Athlete, model, actress, designer and now boss
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. com.cn