Slow and Steady Wins the Race designer Mary Ping’s latest consultancy project is turning into more of an ongoing alliance.
The New York-based designer is continuing with her own label and design studio, but is also moonlighting for Ro Bags. In doing so, she aims to share her sustainability practices on a larger scale.
During a social breakfast with out-of-town friends in January 2020, the designer met Ro Bags’ owner Duncan Miao, who happened to have some prototypes with her. In October 2020, he reached out to see how Ping was doing and to inquire if she might help reboot the Ro brand that his brother Gene, an architect and Rhode Island School of Design graduate, had started in 1999. After giving it some thought, she agreed, provided a value system and other quality standards would be put in place.
Unlike her previous consulting or ghost designing projects, this is the first creative collaboration where Ping and her team are more front-facing and are strategizing on all aspects of the rebranding. In the past, the Slow and Steady Wins the Race founder has preferred to stay behind-the-scenes. The New York-based designer is a past recipient of the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s National Design Award for Fashion.
Her Slow and Steady Wins the Race studio remains active and a book exploring the creative unknown of the past 22 months has been developed, rather than a fashion week presentation. She is also working on an extension of Slow and Steady Wins the Race focused on sustainability. During a recent meeting on the project, the small team that has been assembled “all agreed that there is so much knowledge out there that can be vetted and shared, but what’s the actual bridge to the application in real life — in activating it.” she said. “It’s hard to wrap your head around feeling like you’re making real change happen, if it’s just a blog or an Instagram post.”
As a designer, she is more inclined to make something that embodies these sustainable practices. To that end, the collection she has created with Ro Bags is fully upcycled using only surplus or excess materials. “I have always thought that you can be really smart about designing with certain materials without it having to look like this sort of aesthetic of patchwork and homemade,” said Ping, emphasizing that things can always be artfully arranged and even camouflaged to create a decorative pattern. “At the end of the day, the bag should just look like a really cool bag.”
Her intention is to offer the new owner something that is very livable. “It has to interact with your life and it’s something that you know you can purchase knowing that you are not doing anything harmful [to the environment]. And hopefully the design has longevity so you wind up wanting to keep it and use every single day,” she said.
Describing herself as “totally the pickiest customer” about bags, the designer said she gets frustrated if she feels that she is wasting a lot of time searching for lost things inside her handbags. “I wind up probably spending more time figuring out if the inside is just as easy to navigate as much as if the outside is attractive.”
By working with Ro Bags, which is owned by a large handbag manufacturer based in Hong Kong, Ping can potentially share her upcycled practices and proof of concept with a wider audience. “My studio is really small and has a cult respectability from a small audience. I really keep thinking about how I can share those ideas more broadly or even just the applications. These days you can share an idea really quickly on social media, but does it really affect change if it is not applied in the best possible way?” she said. “I knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight. But that was my philosophy doing a project like this.”
Ping’s approach to design starts with a lot of reading and writing. “I have images in my head, but I also have to write down words to frame what I want to do.” Ping said. “When I looked up ro in the dictionary, it said it’s a new language that defies classification of ideas.”
Select styles are available for immediate delivery on Ro Bag’s website, but the majority will be released next year, and the offerings will retail from $250 to $540.