When the designer Guo Pei turned 100 days old, her family dressed her in a special outfit made from one of her grandmother’s old silk qipaos in accordance with Chinese tradition. Guo was born during the Cultural Revolution, when citizens were forced to give up all traces of finery and individuality. Girls didn’t wear dresses, clothing was devoid of colour and silk was something that Guo rarely saw in her younger years. Her baby outfit was the first beautiful garment that she remembers.
“Even when I grew up, I still wanted to take it out and look at it,” said Guo. “But when I was about 10 my mom gifted it to someone. I was so sad for a long time. I still feel sad… I thought that was the most beautiful piece.”
The 50-year-old Guo is visiting Atlanta for her first solo U.S. exhibition opening at the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion and Film. Just one glance at the 40 designs presented in “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond” is enough to floor the viewer with the enormity of her achievement. From a prosaic Beijing childhood spent enraptured by her grandmother’s bedtime stories of the flowers she once sewed on her clothes, Guo has brought to life a riotous world of opulence, colour and beauty — the guiding principle of her work and life — that has led her to become the first Chinese designer invited into the official Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the French governing body for couture.
When Rihanna set off a social media storm after wearing this voluminous yellow gown to the 2015 Met Gala, Guo did not even have an Instagram account yet. Her team promptly fixed that.
Guo was welcomed into the exclusive French institution in honour of the intricate, handcrafted couture pieces that her atelier produces each year, both for the runway and for private clients, many of whom are among the Chinese elite. The designer employs around 500 highly skilled technicians who specialise in the handcrafted arts, including the finest embroidery techniques from the past and the present.
This artistry plays out in every last detail of each of Guo’s designs. Take, for example, her 2010 porcelain gown inspired by blue and white Chinese ceramics, which took 10,000 hours to make and was featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blockbuster exhibition, “China: Through the Looking Glass.” To create the look, her team built up layers, first by drawing patterns directly onto the cloth, then overlaying them with embroidery and finally weaving shiny blue threads throughout to enhance the effect of the colour on the eye. The dress features multiple patterns of embroidery that dovetail into a vibrant whole; each pattern is constructed by a single artisan to keep the design consistent as embroidery is as individual as handwriting, Guo says. Then there is the draping of the silk, which fans out in stiff waves down the right side of the body and around the back in a process of construction that “is more like architecture” and is the hardest form of draping to achieve.
“I think this piece is iconic,” says Guo of the gown inspired by Chinese ceramics. She used broken fragments of blue and white porcelain to make the headpiece.
Every detail of Guo’s work has a meaning and tells a personal or historical story, often both. For her 2012 rose gown, hundreds of pink and red roses — which were crafted by hand and slowly painted to achieve the right colour — cascade down the bodice and skirt of the dress. The technique used to create these roses was almost forgotten during the Cultural Revolution, but Guo heard of a factory in the countryside that had once made them. The man she discovered there said the knowledge had mostly been lost, but he still remembered how to do it and he taught her. The dress is paired with a billowing, floor-length garment that flows over the top and back of the dress and is covered in thick layers of embroidery symbolising “beautiful life and wealth” and inspired by the type of embroidery used in Japanese Noh Opera.
The pieces included in the museum exhibition span both the designs shown on Parisian runways (and, of course, on the Met Gala red carpet, where Rihanna set off a firestorm of memes in Guo’s now-iconic yellow gown), as well as some of her made-to-order work, created for wealthy clients over the past decade. There are two different types of design, according to Guo: one in which you provide a service to other people “to help them realise their dream,” and the other, in which you design for yourself. “As you can see in this exhibit, these are the pieces that I have designed for myself,” she says, eager to share the stories that inspired her to create each of the pieces on display.
A close-up of one of Guo’s intricate designs in the exhibition.
In anyone else’s work, the designer’s often varying qualities may have seemed like contradictions. But Guo smooths them into a harmony that is unmistakable when in her presence. She is soft-spoken while also talkative and eager to share her opinions and experiences. Her life and work is rooted in tradition — evident in a career spent crusading to preserve the Chinese design techniques that were nearly lost — and she is happy to discuss why she designs wedding gowns (marriage “is very important to the whole world and all humans”). But she has also forged a revolutionary path, creating unconventional and fantastical designs using traditional craftsmanship and racking up an impressive list of fashion achievements.
Aside from being the first Chinese designer to debut at Paris Haute Couture, Guo’s Magnificent Gold gown took center stage at “China: Through the Looking Glass,” and the designer was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential people in 2016. Her husband, Jack, jokingly calls her a “perfectionist and dictator” in the office and at home. (She laughs that she couldn’t afford the textile dealer’s fine wares, so she agreed to marry him in exchange for a wedding gift of 50,000 meters of fabric. According to Guo, he still owes her 10,000.) Yet she is nurturing when teaching the next generation of designers, a role she relishes.
The Magnificent Gold gown, inspired by the sun, was the centerpiece of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2015 “China: Through the Looking Glass” exhibition.
At the root of all of her work is a dedication to evoking beauty and emotion that crosses the line into the poetic. (“It looks like it lost its spirit. It fell asleep,” she says of one of her designs that had not been sufficiently ironed and fluffed before it was photographed.) One of her favourite pieces in the exhibit is a knee-length white coat with black fur and feather trim from her first haute couture show. On a cursory look, the piece is less sensational than many of the gowns on display. But it is decorated with complex embroidery executed in gold metal thread that her technicians had to cut and restart after every seven stitches. It took four artisans 20 months to complete, and Guo honoured the amount of labor and technique that went into the garment by sewing her name on the inside with a strand of her hair.
“As a very young designer, I would always have to move myself with emotion before I could do my work,” Guo says. After 30 years in the business, finding inspiration is not her problem, only the time to carry out all of her ideas. “I want my work to be preserved in history and I want it to be remembered for a long time. I want generations from today… to see our thoughts and techniques.”
With ever-growing interest in her work from Western clients and critics, Guo is interested in expanding her business to reach more people. In addition to designing couture for the runway and custom commissions, she is conceptualising a lower-priced line that will still be “particular about the technique and craftsmanship,” while also looking for a store to partner with to sell her collection in New York. After all, according to Guo, fashion just may be the best form of cultural exchange. “I think, in general, everyone is pursuing the same thing,” she says. “Which is beauty.”
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