Guo Pei: Couture Beyond, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s first fashion-centric exhibition, opens on Saturday (October 13), and the show’s revered couturiere subject was in town this morning (October 11) to offer media an exclusive look at all 40-plus heavenly and stunningly ornate pieces.
From opulent gold frocks embroidered with depictions of butterflies, birds, and the auspicious Chinese character for double happiness to grand crystal- and pearl-embellished gowns inspired by Switzerland’s Cathedral of Saint Gallen, Guo Pei: Couture Beyond is comprised of avant-garde garments that are steeped in Chinese symbolism and expertly illuminate traditional handicraft techniques.
The exhibit includes attire from collections such as Samsara, Pei's debut haute-couture line from 2006, and Legend of the Dragon, which makes prominent use of the mythical dragon motif from the Chinese zodiac. There are also items from Pei's 2010 presentation, the Arabian-influenced 1002 Nights, including the 25-kilogram, 24-karat-gold-thread cape that Barbadian-born artist Rihanna wore to the 2015 Met Gala—a move that resulted in many a meme and thrusted Pei into the international spotlight despite the designer admitting she did not know of the singer at the time.
In fact, when Rihanna—real name Robyn Fenty—reached out to Pei’s husband and business partner to inquire about borrowing the dazzling, fox-fur-lined cloak, Pei was hesitant. “I didn’t really think that a celebrity wearing this would be the best setting,” she revealed, speaking through a Mandarin translator during a conversation with fashion journalist Bronwyn Cosgrave at the VAG. “However, the inner beauty of Rihanna and this yellow cape turned out to be a great, perfect combination.”
Pei’s commitment to honouring and revitalizing forgotten Chinese craft practices is reflected in the intricate embroidery of her work, as well as in her label and atelier, Rose Studio, where she employs nearly 500 skilled artisans. Uninterested in the fleeting trends of fashion, Pei, who is the only Chinese national designer to be invited to join Paris’s esteemed Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, considers museums and galleries the ideal surroundings for her dramatic haute-couture gowns.
“On the runway, it’s a different feel,” she explained. “Of course, it’s also beautiful and it’s very lively with music and lighting….In a museum or gallery setting, people can be observing, appreciating my work in a quiet space to observe the details.”
Pei says that she designs as a way to convey her feelings. If that’s to be believed, there’s an overwhelming amount of sentiment on display at the VAG—each so elaborately communicated you'll have to stop yourself from reaching forward to touch every shining bead, gem, and stitch. “I create all these pieces in my heart,” she shared. “All my work is a way for me to express my emotion.”
Guo Pei: Couture Beyond is presented by the VAG in collaboration with SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, and is curated by Diana Freundl and Stephanie Rebick, associate curator of Asian art and associate curator at the VAG, respectively. The VAG showing marks the exhibition's Canadian premiere.
Check out the images below for a peek of Guo Pei: Couture Beyond before you see it IRL.
Guo Pei: Couture Beyond is at the Vancouver Art Gallery from Saturday (October 13) to January 20, 2019. See event listing for details.