Photo by Elizabeth Young
“Have you watched ‘Ugly Betty’?”
Ninety minutes into the interview, designer Mary Ping finally loosens up. Her previously polite and guarded demeanor disappears as the inner girl from Woodside, Queens busts out: “When I first saw pictures of America Ferrera I was like, ‘Omigosh you are sooo beautiful!’” she gushes.
The 28-year-old designer is battling a nasty cold that’s got her slightly out-of-whack—not ideal, she worries, for an interview. The only other time she becomes nearly as expressive is when she describes her two collections: her eponymous ready-to-wear women’s line, and her side project of recreated basics and accessories, called Slow and Steady Wins the Race. “They’re like my babies!” she coos.
Image Courtesy of Artist
The attention Ping pays to her “babies” has won her the 2005 Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation award for young designers. Her detailed craftsmanship and thoughtful designs navigate the fine line between New York street cred and French couture. In a world where flashes of brilliance often lead to flashes in the pan, Ping has maintained her momentum with fresh thinking and meticulous execution.
Ping’s signature collection is a line for the everyday woman who wants to feel comfortable without having to blend in. The clothes are marked by rigid construction that’s tailored to create an elegant yet androgynous silhouette. Soft knits are full of layers and draping, while asymmetrical bottoms create a long and lean line. Ping approaches her designs like an architect, carefully measuring angles and calculating hemlines to a tee. The clothes are at once modern and classic—European hipster chic—and make use of rich palettes, flowing fabrics, and Ping’s art-school background in sculpture.
“My training taught me to consider everything in the round,” she says. “The traditional notion of a zipper and its conventional placement simply as a fastening [in the back] is incongruous with my work. I like to see how I can make the zipper [either] integral or completely anonymous.”
This conceptual approach to fashion helps Ping stand out from her peers. With a strict focus on purpose and function, Ping’s creative process is a refreshing antidote to designers who base collections on jungle motifs and Japanese subcultures. “My designs are inspired by construction and the integrity of the object,” she says. “I want to give them a reason to exist.
“I ask a lot of questions before I create something,” she continues. “Does this material make sense? Is the proportion right? I think about form and how it relates to context and space. My pieces have to be timely and timeless.”
Ping’s creative perspective is something she picked up from her unusual grandmother, who taught her about the importance of integrity in personal style. While other Chinese women in their community wore the traditional cheongsam, Ping’s grandmother donned men’s slacks paired with flowing blouses. While others brought home the daily paper, her grandmother brought back Italian Vogue. Her grandmother’s influence instilled in Ping a love of fashion from an early age. “I told my parents I wanted to be a Paris couturier,” Ping recalls. “I was six.”
Her conservative Chinese parents, not thrilled with the idea of their firstborn daughter going into fashion, pushed her to take history and chemistry; Ping earned a fine art degree from Vassar College instead, while interning for Anna Sui and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
After college she moved to England, taking classes at the Central Saint Martins and interning for experimental designer Robert Cary-Williams. Each experience gave Ping a better understanding of the industry and helped her sharpen her skills, both for making clothes and for making business deals. Soon, she was inspired to try making it on her own.
Her parents had set aside money for Ping to go to graduate school, but she felt it was time to take her education outside the classroom. Ever the negotiator, Ping proposed that she use the money set aside for her education to start up her clothing line instead. She knew that if her fashion instincts were right, she would prove to her family just what a good investment they were making.
The Mary Ping collection debuted in 2001. The entire production was done for less than $7,000; Ping saved money by getting family members to help her sew and knit. She spent months working out of her family home in Queens, taking over entire rooms to use as workspaces. Each piece was handmade and put together after dozens of prototypes. Ping was pleased with the results, but wasn’t sure how others would respond. At the end of the show, she got a standing ovation.
Ping remembers all of it, including how petrified she was. “I hated coming out at the end of the show,” she recalls. “My bow was like 0.2 seconds.”
A few years ago, Ping began work on a side project called Slow and Steady Wins the Race, a limited edition collection that focuses on reinterpreting popular clothing staples. It’s part fashion project and part social experiment.
Using the most basic of materials, Ping produces four collections a year that address a classic staple, whether it be the iconic white T-shirt or designer underwear. Each item is re-imagined in a new way: changing the wash, altering the fit, adding an extra seam here and there. The goal is to challenge people’s accepted views of fashion culture and history.
A past collection reinterpreted designer handbags by using cheap industrial fabric. The result is a line of plain canvas look-alikes. The famous Dior saddlebag becomes a casual tote, retaining the saddlebag shape, but devoid of any logo print. Similarly, a Bottega Veneta bag’s signature weaving is composed of rough canvas instead of leather. “I took the bags and did it in the opposite of what it stood for,” Ping explains. “I was interested in seeing what people’s reactions would be.”
The response was overwhelming. In just days, the bags sold out their limited run. They were featured in magazines and even popped up in an episode of Sex and the City.
“I guess that’s pretty cool,” Ping shrugs, before admitting she hasn’t seen the episode. She doesn’t particularly care about celebrity endorsements, nor is she hung up over fame. In an often brash and loud industry, Ping stands out as someone who lets her work speak for itself.
With late-night parties and countless industry events, it’s almost expected for a young designer to dance—or at least network—the night away. But Ping insists on maintaining her distance. She admits it’s been a struggle. “The industry made me question a lot of things,” she says. “I’ve never been more jaded and cynical and never felt more defeated. But in the end, it’s really about the clothes.”
The phone rings but Ping lets it go to voicemail. There is an awkward silence for a moment as she waits to see if the person will call back. It’s just enough time to notice the hint of worry that’s crept into Ping’s eyes. She’ll be leaving for Paris soon to show her Fall collection, and there’s still much to do. Stacks of folders and papers line her worktable; a rack of garment bags teeters in the corner, looking ready to collapse.
“Those are for my collection,” she explains, finally breaking the silence. Titled “Night Soldier,” the collection is based on the idea of a strong woman passing through the darkest hours. Ping explains that the inspiration came not from a particular object or moment, but rather from trying to understand the fleeting nature of fashion. “That’s the nature of the beast,” she says. “[You’re] always looking for something exciting, but I also always fear that one day I won’t be exciting anymore.”
It’s something that’s clearly been bothering Ping. But instead of keeping it pent up, she’s decided to translate her feelings into the collection—a line of mix-and-match wearables with navy and camel hues for depth, and plush mohair and velvet for texture. The aesthetic is strong and tactile, while maintaining a level of warmth and sophistication.
It’s an ambitious collection, one that was designed with Paris in mind. Ping has showed almost a dozen times in New York and says she wanted to bring her clothing to a different audience. “New York was getting too schmoozy,” she says. “Parisians are more relaxed, and fashion is definitely the focus there.”
As she talks, Ping seems to warm up a bit, and the twinkle in her eye that appeared when she was discussing “Ugly Betty” returns at the mention of Paris. The stacks of unfinished garments by her side now seem like labors of love, as opposed to daunting challenges. The cold she’s been fighting is a small price to pay for winning the larger battle of industry respect. Indeed, the years of hard work will all be worth it, if it means finally showing in the fashion capital of the world.
Two days after being interviewed, Ping e-mails Theme, asking to recant testimony made under the haze of illness: “I was wondering if I could change my ‘Ugly Betty’ obsession to [a different show I like],” she says. “‘Ugly Betty’ is a bit predictable for a fashion designer.”
With a critically praised signature line and a side project that’s the envy of hipsters and socialites alike, Mary Ping is anything but predictable. And the show she wants to switch to?
“‘24’” she says.
Paris in three weeks, work to be done. The clock is ticking.