort of actual factories existing, and the transition into Asian manufacturing started happening. And, I think maybe this sort of cultural progression from manufacturing to creating happened. So I think that facilitated it. It’s just easier to make a collection here, whereas in Paris, you have a very restricted environment.

How did you end up choosing the particular representative pieces as part of the show?

That was the most fun and also the most challenging part because there are certain practical parameters working around the show. So walking in, we had to get very specific given the number of designers participating and the amount of space. We had to figure out how to amplify that within those parameters. To balance it out, it was one representational work for each designer. In a way, having those limitations helps because it makes the mission focus more. So each designer’s work-selection was chosen to represent the most signature. If it had to be encapsulated in one look, what was the most defining look for a general audience?

Did any of the designers object to your choice?

No, I think what was nice is that for some of the designers, it was a very open dialogue. For example, I’ve been a part of design shows where the curator is very definitive about what they want. I’m always amenable to that. I know some designers have a strict vision, and there’s a clash. I wanted to put forth the option that they were free to contact me if they had any objections, or rather if they have a better of idea of what they wanted represented. It was very fluid.

Do you think at the end of the day this show is suppose to highlight the clothes itself, and the fashions that they’ve created, or the whole other layer of Chinese-American identity?

Well, in keeping with the motivation to draw an audience, the risk that you take in presenting with an academic means you may start to potentially alienate people. That’s a type of show that’s geared towards a university. Also, with that topic [identity], there is only so much you can talk about eventually. For me, the logical stuff was, ‘Why don’t we just start with an introduction?’ And I think by nature of how people navigate through an exhibition, it’s like moments of discovery, so having the interviews was one of my favorite parts.

Did any of the younger designers cite the older ones as people they’ve closely watched?

That could even be a separate show in itself, like the mentors and the predecessors. Aside from the fact that I interned for Anna Sui, and Thomas Chen worked for Yeohlee [Teng] that may be interesting to see if that was like an additional interview question if the younger generation recognized the older generation, consciously or unconsciously, as paving the way for them.

Jade Lai was saying when she moved to LA to New York, things just became easier because of the accessibility to The Garment District, the resources, and the ease of helping one another out.

Do any of the designers talk about the Chinese community’s connection to garment work in some of their interviews?

Jade Lai was saying when she moved to LA to New York, things just became easier because of the accessibility to The Garment District, the resources, and the ease of helping one another out. So she said that in her interview. And when we asked about choosing New York, it was easy for a lot of people to highlight that the garment district is so resourceful to us.

What were your moments of discovery?

I think the fun part is kind of pointing out that everyone comes from a different pathway and just learning about that. Or, we’re learning that so many of the designers are from the West Coast. I think there are certain assumptions, because you’re based in New York, people forget that some of the designers were actually born in China and then immigrated. Or, they were born here and they had a very particular upbringing, or they didn’t study fashion to begin with and they arrived to this place. People forget that Vera Wang didn’t start her company until she was in her 50’s. She had other careers leading up to it. She worked for Vogue, from Vogue she went Ralph Lauren, from Ralph Lauren she started her bridal company based on the fact that she couldn’t find a wedding dress that she liked—she got married later. And, you know, that all comes from a younger beginning of being an Olympic ice-skater. How does that even translate?

And, the Anna Sui aesthetic. She has become her own aesthetic, she developed her own signature aesthetic from when she was a teenager. She grew up in Detroit, she had this deep affinity for music and it’s in like a very American-European culture. So that’s not something you would define as Chinese. She carried her teenage obsessions into her career path.

Christina Moon is an Assistant Professor and Director of the MA Fashion Studies program at Parsons. Her research looks at the social ties and cultural encounters between fashion design worlds and the manufacturing landscapes in Asia and the Americas.

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