When Rihanna showed up at the 2015 Met Gala in an opulent bright yellow cape and dress constructed from fifty-five pounds of silk and layers of embroidery, once we were able to pick up our jaws from the ground, the question on everyone’s lips was: who designed it?
The answer, of course, was Guo Pei, the renowned couturiere known for her grand, avant-garde silhouettes that combine Chinese aesthetics with contemporary design. She’s also the only Chinese designer invited to present at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week (she made her debut in January 2016). Since she launched her own label in 1997, her work has aimed to capture the rich aesthetics of China’s last imperial dynasty and revive traditional Chinese craft practices.
Now Canadians can seem them in person. Guo Pei: Couture Beyond, a new exhibition featuring the designer’s most iconic pieces, opens at the Vancouver Art Gallery this month. Organized in collaboration with Atlanta’s SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, the exhibition covers the evolution of Pei’s designs over her career through a collection of over 40 garments, including the canary cape made famous by Rihanna.
Guo Pei, One Thousand and Two Nights, 2010 (detail), silk jacket embellished with embossed metal; bodice embellished with crystals, gems, beads, sequins and copper appliqués; harem trousers embroidered with copper wire and embellished with crystals Image by: Courtesy of SCAD
Here’s what Guo Pei shared about her inspirations, the role of traditional Chinese craft practices in her designs and the challenges of creating haute couture.
What do you want people to experience when they see or wear your pieces? “As a designer, I hope that my work can help my clients enjoy a heightened sense of beauty. Every woman is beautiful in her own particular way. They are capable of making critical decisions in the workplace while showing tender affection at home — a good designer should help these women switch between different sides with liberty and ease.”
What is your favourite piece in the exhibit and why? “The Legend series reflects my innermost design insights. The creation of this series marked the 30th year of my design career. I visited the Cathedral of St. Gallen [in Switzerland], and as I stood inside this cathedral and looked at the magnificent dome paintings, I began pondering what legacy we were leaving for our offspring. When I designed Legend series, I was devoted to creating something pure and beautiful, in hopes of leaving a lasting legacy for future generations.”
Guo Pei, One Thousand and Two Nights, 2010, embroidered silk gown with hand-painted motifs and embellished with Swarovski crystals; porcelain headpiece ornamented with crystals and silk tassels Image by: Courtesy of SCAD
Why is it important to you to restore traditional Chinese craft practices with your designs? “As a Chinese designer, traditional Chinese crafts have always been the most valuable asset for my work. With industrialization, however, it was increasingly challenging for many traditional Chinese handicrafts to adapt and survive. I believe this not only represents a loss for the fashion industry, but also a loss for all humanity. I hope my work can become the medium of these crafts, and pass their ancient beauty into the future.”
What is the best part of being a haute couture designer? What is the most challenging? “In my designs, I need not worry too much about realistic concerns, but instead focus on expressing my feelings freely and openly, reaching the peak of fashion design. Yet designing for haute couture is like climbing a mountain with only one path to reach the summit. I had to keep climbing, resolving technical issues, and overcoming challenges that others might find unsurpassable in order to survive in this commercial world and design what I most genuinely wish to create – this is the biggest challenge.”
This interview has been edited and condensed. The original text has been translated to English from Mandarin Chinese.
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.