OVER THE past three decades, Beijing-born fashion designer Guo Pei has established herself as China’s most exciting couturier.
The 54-year-old, who cut her teeth in fashion design after the Cultural Revolution, is renowned for her boundless creativity and regal designs, which, throughout the years, have dressed the very best of the global glitterati, from royalty and A-listers to political elite.
After graduating from Beijing Second Light Industry School in 1986, followed by a decade of work for both state-owned and private clothing manufacturers, Guo Pei launched her own couture house, Rose Studio, in 1999, today employing nearly 500 artisans.
In 2016, the Paris-based designer presented her first collection on the haute couture schedule, Courtyard, just a year on from garnering overnight fame as the designer of Rihanna’s magnificent Yellow Empress Met Gala dress – a spectacular fur-trimmed, canary-yellow cape gown that weighs 25 kilograms, took two years to create and features over 50,000 hours’ worth of hand embroidery.
As the Legion of Honor, one of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, prepares a major exhibition on Guo Pei’s career for 2022, the couturière extraordinaire speaks with Glass about her most memorable work, the lengthy process behind each collection and an upcoming bridal wear line currently in the works.
I would love to begin our interview by discussing your earliest years — what was your childhood dream?
My childhood dream was all about making beautiful clothes. During that time, my mother needed to hand-sew children’s clothing and quilts. Since my mother’s eyesight wasn’t good, and sewing was quite difficult for her, naturally I wanted to help her and do it well.
At the time, it was about supporting my mother, but it became so much more. It became something that I loved, and I knew that it was something I aspired to do. Learning to make beautiful clothes was a strong desire of mine even as a child, and it hasn’t changed since. I think it’s the happiest thing for me, my life purpose, you might say.
What is your earliest memory of fashion?
When I was a child, my grandmother used to tell me about the costumes of her generation. She would enchant me with stories of old techniques such as the floral embroidery process and how smooth and perfect the fabrics were.
These fond memories deeply affected me at the time, and still do. I always wanted to use my creations to convey that beauty conjured up by the tales from my grandmother. This is my earliest memory of fashion.
Could you talk me through your design process? How do you begin a collection, and how long does it typically take to complete?
The creative spark or idea can happen in a split second and at any moment. For example, I created the sketches for my L’Architecture collection quickly while waiting for my flight at the airport. What takes a lot of time is the process of turning sketches into a reality.
Of course, there is everything from creating fabrics to pattern making, pattern design, embroidery and decorative details. The development of this into a collection and the final presentation of these designs takes my team months or even years. Being a perfectionist, there are also many adjustments and revisions during this time, until I am completely happy.
What drew you to the world of couture, as opposed to ready-to-wear?
I do not want fashion to be a momentary fad which is then quickly forgotten. Couture is unique and special — it endures. I hope that after decades or even centuries, people can still feel its beauty.
Looking back on all of your collections, is there one that is particularly memorable to you?
To be honest, I have only ever wanted to do the very best I can with my work. I have a very active imagination and I can quickly pick up on ideas as the source of my inspiration for my collections. Every one of them is always a personal journey of ideas and materials that are constantly adjusted and refined.
I have always been fascinated by the human preoccupation with legends. It formed the basis of my Legends collection, which was inspired by the dome of the Cathedral of St Gallen in Switzerland, and it got me thinking of the saints and stories that have moved and enthralled people.
It was such a poignant collection and allowed me moments of self reflection. The collection was also a 30th career anniversary present to myself, so it also served as a reminder that I must continue to focus, work hard and do my very best so that my own work and ideas can roll down the ages. I think that is all anyone wants – to be remembered.
Could you explain how your legendary Yellow Empress gown, worn by Rihanna at the 2015 Met Gala, was created?
The Yellow Empress gown is one of the creations from my 1002 Nights collection, which I designed with the image of a queen in mind. Throughout history, the image of a queen has always been a potent and strong one — both maternal and loving but also commanding and powerful.
I believe that when a woman reaches the status of the queen, it is definitely not because of her beauty, but because of her charm, innate qualities and responsibilities. I used the weight of the dress, the height of the shoes, and the unmanageable form of it to express her inner strength, and great confidence.
Honestly, I didn’t know Rihanna when I was informed that she wanted to wear this garment. Initially, I thought it would be difficult for her to wear it. But she carried it off with such a self assured manner, and gave a new life to the dress with her inner power.
What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?
In many ways the point of life lessons is that they can only be learned from experience. As much as we listen in our youth to others telling us what we should or could do, somehow, we will always end up carving our own paths — and on the way have triumphs and disasters.
It is what shapes our being, our personality, our friends, our very surroundings and so on. I don’t regret the choices and decisions that I made at 20. In many ways, I think my natural instincts, passions and interests were the right ones. So, I wouldn’t change that at all.
Having said that, I know that as a 20-year-old I was so keen and eager to seize every opportunity to develop my craft. I think if I had the chance, I might tell myself to slow down a little, not to rush things as much. There is great virtue in savouring the moment – taking each moment as it comes and making the most of it. I still believe I would have taken the same journey, but maybe I would have told myself to relish the milestones a little more – it is so easy to keep moving onto the next challenge, task or opportunity.
What ambitions do you have for the future?
Throughout my career, I have always sought to reflect my heritage and be true to myself. I am immensely proud of being Chinese as I am of the creative influence China has had over the millennia. I have always wanted people to look at my work and to see both my own personality and culture reflected and radiated from it.
Having said that, I am also very aware that creativity has no boundaries, and I have always been drawn to beautiful ideas wherever they come from. That fusing of non-Chinese with Chinese has fascinated me and has certainly played a strong part in the collections I have presented over the years.
In many ways, that speaks to the universal truth of emotions and ideas. Especially love — which has a central role in all cultures, societies and peoples. The ceremony, the wedding, the coming together of two people is the most powerful human experience I can think of.
In my own way, I play a part in that with my own work, especially in bridal wear. It’s something I am now developing further. I want to take my own experience and love for traditional Chinese wedding culture and to add elements of Western aesthetics to it in a new range called Guo Pei Celebration.
It is, in some ways, a culmination of my passion at fusing East and West over the last few years. I hope that through these beautiful bridal gowns, it will allow everyone to experience traditional Chinese culture and make it accessible to a much wider audience around the world.
by Joshua Hendren