Model designer fashions her career

Model designer fashions her career
Mary Ma attends a fashion show in Beijing.

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," she says.

Ma, who is also a TV and film actress and an undoubted celebrity in China, was speaking over coffee in Beijing in China Daily's lobby.

The entrepreneur, who is refreshingly down to earth with an endearing dry sense of humour, says 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 laughs.

Hers is the type of China female business success story highlighted in the 2015 Women in Business survey by business advisers Grant Thornton.

It found that about one in three-32 per cent-of business leadership roles in China are held by women, compared to just 16 per cent in Germany and 20 per cent each in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Ma believes some of the success women now enjoy is down to Chairman Mao Zedong's emphasis on the economic role they could play, particularly in agriculture, when New China was established in 1949.

"I think it is closely related to China's development. Before liberation in 1949, women had no power in society at all.

"It was recognised 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 nation's traditional culture.

"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 was not born wealthy and was brought up in Zhoukou in Henan province, with many of her family being farmers, although her father was a teacher.

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.

"I could not recover for the Games since there was only a month to go. The loneliness and sadness as my fellow team members went on to compete has stayed with me forever. I had trained for four years to win a gold medal and had missed the chance. This was my last opportunity and my rowing career was over."

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 before launching her own fashion label in 2002.

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

"I fully realised 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 believed there was a market gap for a Chinese haute couture brand and that increasingly well-off 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."

According to research, women have problems raising finance, with some banks not willing to lend to female-led business ventures.

"Actually I wouldn't say that was true. Prejudice does exist, but not necessarily in the financial sector. I think within banks people are often quite educated and enlightened about these things. I always think that if someone is prejudiced it is just a reflection of their poor educational background."

Apart from business, Ma has established herself as an actress with a leading role in the TV comedy drama Marriage Battle on Chinese TV and in the 2010 movie Love in Cosmo, where she plays an Anna Wintour-esque fashion magazine editor.

"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 co-operate with theatre groups."

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

"During my marriage, I always kept my business separate, so when we got divorced I could be independent. This is the one piece of advice I would give any woman, whatever her marital status, and that is to achieve economic independence."

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