Guo Pei: Couture Beyond is the first Canadian exhibition devoted to the work of Guo Pei, China’s preeminent couturière. This mid-career survey features more than forty complete looks from Guo Pei’s most iconic runways from 2006 to 2017.
In her theatrical, extravagant creations, Guo Pei combines contemporary aesthetics, production methods and materials with ancient tradition, evoking Chinese history and mythology in her craft techniques, fabric selection and imagery. The exhibition provides a comprehensive overview of her evolution as a designer as well as her contribution to global fashion culture.
Organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery, an initiative of the Institute of Asian Art, in collaboration with SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film and curated by Diana Freundl, Associate Curator, Asian Art and Stephanie Rebick, Associate Curator
In her fantastical, unrestrained creations, Guo Pei imbues contemporary high fashion with ancient tradition, invoking history and mythology through intricate craftsmanship, opulent embroidery and sumptuous detail.
For more than 20 years, Guo Pei, China’s most renowned couturière, has dressed celebrities, distinguished ladies, royalty and political elite. Long heralded as a modern messenger of the country’s rich cultural heritage, Guo Pei made her Paris Fashion Week debut in January 2016 to wide critical acclaim.
She has also been named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” and one of The Business of Fashion’s 500 “People Shaping the Global Fashion Industry.” Her work has been covered in major international news and fashion media outlets, including Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily, The Sunday Times, Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times, CNN and Forbes.
“I am like an author with my clothes; I like to tell a romantic story, a fairy tale.” (Guo Pei)
When Guo Pei was a child, she wore the neutral-colored, unadorned garments typically worn during China’s Cultural Revolution. By contrast, her grandmother came of age when fashions were defined by the ornate styles of China’s last imperial dynasty. At
night, she enchanted Guo with stories of silken gowns brilliantly embroidered with dragons, lush flowers and fluttering butterflies indicating a past of fairy-tale proportions.
The influence of these stories is evident throughout Guo’s work. Fashion and storytelling share a capacity for expressing role and character. In Cinderella, one of the earliest versions of which comes from 9th-century China, a fashion makeover reveals the heroine’s intrinsic beauty and goodness. Her glittering ballroom entrance is a red-carpet moment of delight, wonder and enduring fascination. In the same way, Guo captivates us with collections that transcend the ordinary through fanciful creations that are steep in the fairy-tale images of her grandmother’s narrative.
“Blue and Porcelain” is one of the signature works to come out of Rose Studio. Popularly known as the Ming vase gown, this garment alludes to China’s historical distinction as a maker of fine porcelains, reaching a pinnacle of refinement during the Ming Dynasty. The closely guarded secret to their manufacture was kaolin, a local white clay fired at very high temperatures. Cobalt blue was the only pigment that retained its brilliant hue
under the rigorous heat. The universal appeal of blue and white “china,” as it came to be known, endures to this day. The Ming Dynasty also saw the folding fan’s popular ascent as a must-have accessory. Guo’s innovative design recalls the era through fan-like pleats and crescentshaped contours.
The peony at the center of the gown’s bodice symbolizes richness and beauty, a fitting allusion for this ornately embroidered garment. When Guo first made her elaborately embellished gowns, traditional Chinese embroidery had rarely been practiced for a generation, and was nearly a lost art. Through diligent searches, she located and
employed a small number of skilled craftspersons and trained others. Today, Guo employs 450 artisans. Their handcrafted accomplishments combine ancient traditions with new levels of precision made possible by modern tools and materials.
The gown’s train features lotus blossoms. Because it rises pristinely above muddy waters, the lotus denotes purity of mind and spirit. Its surrounding border is composed of small repeating triangular motifs called ruyi. These motifs represent the head of a scepter,
which symbolizes the power to grant wishes. Below the ruyi is a decorative, floral pattern, followed by a depiction of mountains and waves, a combination that symbolizes the whole world. This pattern was commonly used on the hems of royal court robes. The s-shaped border along the outer edges of the gown has a design that can be found in ancient civilizations around the world from the Aztec and Mayan cultures to the Egyptians and ancient Greeks. Widely recognized as the meander pattern, in China it is known as “cloud and thunder,” representing rain and abundance.
“I believe that design can never be too far away from the past; designers should learn about the past to inform their own designs and become a part of history themselves.” (Guo Pei)
“Back then, embroidery was rare — especially on clothing. I remember seeing some embroidered pieces of cloth torn out of old clothes in a store in Beijing. Inspired by these elements, and the tales of lavishly embroidered gowns my grandmother told me about when I was a child, I began to incorporate the art into my creations.” (Guo Pei)
In her intricate embroidery, Guo utilizes varying forms of silk, from threads to fabric. Silk was first developed in China 6,000 years ago, and its demand fueled the creation of ancient trade routes, collectively called the Silk Road. This initiated an unprecedented cultural exchange of art, science and technology.
