At a moment when many artists are collaborating with fashion houses, it seems worthwhile to speak with a fashion designer with a fine-art background and conceptually oriented projects. Designer Mary Ping is known for both the classic pieces of her signature line and the anthropological investigations of her side project, Slow and Steady Wins the Race.
I BEGAN MY PROJECT Slow and Steady Wins the Race a year after I first produced my signature line. The September 11 attacks had just occurred, right on the cusp of Fashion Week, and like others I began to question the meaning of fashion: Why do we wear it? How is it relevant? What part does it play in our lives, anthropologically, sociologically? The conceptual aspects of fashion I learned from my time in the studio art program at Vassar. Among other things they wouldn’t tolerate were one-liners. What I’ve done, I hope, is to approach each collection in a simplified way—to appeal to a large audience, to be democratic—while still going beyond an initial twist or irony. For example, I’ve kept it seasonless: Everything I made five years ago is still available. I want to break the rule that fashion has to constantly change and that you can’t wear something from two seasons ago.
While preparing Slow and Steady’s third collection, called “The Bag,” I was looking at handbags, and each one looked junkier than the next. They were meant to be no more than status symbols and moneymakers. It was an odd phenomenon: The designs had become driven by those two factors—the idea of creating something really beautiful was dead. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny to strip everything away—the expensive leather, the hardware—and distill a classic bag down to its shape and scale? It would be like a blank canvas.” So, using canvas, I re-created the shapes, sizes, and proportions of the iconic bags I’d chosen. I wanted to pare them down and see what happened.
When artists have collaborated with fashion houses on handbag lines, it’s often about matching fashion and art and using the handbag as a billboard to advertise that pairing. My handbags are more subversive, I hope, but are also special homages that emphasize how iconic these bags have become—because they’re not about the material and not about anything else other than the visual impact that makes certain bags so recognizable. With the bag inspired by Chanel, all you need is the basic fingerprint—the right scale and proportions, and then the quilted fabric and the chain—and many people recognize it.
My newest project is an attempt to make a one-hundred-dollar wedding dress. It is proving to be quite a challenge. Keeping the production cost low is definitely part of it, but also my process involves relentless experimentation and research. I’m exploring the history of the wedding dress and what it signifies—a very emotional exploration, and I want to incorporate that same feeling in the design. But it’s also about upending expectations: The reason a wedding dress costs what it usually does is that it’s supposed to be the “ultimate” dress. The wedding is traditionally the most important day in a woman’s life, and the dress is supposed to be the most glamorous piece of that day. So how would a one-hundred-dollar wedding dress affect that equation? And what associations would it bring to the table? All the while, I’m trying to avoid creating something that automatically screams, “This is just an affordable wedding dress.” It’s not about that. I still want to keep it in within the very specific Slow and Steady aesthetic—a balance of conceptual meaning and beauty; something smart, elegant, and desirable to wear.