Masha Ma has certainly been busy. Following the roll-out of four new doors across Tier-1 cities in September, the local girl has opened Shanghai Fashion Week — a first for an independent designer.
Ma, who graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2008 and quickly launched her namesake company in London, became an early torchbearer for the global acceptance of Chinese designers. Spotted by Martyn Roberts, the founder of showcasing platform Fashion Scout, she became the first of her compatriots to show with him. He was struck by her sophisticated design approach but, even more so, by how she foregrounded her heritage.
“What really stood out to me even back then was that she was very clear that China, and being there, was core to what her brand was about – unlike other Chinese graduates at that time,” Roberts said. Later, as Ma moved to the Paris Fashion Week schedule and consolidated her name from there, she remained focused on building her empire back home through diffusion lines, activations, and experiential retail.
When the pandemic hit, Ma found herself locked down in Australia. But with time to think, she reassessed her priorities as income halted in the first quarter. Then, slowly, the outbreak accelerated business; in April, showroom sales doubled. That season, she stayed on Paris’ digital schedule but with the domestic market ballooning, she has concentrated on her home turf.
Until now, she has avoided its fashion week circuit — not uncommon for homegrown names — but, as she explained, Shanghai is no longer a commercial fashion week. “The government wanted to set the tone to make the fashion week more modern, and this was a precious chance,” she said. “It’s about starting a new wave of China. Eventually, it will be one of the most important fashion weeks, as determined by the market.”
As she debuted Spring 2022 to 800 guests in the iconic Xin Tian Di tent, Jing Daily analyzed her growing dominance in the home market.
Dressing China’s modern women
Since the creation of her brand, Ma has been preoccupied with new ways for women to dress. This season, it’s predominantly about suits and separates, or what she called “a new way of suiting” which debuted at the fashion week’s landmark tent. “I want to give Chinese women the opportunity to dress up,” she explained. “Successful Chinese women are very sharp and strong, but they are also very soft and motherly. So it’s this contrast — almost like soft armor. You wear it to be strong, but then you are protected.”
By using deconstructed draping, Ma’s storytelling reveals the duality that women in Chinese society face. The country is having its own reckoning at the moment with ongoing scandals and the #metoo movement. An empowered workforce are no longer happy with labels like “leftover women.” She herself is present in this duality — not only as a businesswoman and creative but also as a symbol of China’s new globalized generation.
According to Simona Segre Reinach, cultural anthropologist and editor of Fashion in Multiple Chinas, Ma’s position as a global-yet-local designer is an existential condition, of which she was a pioneer. “It is evident that the constant exchange between the creative imagination of the future and the concrete needs of real women in specific places is recognized in her production,” Segre Reinach offered. She continued: “Her clothes reflect the current female condition and are open towards new possibilities and go beyond cultural and geographical boundaries.”
Winning retail expansion on home ground
September 2021’s retail blitz is followed by a standalone boutique, located on the second floor of Shanghai’s Citic Pacific Plaza Mall (Zhongxing Taifu), in the prestigious retail destination Nanjing Road in the Jing‘An District. From December, she joins the likes of Max Mara and Versace on the third floor.
Her multi-brand concept (she stocks between 20 to 30 domestic labels instore) embeds her within the next generation of Guochao names. She’s also taken on a mentorship role by incubating another four brands. With so much talent coming through on the Mainland, Roberts sees this as “a great opportunity to sell a range of brands that compliment your own, but that may not have access to other outlets.” No doubt name-checks on Weibo and Xiaohongshu from one of China’s biggest KOLs, Viya, help to drive awareness.
This steady retail footprint growth, alongside the hometown fashion show, is geared towards a transition: from designer, to a group known as SPMA, which stands for Self Pride Massive Attack. A $40 million investment secured in 2018 attests to that ambition. Still, for Ma who is the artistic force behind the label, it’s about the basics.
“It was never about being a CEO of a group — that was never my starting point,” she said. “But I got through this pandemic and sustained a company and did a lot of commercial stuff to keep things going. So now, I just want to be creative.” Yet, as she concedes herself, this fledgling group is “pressure.” She can clearly handle it.