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On Fashion: China’s First Lady Has Elusive Fashion Designer

Beijing — Jacqueline Kennedy had dressmaker Oleg Cassini. Michelle Obama has Jason Wu and a whole coterie of up-and-coming designers.

China’s new first lady, Peng Liyuan? She has Ma Ke.

For years, Ma has been one of China’s most successful and cutting-edge fashion designers, but also one of its most reclusive. She has served as a personal designer for Peng since 2003 — a time when Peng, a singer, was far more famous in China than her husband, Xi Jinping, who was then just a provincial party head who would later become president.

Ma is said to have been responsible for several of Peng’s ensembles during her first state visits abroad during the past year — fashion events that set the Internet in China ablaze and established Peng as a fashion icon. Among the outfits widely attributed to Ma: a sophisticated-but-business-like black, double-breasted belted coat and handbag; and a white silk, Mandarin collared suit with a scarf adding a splash of turquoise color.

The fashionable looks were cited by Vanity Fair, which added Peng to its “International Best-Dressed” list, even as the magazine gave Michelle Obama the snub.

In a rare interview with Western media, the reclusive designer declined to identify or talk about specific outfits she has made for Peng, calling it “a sensitive topic” in an email from her assistant, but she confirmed that she has tailored for Peng.

Ma refused to meet in person or even to send a picture of herself, but agreed to answer written questions by email.

The reticence is in many ways understandable. For decades, coverage of China’s Communist Party leaders has been tightly controlled and their families considered off-limits for media. But the reluctance of Peng’s designer to step into the limelight seems to go beyond the usual caution of censors.

In one of her only in-depth interviews last year with a state-controlled newspaper, Ma played down the curiosity about her as Peng’s designer.

As she put it, “If you eat a tasty egg, why would you want to see the hen?”

Ma’s design career began with a ready-to-wear label Exception de MixMind, which she launched with Mao Jihong, then her husband, in 1996. Mao handled the business side, while Ma focused on design. Their aesthetic combined small touches of traditional Chinese elements with modern style. And they built it into one of China’s premier high-fashion brands.

Ma and Peng first met after a concert by Peng in the southern city of Guangzhou, where Ma is based. A reporter interviewing Peng at the time mentioned that she knew Ma. According to Ma, Peng had been wearing Ma’s clothes for years and requested an introduction.

In an email interview, Ma described Peng’s current style as “neat, simple, elegant but with a strong presence.” But she insisted that Peng isn’t as concerned with presenting a “first lady” style as she is with presenting an image of a modern Chinese woman who is “independent minded, affectionate and full of strength.”

In recent years, Ma and her husband have divorced. While her husband continues running the lucrative Exception brand, Ma split off in 2006 to found one of China’s few experimental haute-couture boutiques.

At her new studio, everything is handmade. She uses natural materials and natural dye. She sticks to neutral, earthy colors. Her workers employ traditional clothing manufacturing techniques — spinning, weaving and even working on looms. The resulting clothes appear simple, with a softly rough-hewn look.

“Massive industrial products have squeezed the craftsmanship to the edge of existence,” she explained. “If we cannot find feelings and spiritual values in the material, to me, it is ‘dead material.’ ”

When Ma talks about her work these days, she sounds more like a philosopher than a fashion designer.

“What attracts me most is traveling to the remote mountainous areas of China, where farmers still live the traditional lifestyle, getting up at sunrise, sleeping after sundown,” she said. “Their lives are almost insulated from fashion, they own just a few piece of old clothes that they keep sewing up and wearing. The clothes passed down by their ancestors are valued as family heirlooms, every piece of old clothing has a story.”

Her goal, Ma says, is not luxury but suitability. She named her studio Wuyong, which means “useless” in Chinese.

The name, she explains, comes from wanting to make things that may be perceived by the wider society as utterly useless useful once more.

“Spending days in the countryside has made me feel like I found my root and core essence as a human being,” she said. “These are things which will never change deep inside people’s heart, no matter to what degree the science, technology and economy have been developed.”

The stark natural aesthetic has won her sparks of recognition abroad.

When Ma was invited to show at Paris Fashion Week in 2007, she shocked the crowd by having her models (smeared in mud colors) stand on pedestals instead of strutting down a catwalk. The audience, instead, was invited to walk around the models.

Elle Magazine called the show “brilliant” and “a highlight of the season.”

With Michelle Obama’s visit and the international scrutiny it brings, no one knows whether Peng will turn to Ma’s designs again for the occasion — not even Ma.

Through an assistant, Ma explained that her studio provides Peng with many design options but doesn’t know which ones Peng will wear or when.

As with all designers, she said, the final call always belongs to the client.

Liu Liu and Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.