Ming Ma’s mood board, which he shared over Zoom, ping-ponged among varied references—New Romantics! Baroque! Tartans! Poufs!—that aren’t all that evident in his spring collection. For the most part the designer used his tear sheets as a jumping off point. The specifics aren’t what’s important here, what is is that Ma was drawn towards the 1980s, a turbulent, and analog, decade in which the designer sees parallels to today. “People were feeling quite depressed about the government at that time, and I think that is related to the present. We have COVID happening and we have war happening… I think we have lost something and we are in a waiting period.”
Lockdowns in Shanghai meant that Ma, and many others, lost the opportunity to show on the runway this season. That’s a temporary inconvenience; more significant for many young talents like Ma, who are drawn to the more glamorous and dress-up aspects of fashion, is how to temper their work not only to the market, where idealism is replaced by the bottom line, but to customers who increasingly want, or need, clothes for more casual, and sometimes constricted, lifestyles.
It’s easy to see how the individualistic and escapist antics of the New Romantics would appeal to Ma, who in his collection notes wrote about combining “the concept of self-liberation with the idea of a multicultural collage.” As someone who loves drape and color, the designer also found himself drawn to the 18th century (seemingly through the ’80s work of Christian Lacroix). A pink pouf skirt trimmed with black bows and paired with a digital-printed sequin top was a party in itself, as was a pink bow top paired with a slithery skirt like something from a Boldini portrait. Subtler volumes showed up in dresses that lacked the nerve and joie de vivre of the showpieces. The tailoring, which carried a whiff of Westwood about it, was another story. Shrunken jackets paired with long straight skirts had an unexpected dowdiness that’s just right.
No matter how much we want COVID to disappear, it’s hanging on, and affecting our social interactions. Like many designers, Ma is trying to figure out how to translate the sparkle of his bold occasion looks into more everyday clothes. “I don’t want to be devoured by the market or want to compromise [to it],” he said, “but I think you have to sort of adapt to what’s happening now.” Yes and no. Mirroring the world, the industry as a whole is out of balance, but recalibration won’t be achieved by reacting to what’s in front of us. We need to change from the ground up if we don’t want to be “waking up with the house on fire”—unless it’s to Culture Club’s 1984 album of that name.