Profile + Interview of Mary Ping

Some time in 2007, I received an email from my father with a link to Slow and Steady Wins the Race, a project of the designer Mary Ping. I became instantly obsessed with everything. Each collection is an exploration into a different theme, item or term from the lexicon of fashion. The collection Color consisted of layering different brightly colored XL t-shirts over one another that had been cut in various fashions--scoop neck; a slit down the front; side cut-outs. The slits and cuts revealed all the colorful layers, like an Everlasting Gobstopper. The Shirt collection explored the ubiquitous white button down shirt, with a twist. You could now get a classic white shirt with a zipper; snaps; mismatching buttons; a double collar; or detached sleeves that tie together in the front. The Sweats collection also featured a classic grey crew neck sweatshirt with a similar detached sleeve, tied in the front to give the baggy garment a waist. I was so taken by that design feature, that, years later--when I felt I had a better understanding of garment construction--I made a dress for myself with detached sleeves in much the same manner.

It has always been clothes for Mary Ping, but instead of going to design school, she studied sculpture at Vassar, where she used her love of clothing and her sewing skills to create soft sculpture. In 2001, after graduating, she spent one year studying at London College of Fashion. In 2002 she launched her namesake line, and in 2003 she launched Slow and Steady Wins the Race. In 2017, she received Cooper Hewitt’s National Design Award for fashion. And most recently, she was a 2020 USA (United States Artists) Fellow. 

I spoke with Mary Ping recently over Zoom. She was wearing a classic light blue button-up shirt and Junya Watanabe jeans--these pants will make you do a double take, as people often do, because they are only printed to look like denim, instead of being made from denim-- in her New York apartment, where the white wall behind her was littered with hot pink sticky notes.

When Mary Ping was only four years old, she knew she wanted to be a fashion designer. She grew up surrounded by her mother’s issues of Vogue magazine. “It kind of went beyond this whole stereotypical playing with Barbies and they have a fancy dress and they're going to a party. That part is all fun. But, maybe I was just a weird kid, because I was already thinking why do wedding dresses have to be white all the time. And all these questions of why, and how.”

Mary used to go shopping with her grandmother, who would point out how garments were constructed. She would show her that there were better ways of putting a garment together. Mary’s grandmother would point to dresses with a zipper in the back, and show her how that is not always a well thought out decision. That there is this assumption that someone is going to help you get in and out of that dress. Mary’s grandmother taught her how to sew, and how to question a garment.

Harry Roseman, her sculpture professor at Vassar, told her to “ask questions that are smarter than yourself”. That philosophy has stayed with Mary throughout her career. Mary views Slow and Steady Wins the Race as an encyclopedia, or an archive. With each collection, she is making a new entry, asking a new question and tackling a different problem.

The first Slow and Steady Wins the Race collection, or entry in the encyclopedia, Seams, did just that. A seam is where two, or possible more, pieces of fabric are joined together. The seams are on the inside of the garment, holding everything together. Seams go unnoticed, or, we believe that ‘good’ seams go unnoticed. You can judge how well a garment was constructed by looking at the seams. Seams and seam allowances are on the outside of the garments in the Seams collection forcing us to think about how clothes are put together. The Seams collection takes the simplest of garment forms, the seam, and elevates it to a place, where it is on display on the outside of the garment, for all to see the craftsmanship of construction.

The Seams collection elevates the simple seam, and it also elevates a simple fabric, muslin. Muslin is a plain cotton cloth used when making a mockup of a garment. Mary Ping likes what she calls “humble fabrics”. A high quality, unbleached cotton is just as luxurious as silk. The collection Ping is most known for is Bag, where she copied the exact shape and design of well known designer bags out of simple, plain, unbleached cotton canvas. The bags have been “distilled to the sparest details of hardware and shape to identify it with its original.”

Studying sculpture influenced the way she designs and thinks about clothing. Working with a physical object, you have to reason with how it is going to function and how you are going to build it.

That way of thinking is most clearly reflected in Wedding Dress. Ping wanted to create her own version of the white wedding dress, but set some strict parameters to work under. When she first began Slow and Steady Wins the Race, she wanted to keep every garment priced at $100. That poses a huge restriction on the construction of a garment, especially a wedding dress, which is so costly because of all of the labor and the expensive--and excessive-- materials that go into it. Wedding Dress is a minimal white strapless dress. The white shiny fabric is held together with a gold ring at the center of the bust, and drapes and folds out around the body. It makes the simplest of bold statements. 

Mary Ping is fascinated by garments that you cannot place a time or year on. Her favorite garment in her closet possesses that feeling. It is a deep eggplant purple-burgundy cut velvet jacket, with large swirling curling leaves, from her grandmother. The inside is lined with bright tomato red silk and a layer of padding which gives the garment a distinct shape on and off the body. She thinks it was handmade in Shanghai in the 1940’s, although you wouldn’t know that by looking at it.

At Slow and Steady Wins the Race, she explored timelessness and timeliness in the White T-Shirt collection. The basic white t-shirt is one of those timeless garments. You can have one in your closet for 15 years and it always feels relevant. With the White T-Shirt collection, Ping took the shape of the t-shirt, with a small front pocket, and fabricated it out of denim; damask--a figured cloth, most commonly woven with imagery of flora and fauna; corduroy; lace, leather; velvet; and coated linen. The timelessness of the white t-shirt was rendered timely by the use of unconventional fabrics.

Timelessness and timeliness are the two key tensions of Slow and Steady Wins the Race. Timelessness requires a design that feels unable to be placed in the timeline of fashion history. Or a design that transcends the time it was created for/in. Timeliness requires a design that responds to its time. It is very much a product of its time. Mary Ping likes clothes to be anachronistic, which can feel counterintuitive to the desire of timelessness and timeliness.

The output of Slow and Steady Wins the Race designs has always been slow. It has also been limited. When a design is sold out, it is sold out. Shapes might make a comeback in a new material. But there aren’t new items every two weeks. There might be a few new items in one year. Slow and Steady Wins the Race is not presented as a runway show. Mary Ping has created installations of the work, and shown them at MoMA, MoMA PS1, Saatchi & Saatchi, and her own showroom.

Fourteen years after first discovering Slow and Steady Wins the Race, I am still enamored by the clothes. Although I have yet to own a Slow and Steady Wins the Race garment, the ones I am contemplating are the same ones I was obsessed with when I first encountered the brand. But more than the designs, it is the ethos of Mary Ping that I find myself enamored with. I admire the way she participates in the fashion world--on her own terms. She comes at fashion by way of questioning garments, pulling things apart and then putting them back together again in novel ways that make us rethink her original source of inspiration. Slow and Steady Wins the Race offers an alternative model to the fast-paced, over-saturated fashion world. “The intention is to push and produce interesting and significant pieces from the simplest fabrics and materials with a focus on the fundamental characteristics of clothing design while contributing a commentary on the anthropology of fashion.” I had never encountered a slowness and thoughtfulness like Mary Ping’s. It is what makes me return to her work over and over again.