Noted Chi­nese fash­ion de­signer Guo Pei’s spec­tac­u­lar cre­ations have been break­ing new ground in the in­ter­na­tional in­dus­try.

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - By Janet Smith Cover photo by China In­sti­tute

Chi­nese fash­ion de­signer Guo Pei’s most fa­mous cre­ation weighs a lit­er­ally stag­ger­ing 25 kilo­grams. Made of 24-karat­gold 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 fourme­tre-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 haute­cou­ture cre­ations com­ing here. Some­times the hue cov­ers an en­tire dress; some­times it takes the form of a goldem­broi­dered 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 three­storey 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 blue­and-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; watch for a re­peat screen­ing, as yet un­sched­uled, in the VIFF Re­peats pro­gram­ming at the Vancity Theatre be­tween Oc­to­ber 12 and 19.

(photo cour­tesy SCAD).

Guo Pei, one of only two Asian de­sign­ers ac­cepted into Paris’s elite Cham­bre Syn­di­cale de la Haute Cou­ture, poses in Be­jing (photo by Lin­tao Zhang/getty Im­ages); at right, the fa­mous, 25 kilo­gram “Ri­hanna dress”

A still from a model wear­ing Guo Pei’s de­sign in Pi­etra Bret­tkelly’s Yel­low Is For­bid­den, at VIFF.

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