Photo: THOMAS MUKOYA/Corbis.
The role of a first lady is crucial: She serves as a diplomat on trips abroad, raises awareness for social causes, and — perhaps inadvertently — makes a big impact with her fashion choices. That Halston pillbox hat? All Jackie O. And, who can think of an impeccably tailored Dior suit without having Carla Bruni-Sarkozy come to mind? Support from a first lady can lead to a designer's success, and perhaps the best example is Jason Wu and what started with that iconic ball gown worn by Michelle Obama at the 2008 inauguration.
So, it makes sense that, in light of the Obamas' recent visit to China, Western media's interest in the country's first lady has surged. Peng Liyuan — a folk singer and performing artist — was a celebrity in her own right well before she married President Xi Jinping. And, she's also a fan of crisp jackets and demure dresses, sporting a wardrobe that has always been well received in her home country. ("Peng Liyuan style" is a hot buzz term on many Chinese search engines.) But, her growing international fame also puts a spotlight on Ma Ke, the woman behind Peng's designs since 2003.
If you're as eager to find out more about this talented designer as we were, an Internet search might disappoint you: Ma Ke's been super discreet about her relationship with the first lady and rarely speaks to Western media, save for an e-mail interview with The Washington Post.
Of course, dressing a president's spouse is hardly the only impressive entry on the 43-year-old Ma's résumé. In 2007, she was the first designer from China invited to show at Paris Fashion Week. Useless, a documentary about her business, has garnered accolades at the Venice Film Festival. And, her pared-down and elegant creations were part of a lineup at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
But, before you rush out in hopes of snatching up a Ma Ke original — just as you may have hustled to J.Crew on the hunt for your very own MObama cardigan — we have some bad news: You can't. None of Ma's collections are available to retailers. In fact, she doesn't even have a store and has not publicly shown her work since 2011. She hardly even acknowledges which outfits are worn by Peng. Basically, she's the best-kept fashion secret that a lady in the spotlight could ask for.
So, perhaps it's cruel punishment, but we'll continue to watch on as Peng dazzles the world in Ma Ke — even if we can't get our hands on the designs...yet.