Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei’s most famous creation weighs a literally staggering 25 kilograms. Made of 24-karat-gold thread and fox fur, it took two years to create. In the end, the spectacular imperial cape almost toppled a model wearing it on the runway in 2010. Later, at the 2015 Met Gala, Rihanna famously required several helpers to carry its four-metre-long train on the red carpet.
Still, what may be most extravagant about the cloak, when you consider Guo’s—and China’s—history, is its colour: bright canary yellow.
Fashion and art fans who flock to the new Guo Pei: Couture Beyond exhibit of her gowns at the Vancouver Art Gallery this fall will see yellow and gold used throughout the 40-plus intricate haute-couture creations coming here. Sometimes the hue covers an entire dress; sometimes it takes the form of a gold-embroidered dragon, foliage, or phoenix.
Watching Yellow Is Forbidden, the new documentary screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival to coincide with the exhibit, helps you appreciate the significance of Guo’s attraction to the colour—and her approach to design in general. In one scene with her aging parents, she recalls her grandmother, who was born during the Qing Dynasty, telling her about how peasants were banned from wearing yellow or gold, the colours of the ruling class.
Guo herself grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when only drab, shapeless Mao suits were acceptable attire. Even makeup was frowned upon.
It turns out that same grandmother played a big role in stoking Guo’s love of ornate embroidery and fabrics—at a time when there were none to see around her.
“I believe that the pursuit of beauty is human nature, regardless of the time we are in,” Guo tells the Straight in an exclusive interview, speaking from China through a Mandarin translator. “One of my earliest memories from when I was small was my maternal grandmother talking to me about the beautiful colours and things that she knew. Back then, there were not many colours or traces of fashion, but she would tell me about the silk fabrics there used to be and tell me about the embroidery of the flowers and butterflies. So when I was very little all I wanted was to realize that dream of these stories from my grandmother.”
Guo has done that and more, cheerily flouting the fashion rules of her country’s past, her trajectory reflecting the rise of China as a global force.
A member of the first class of fashion graduates in her generation, she rose to fame outfitting hundreds of performers at the 2008 Olympics. Now she’s one of only two Asians ever to have been allowed in, as guest members, to Paris’s elite Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. (Her sometimes nerve-racking struggle to break that particular glass ceiling is captured in Yellow Is Forbidden.)
Today, Guo runs an opulent three-storey studio in Beijing where customers regularly spend $75,000 to $300,000 on her creations at private showings. The married mother of two employs nearly 500 skilled artisans, and has made her way onto Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list.
She’s come to symbolize a new China—and the way non-Europeans and non-Americans are finally becoming forces in international fashion.
But that doesn’t mean she’s totally comfortable with those associations, even as she celebrates and reimagines the fine craftsmanship of China’s history.
“I did not intentionally want to be an ambassador for Chinese traditions,” says Guo, who during the interview sounds as upbeat and boundlessly energetic as she comes across as in the Yellow Is Forbidden documentary. “Most important is my love of this kind of work. What is most important for the artist is to do work from the heart—not to do their work in order to represent or speak or speak for a culture.”
To be sure, Guo’s designs have drawn on Chinese culture, not just in the embroidery and fabrics, but in their motifs. In the VAG exhibit, a collaboration with Atlanta’s SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, one showstopper is a silk gown inspired by Qinghua blue-and-white porcelain—the ceramic patterns painstakingly hand-painted and embroidered along a skirt that echoes the folds of a traditional fan. Among the 40-plus runway pieces from the past decade, visitors can marvel at several from her 2012 Legend of the Dragon series, with the mythical Chinese-zodiac creature emblazoned on a red silk jumpsuit and a gold-thread gown that’s embellished with feathers and Swarovski crystals. Another showpiece in the collection is a silk floral gown whose elaborate hand-sewn flowers, crafted in a method harking back to the Qing Dynasty, took 50,000 hours to make.
Other works in the VAG exhibit have decidedly western inspiration, including the 2017 Paris Fashion Week collection that pays homage to Switzerland’s St. Gallen Cathedral, including elaborate fabrics printed with its dome paintings.
Guo Pei: Couture Beyond marks the VAG’s first foray into fashion artistry. Guo, who has also displayed pieces at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, loves the opportunity to show visitors her meticulously crafted works up close.
“Seeing my work on the stage or runway, it’s very brief,” Guo explains. “But at the museum you have the time to really appreciate the work, especially in haute couture, with so much craftsmanship and all the threadwork and beading. It lets people appreciate the details.”
Details, after all, are what Guo is most intensely focused on. She tells the Straight she’s so busy these days, she makes sure to eat a big breakfast: she works from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. in her studio, with no time for meal breaks.
“Most of my work in the day is mainly design and focusing on the craftsmanship and the technique, because every year I make more than 1,000 pieces,” she says enthusiastically. “Along the way, I will actually participate in making much of it—so although half my work is design, I get involved in making pieces. The most important part is the details. So for my type of work it’s important to work on the breakthrough and the improvement of craftsmanship.”
Realizing that dream requires a small army of highly skilled seamstresses, as shown in her busy workshops in Yellow Is Forbidden. But despite her modest roots, Guo is never afraid to dream bigger and more opulent—beyond even the extremes of the fearlessly yellow Rihanna dress.
“When we see the work of previous generations, we are often moved by the enormously challenging work that they have achieved,” she says, “and I hope later on that people would feel that way about my creations.”
Guo Pei: Couture Beyond is at the Vancouver Art Gallery from Saturday (October 13) to January 20, 2019. Yellow Is Forbidden screens on Wednesday (October 10) at the Vancouver Playhouse as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival, with Guo Pei on hand; it has an additional screening in the VIFF Repeats programming on October 17 at the Vancity Theatre between October 12 and 19.More