Guo Pei: An Alternate Universe
Renowned fashion designer Guo Pei is known for her lavish embroidery and extravagant gowns. Perhapse most famously in the West: Rihanna’s regal, fur-trimmed yellow cape worn to the 2015 Met Gala, pictured below. Since that showstopping moment, Guo’s reputation has grown worldwide. What makes this modern, female designer so unique?
While she became increasingly known to Western audiences through dressing Rihana, Guo has been designing and creating for more than twenty years dressing leading Chinese celebrities and developing a revolutionary collection. She has cemented herself as a globally-recognized, modern couture designer and a key facilitator of cultural exchange.
From Maoist China to Modern Couture
Born in China amid Mao’s cultural revolution, Guo lacked freedom to outwardly explore and cultivate her fashion sense. From age two, she helped her mother in sewing personal clothing for her family, but her father––a former battalion leader of the People’s Army––squashed any further creative expression, discarding her sketches and her art. During Guo’s coming of age, Maoist suits were the only acceptable way of dressing in her country, a rigid style she now defies as a designer.
Despite growing up under an austere regime, Guo pursued art, graduating top of her class with a degree in Fashion Design from the Beijing Second Light Industry School in 1986. Buoyed by China’s renewed interest in fashion after Deng Xiaoping rose to power in the late ’70s, Guo joined one of China’s first privately-owned clothing manufacturers, Tianma. Despite the challenges, she launched her own atelier in 1997, Rose Studio.
Earning growing recognition, Guo Pei began designing clothes for Chinese celebrities attending the Olympics. More recently, her work has been displayed in global fashion shows and exhibits, including the famed Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (aka the Paresian society of high fashion).
Her Design Ethos, Inspired by Chinese Culture
Guo takes a careful and deliberate approach to each creation. She has commented that one piece generally takes her one to two years to create, or even longer. Above all, she believes in taking her time and never rushing the process, allowing her creativity to fully develop and flourish.
But what inspires her creations? Chinese culture plays a critical role: Guo cites historical Chinese legends of the Qing dynasty passed down to her from her grandmother as a creative source. We can see this influence in her elaborate embroidery and painting motifs that pay homage to Chinese techniques and art forms dating thousands of years.
Gold, the color of the Chinese imperial family and imbued with symbolism, is a common feature of her designs (like Rihanna’s embroidered cape). Guo Pei evokes an air of royalty and grandeur in her designs. The richness of gold is most boldly expressed in her gown “Da Jin” (or “Magnificent Gold”), debuted in 2006 in Beijing. This complex gown took 50,000 hours and a team of skilled seamstresses to create. It is entirely made of gold, with a finely detailed and fitted corset that flows into a wide ball gown, complete with a neckpiece, headpiece, and arm cuffs. Guo incorporated lotus flowers, taking inspiration from a classic symbol of purity in Buddhist art, at the base of the dress. The more you look at this gown, and Guo Pei, the more detail you uncover.
Beyond influences from her own background, Guo draws inspiration from artifacts spanning across cultures. She looks to Renaissance art, Middle Eastern folk tales, Parisian silhouettes, natural structures, and so much more. In 2015, she released a collection titled “Garden of Soul,” influenced by Van Gogh’s paintings. This line featured gowns with bodices embroidered in hues of blue, green, and yellow, all adorned with golden flowers. Her ability to envision and translate such a broad range of themes into her designs speak volumes about her genius. She explains that she incorporates these motifs “with the hope that people from different cultural backgrounds will come together in the exchange and spread of culture.”
Taking a Closer Look: Alternate Universe
Guo Pei pushes the bounds of reality through her work, entering a magical and the mythical space. She seamlessly harnesses motifs from art, architecture, and legend, and transforms them into wearable art. Guo’s Haute Couture show was launched in the fall of 2019, entitled Alternate Universe, for the ways that the clothing went beyond the fashion of our modern world to instill a sense of enchantment and wonder into viewers.
The show opened with the “conjoined twins” dress, complete with extraordinary embroidery, bushels of feathers, and pannier hoop skirts. This piece, along with the rest of this collection, exhibits themes encompassing death, the afterlife, and new realities. Images of crows, angels, demons, and more are embroidered and contorted in fabric in the garments throughout this collection.
The final gown in this show diverges from the blacks and whites common earlier in the production. This dress blooms with color, covered in rouched and twisted fabrics structured to resemble a garden of flowers. This piece, contrasting with a crow placed on the model’s hand, displays an enrapturing balance between life and death.
There is no doubt about the immense insight and vivid imagination Guo Pei brings to life through her designs. Her intricate pieces are sewn with stories and layered with hidden meaning that invoke tremendous emotion in anyone who takes the time to explore her work. As she describes her designs best herself, “It is no longer a piece of clothing, but a carrier of culture, history, human emotions and love.”
Spotlighting Culturally Diverse Designers in the West
Guo Pei’s collections are revolutionary not only for their grandeur but also for the Chinese cultural significance that they hold. The modern Western fashion scene, dominated by European and American designers (think legends like Donatella Versace, Calvin Klein, or Vivienne Westwood), needs to support the rise and inclusion of designers of color and diverse ethnic backgrounds. As it stands, too much of couture caters to Eurocentric audiences, overlooking a fuller spectrum of cultural diversity and expression.
Moments like Guo Pei’s 2015 Met Gala sensation was met with outstanding positive feedback. Beyond this, people began exploring more of Guo’s designs, taking incredible interest in the designer for her incomparable creativity. This highlights the potential to cultivate a more inclusive and culturally diverse fashion scene in the West. With this, we can open space for immeasurably more designers and cultural influences, giving platforms to groups that have been silenced for far too long. Guo Pei is one of a myriad of incredible and diverse designers from around the world that deserve global recognition for their contributions.
Featured Image Courtesy of CNN
Quote 1 Courtesy of BBC
Quote 2 Courtesy of Dolce Mag