Alum fashion designer discusses inventive clothing line

When a world-renowned, award-winning fashion designer gives a lecture, it is natural and necessary to look at what she is wearing. Mary Ping did not disappoint as she sat in Taylor Hall on Oct. 30, listening to Professor of Art on the Isabelle Hyman Chair Harry Roseman (Ping’s former senior advisor) introduce her. Ping, who graduated from Vassar in 2000 with a studio arts major, wore a bright blue jacket, a white knit scarf and cat-eye glasses. Her hair was pulled back in a low bun, which nodded intermittently as Roseman recounted her professional history from the podium.

Roseman began his introduction by recalling memories of Ping from her Vassar days. He spoke about her commitment to “making work that was analytical,” which he felt was best captured by her senior project, in which she built a clothing store inside the Palmer Gallery. Ping designed the clothes, but she also designed the layout of the space. Professor Roseman explained that the project was about more than just fashion, stating, “[The project focused on both] design and context—the beginning of [Ping’s] interest in the relationships between objects.”

This interest is still present in Ping’s more recent works. Her lecture led the audience through a number of her collections, starting with “Seams,” which is an exploration of “how clothes are assembled,” through “Luxe,” the project that dove into what makes a luxury good luxury.

Ping discussed her installation in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in 2017, which acted as the museum’s first fashion exhibit in 70 years. Her work in that space seemed to highlight ideas that were evident in her senior project: Ping had set up a sort of staircase, complete with clothes hanging from hangers hooked on to stairs. That same year, her clothing line, “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” (founded in 2002), won the prestigious and highly coveted Cooper Hewitt National Design Award.

For those whose fashion knowledge is somewhat lacking, it may be difficult to discern what makes certain designs “better” than others—how are awards like the Cooper Hewitt, granted based on creativity and style, allocated? What makes one piece of clothing wind up in MoMA while others are resigned to live out their days on the backs of the masses or shoved in overflowing hampers in college dorm rooms? Ping’s work is unique and highly self-reflective in that it seeks to respond to precisely that question.

In the artist’s own words, her interest in fashion largely centers around “the anthropology of fashion.” To understand what this means, one needs only look to the “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” website. There, the company’s manifesto highlights how the clothing line is a conceptual reinvention of everyday clothing. It also reads, “‘Slow and Steady Wins the Race’ asks: What do we wear, why do we wear it, and how can we create new classics that are timely and timeless, unique yet universal? The work is a logical dissection of fashion, an investigation into the basic elements of what we wear, and a considered response to the hyper-consumerist pace of fashion” (slowandsteadywinstherace.com, “Manifesto”).

Ping further elaborated on this conceptuality in her lecture. She explained that the idea behind her company involves amalgamizing the notions that “high design can and should be accessible to all” and that there is an “anthropology, culture, and behavior of fashion” which can be studied by examining how we interact with our clothes.

One way in which “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” embodies these goals is through what Ping calls their “living archive.” Once in production, pieces are never discontinued. This creates a dynamic history of the company’s aesthetic development and alleviates the time pressure that consumers often feel to purchase here and now.

Another example of Ping’s effort to rethink and spread high design is her project “Wedding Dress,” in which she created a $100 wedding dress. The gown is simple and geometric and, of course, available perpetually on the “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” website.

Ping’s lecture focused largely on concrete aspects of reinventing clothing. She flashed pictures of handbags and high heels; napkins and chairs; T-shirts and sunglasses. However, she ended the talk on a much broader note, bringing together the large-scale ideas Professor Roseman had described with the tangibility of her clothes. Ping listed the values of her line: “Utility, integrity, simplicity, curiosity, materiality, care, concept, reliability and longevity.” She described simplicity as the most challenging—how could it not be, with such complex core values as these? And she pinpointed longevity as the most encompassing, as, in Ping’s view, it is “inclusive of all the previous values.”

While the clothing line’s beliefs primarily describe high fashion, they can, should and do certainly extend into the world beyond. Ping’s capacity to understand and project the links between design and anthropology underpins her recognition as a highly acclaimed and visionary fashion designer of our time.

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