A few years back, Hailun Ma found herself six and a half thousand miles from home, having swapped life in the mountainous Chinese province of Xinjiang to study fashion photography in New York City,
It was in New York that the very idea of what, precisely, “high fashion” meant to her became confused. It was a world unlike anything she’d known at home, and yet, back home, she remembers “everyone having an amazing style.”
“Growing up, I was fascinated with how colourful and vibrant the Uyghur traditional clothing was”, Hailun tells It’s Nice That. “How they mixed and matched their outfits and how they understood trends and styles”. Nostalgic for her childhood and longing to show the world where she came from, Hailun journeyed back to Xinjiang. There, she met with old friends and strangers, “who invited me into their house for tea and a conversation”. The journey enabled her to re-establish a connection with fashion. The results are sublime.
Hailun has always been fascinated by fancy dress; as a child she used to set a camera on timer and act out in front of it, pretending to be different characters. These images are a return to those memories; we see children wearing layered garments, piles and piles of fabric and patterns as if they’d just been let loose on their mum’s wardrobe. As we gaze at the images, we return to those playful childhood days where we rampaged through the toybox.
The photographs are colourful, unrestrained and bright, similar to the setting. “Xinjiang is such a colourful place with lots of beautiful nature”, Hailun tells us. “You know when you walk into a sunny day, everything just seems so colourful, and that’s how I felt every day when I grew up”.
Not only do the models wear beautiful, vibrant outfits but they are also paired with amazing backgrounds; floral wallpaper is pasted on the walls behind them, and luscious rugs are spread out under their feet; rich reds and pinks, pops and bursts of green and yellow litter the photographs. Though we are aware that she’s returned to a place of less material wealth, far removed from the hedonism and materialism of New York, the location appears opulent in its own spectacular way, highlighting how our opinions about these places can often be misguided. You don’t need to be wealthy to have style.
The fashion editorial combines designer clothes similar to those the models would actually wear, with the model’s own outfits. Hailun believes fashion can give people a sense of power; it defines who you are. “It can tell you a lot about a person and a culture without using one word”, the photographer explains, and this is is exactly what this series does. The beauty and depth of the Uyghur and Kazakh people is spoken through their illustrious and startling garments.
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