“All this is part of my culture. It’s in my blood. I want to bring our traditions into modernity.” (Guo Pei)
In 1978, China’s Economic Reform movement began shifting to a market led in part by autonomous individuals. The privatized businesses that emerged were fueled by a demand for the distinctive. This period coincided with Guo Pei’s entry into the country’s first fashion design school. Her subsequent career as a designer for China’s rapidly
growing apparel companies eventually allowed her to found Rose Studio, her own fashion house. Within each garment, she unites the history and elegance of Chinese culture with masterfully executed designs.
“I visited Paris and fell in love with the elegance of an ancient cathedral. Accordingly, I narrated my impression through a collection.” (Guo Pei)
Many of Guo’s designs result from creative acts. Writer Arthur Koestler studied the nature of creativity in his 1964 book, The Act of Creation. In order to understand how a creative act comes into being, he explained, “… the creative act … always operates on more than one plane. … [it] involves several levels of consciousness.”
“I don’t follow trends or try to compete with anyone. Everything I do stems from following my passion and my love for design.” (Guo Pei)
“I want to make them remember. . . It is my responsibility to let the world know China’s tradition and past, and to give the splendor of China a new expression. I hope that people do know China in this way.” (Guo Pei)
“In order to become a successful designer, you need to keep repeating yourself and learning from such repetition. It might take ten years, with thousands of designs created each year, but eventually you will get there—success means never giving up.” (Guo Pei)
“I always have a desire to create something that is fashion and is not fashion. So a dress ends up weighing 50 kilos! Every piece is not fashion anymore. It’s sculpture; it’s painting. I want to put all that into a dress.’’ (Guo Pei)
“I am a product of a changing China. I never look down on my past, and I am always hopeful about the future. I’m excited about what will happen next.” (Guo Pei)
Guo Pei was born in Beijing in 1967 to a schoolteacher mother and a senior Communist Party Official father. Her grandmother, who was born at the end of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), lived with the family, and used to tell the young Guo Pei stories of the old days and describe the exquisite details of the silky fabric and vivid colours worn by the wealthy in days long gone. At the age of two, Guo Pei began helping her visually impaired mother make clothing for the family, and so began her love of sewing and designing. This was at a time when the only acceptable clothes were the blue or green Mao-style suit worn by all, and when the idea of individualized fashion was not tolerated. She says: “I used to alter the loose dresses that my mother handed down to me so they were more stylish. When I wore them to school, my teacher angrily accused me of being a capitalist.” Her father found her passion for fashion and subsequent career appalling and threw her early designs in the garbage. Although he finally came around and is now supportive of her, she says, “He’s now 80, and he still wears his green soldier’s uniform every day.”
Her beginnings as a designer were uncertain. In 1982 there were five hundred applicants for the first design major at the Beijing Second Light Industry School. Guo Pei was one of twenty-six students accepted into the school, graduating in 1986. She lived during the time of growing openness in post-Cultural Revolution China and immediately got a job as chief designer at one of China’s first privately owned clothing companies. She has said that as the demand for fashion emerged, “the factory would produce 50,000 pieces of one design, and they would all sell out immediately.” Women lined up around the block to wear one of her simple, basic designs.
In 1997 she opened her own design house, Rose Studio. Her husband, Cao Bao Jie (Jack), helped finance and is co-owner of the company. She began travelling across China looking for the few remaining artisans who were skilled in ancient embroidery and fabric making. She has since trained hundreds of employers to use these traditional methods and experiment with them. Her company grew quickly and today she employs close to five hundred trained artisans.
Her reputation grew rapidly and she became known for her high-quality one of a kind designs for local celebrities, politicians and business women. Her gowns were seen at red-carpet events, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and in movies. Her next initiative was to create exquisite wedding dresses based on traditional—but innovative—designs for local brides. The event that brought her international fame was a Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) Gala opening in 2015, an exhibition that included Guo Pei’s work—which pop-star Rihanna attended wearing a stunning 50 kg gown that took five hundred artisans two years to complete. This was followed by a high-profile and successful collaborative make-up collection with MAC and for which she designed an entire fashion collection. Later the same year Guo Pei was invited to become a member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the governing body of the haute couture industry in Paris, the first Chinese national to receive this honour.
After opening a studio in Paris, she showed her first Paris Haute Couture collection in 2016. She now shows there twice yearly. Guo Pei has been celebrated by TIME magazine, Business Fashion, Vogue, the New York Times and many more international publications.
Although initially unacquainted with the hand-crafted standards of haute couture perfection, Guo instinctively met its stringent requirements through her personal reverence for detail. “The Great Queen,” which Rihanna wore to the 2015 Met Gala, is one of her most readily recognized creations. The 55 pounds of silk, lush fur and layers
of meticulous embroidery took 20 months to complete. Explaining the source of her devotion to embellishment, Guo responded, “I want to express an infinite pursuit of beauty.”