Ath­lete, model, actress, designer and now boss

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -


Lead­ing fash­ion designer Mary Ma in­sists she has achieved suc­cess in spite of, and not, be­cause she is a beau­ti­ful woman.

The 40- year- old for­mer su­per­model and now chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Maryma Haute Cou­ture be­lieves her looks had the po­ten­tial to hold back her ca­reer.

“I think there is this prej­u­dice in China — pos­si­bly else­where too — that beau­ti­ful women have no in­sights into any­thing or in­tel­li­gence but have only their ap­pear­ance go­ing for them. This was a prob­lem when I first started in busi­ness.”

The en­tre­pre­neur, also a TV and film actress and an un­doubted celebrity in China, said she also had a fur­ther hand­i­cap. “I had an­other prob­lem not re­lated to be­ing a woman. I was a for­mer ath­lete and peo­ple think sports peo­ple have no pro­found thoughts ei­ther. So there were two things go­ing against me,” she laughed.

Ma be­lieves some of the suc­cess women now en­joy is down to Chair­man Mao’s em­pha­sis on the eco­nomic role they could play, par­tic­u­larly in agri­cul­ture, when the coun­try was lib­er­ated in 1949.

“It was rec­og­nized in the early years of New China what sort of role they could play. I think this led to the emer­gence of more pow­er­ful women, the greater op­por­tu­ni­ties there are now and the large num­ber of women step­ping into the spot­light.”

But de­spite this, Ma feels women of­ten face an up­hill battle be­cause of the tra­di­tional cul­ture that pre­ceded any­thing Mao tried to im­pose.

“There has been un­equal sta­tus be­tween men and women in China for thou­sands of years, so it is not some­thing that is eas­ily changed even in 70 years.

“When I was a lit­tle kid at school, I was al­ways won­der­ing why girls couldn’t do what boys did. At the time, I had no idea of what so­ci­ety or the world was like. I think this still trou­bles me, and it is some­thing that in­forms my fem­i­nism.”

Ma, whose Chi­nese name is Ma Yanli, was not born wealthy and was brought up in Zhou-kou in He­nan prov­ince.

She stood out as an ath­lete and was on course to be­com­ing a na­tional cham­pion rower on the verge of com­pet­ing in the Na­tional Games when she se­ri­ously in­jured her back in a boat crash.

Soon af­ter­ward, while shop­ping in Shang­hai, the stat­uesque 1.78-me­ter-tall Ma was spot­ted by some­one look­ing for mod­el­ing tal­ent.

She was en­tered into the Shang­hai In­ter­na­tional Mod­el­ing Com­pe­ti­tion in 1995 and won, which paved the way for a suc­cess­ful ca­reer in mod­el­ing.

Of­ten re­ferred to as China’s Cindy Craw­ford, she was the coun­try’s first su­per­model.

This led to her also be­ing the face of nu­mer­ous high-pro­file tele­vi­sion ad cam­paigns.

Ma was determined to build a new ca­reer and stud­ied de­sign at Donghua Uni­ver­sity in Shang­hai be­fore launch­ing her own fash­ion la­bel in 2002.

She now em­ploys 20 in Bei­jing and has a num­ber of in­ter­na­tion­ally known cus­tomers, in­clud­ing for­mer Eng­land soc­cer star David Beckham and many big Chi­nese names.

“I fully re­al­ized that be­ing a model was not go­ing to be a life­time ca­reer. I also felt I needed a new chal­lenge.

“I al­ways had a love of fash­ion. I didn’t come from a wealthy fam­ily so had few op­por­tu­ni­ties to wear beau­ti­ful clothes like other girls. Be­ing a model en­abled me to wear beau­ti­ful clothes and now I can de­sign them.”

Ma be­lieves there was a mar­ket gap for a Chi­nese haute cou­ture brand and that in­creas­ingly wealthy Chi­nese wanted some­thing that more re­flected their own cul­ture and not just luxury West­ern la­bels.

“I al­ways felt there was a need for a fash­ion la­bel to re­flect China’s 5,000 years of his­tory and cul­ture. I think my clients feel the same. They want their own dress style. They are not blindly ob­sessed with fa­mous brands any­more. In fact, I don’t see those brands as my com­peti­tors any­more.”

Apart from busi­ness, Ma has es­tab­lished her­self as an actress. “De­spite run­ning the busi­ness, I have a real de­sire and crav­ing to act. There is also a busi­ness as­pect to it in that my com­pany gets to co­op­er­ate with theater groups.”

The for­mer su­per­model, who went through a high­pro­file di­vorce, be­lieves it is im­por­tant that women strive to es­tab­lish their own eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence whether in a re­la­tion­ship or not.

She is also un­com­fort­able with the stereo­type that women have to be ruth­less and drive them­selves hard to achieve suc­cess in a male­dom­i­nated busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment. “I think women should just learn to love them­selves, pre­serve their phys­i­cal and men­tal health and not push them­selves too hard in the busi­ness arena. You don’t have to be­have like a man to suc­ceed. It is im­por­tant to achieve bal­ance and to have spare time for your fam­ily, no mat­ter how busy you are. Fam­ily af­fec­tion is ir­re­place­able.”

Ma in­sists there has never been a bet­ter time in China for women to make an im­pact on busi­ness with the econ­omy mov­ing away from man­u­fac­tur­ing and heavy in­dus­try to more fe­male-friendly ser­vice in­dus­tries.

“I think it is a good time for women to ex­plore their po­ten­tial. Since the 1990s, women have started to be­come more in­de­pen­dent in China and they have be­gun to chal­lenge tra­di­tions.” Con­tact the writ­ers at an­drew­moody@chi­nadaily.

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