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On Set | Mary Ping

By Mitchell Kuga

As a kid growing up in New York City, the fashion designer Mary Ping loved origami. But instead of making cranes or flowers, she preferred to transform the sheets of printed paper into utilitarian objects, like boxes. “There was something about the ingenuity of a flat object being folded up to be 3-D in order to hold something,” says Ping, 41. One day, inspired by Angus MacGyver, the resourceful secret agent and titular character of the 1980s television series — “He was always finding solutions with little more than chewing gum and a toothpick,” says Ping — she folded a paper tea set for her dolls. “My mom was so annoyed,” she says of the water-soaked mess that ensued. Another creation that stands out in Ping’s mind is a paper boat she made, and that her father, who’d trained as a mechanical engineer, improved upon with side panels made from leftover paper — suddenly, the ordinary canoe was a catamaran. “It even had a canopy,” Ping recalls. “I was like, Oh my god. That probably informed a lot of how my brain works.”

That clever, utilitarian approach is today reflected in Ping’s clothing line, which consists of basics with an elevated twist, from squishy triple-strap slides to patent leather bodega-style bags to sweaters with playfully detached sleeves. But the deconstructed garments also reveal another side of Ping — the anthropological one driving her to muse on the origins and evolution of aesthetic norms. She’s the sort to stop midsentence to wonder about the “social conditioning” behind red-carpet fashion, say, or why jeans are the colour blue, questions that inevitably get at the counterfactual. “If time had turned a different way,” she says, “we might be wearing green jeans.” Indeed, time, and the importance of savouring it, is a central part of her worldview and business plan: Tacked on her bedroom wall is a quote by the 20th-century American ceramist Otto Heino that reads, “Never hurry, never worry.” She founded her label, Slow and Steady Wins the Race, in 2002, and became the youngest designer with a line stocked at the downtown Manhattan boutique Opening Ceremony that same year. But Ping never adhered to the fashion calendar, with its insistence on a ceaseless-seeming output of the new.

Instead, she considers her line a living archive, keeping garments from past seasons available and eschewing trends in her designs. “Your daughter could wear this and your grandma could wear this,” says Ping, who releases her collections, with names and contents focusing on a specific sartorial genre (“Evening” or “Rainwear”) or detail (“Pockets” or “Seams”), whenever she feels that she’s followed a conceptual question to its natural end, and no sooner. For her “Bag” collection, which debuted in 2003, Ping took the recognisable forms of other brands’ “it” bags — Chanel’s quilted chain bag, Hermès’s Birkin — and reimagined them with cotton and canvas twill. She describes her pieces, some of which were slated to be featured in “Bags: Inside Out,” an exhibition meant to have opened this month at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, as “a design exercise” in transforming status symbols into lo-fi objects. More recently, she’s been toying with the idea of an art piece that would explore an exploded view of a bag’s interior — she imagines the creation as a flat hanging sculpture with exposed pockets, zippers and compartments resembling a topological map that might, in turn, represent the important role bags play in the geographical diaspora. In January, Ping’s intellectual, genre-melding work earned her a 2020 Architecture and Design fellowship from the national arts organisation United States Artists.

But while Ping likes to take the long road, she’s just as adept at thinking on her feet. For our “Make T Something” video series — which challenges participants to create an object in less than one hour, using a copy of The New York Times, some basic craft supplies and one additional item of their choosing — she came up with the Mobius Fold bag, named after the Möbius strip, or a one-sided object with no boundaries. Using a sheet of newsprint that she doubled for strength, Ping first folded and then reinforced the bag’s base with metallic tape, her wild-card pick. She then returned to one of her earliest design lessons, utilising the extra newspaper pages for a twisted shoulder strap. “So everything is continuous and nothing wasted,” Ping says. “Which is always the intention of origami in a way.”