Guo Pei: Crafting Fantasies through Haute Couture

By Angela Bao
May 18, 2022
“Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy” at Legion of Honor is the first comprehensive exhibit of the designer’s creations.

“Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy” is on exhibit at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco until September 5.

Even those outside of the fashion world remember Rihanna’s gown to the 2015 Met Gala: a glorious, golden cape of intricately embroidered silk and trimmed in matching fur that pooled behind the singer as she made her careful ascent up the Metropolitan steps.

The gown went viral. Fashion pundits raved about Rihanna’s showstopping look, and internet denizens compared the dress to everything from a cheese omelet, to a pepperoni pizza. The person behind the iconic moment? A woman named Guo Pei.

A gallery featuring one of the gowns from Guo Pei’s 2010 “One Thousand and Two Nights” collection.

China’s first couturier

At the time, few outside of China had heard the name Guo Pei, but she has since become a household name known for her fantastical designs. Known as China’s first couturier, in 2016 Guo Pei became the first Chinese-born designer to be invited to join Paris’ Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the chief governing body of the high fashion industry.

Innovation is one of Guo Pei’s hallmarks, says Jill D’Alessandro, curator in charge of Costume and Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “That presents itself through a combination of several elements—exquisite craftsmanship, lavish embroidery, and unconventional dressmaking techniques,” she explains.

Guo Pei began her career in fashion just a few years after the Cultural Revolution ended and China began opening up to the West in 1978. D’Alessandro notes that she was one of the first group of students to enroll in fashion school in 1982, worked at one of the first privately owned companies, and then started her own company in 1997 that was one of the first to make bespoke clothing. In an early interview, she remarked that she is a “product of changing China,” and her work is very much informed by that increasing interculturality.

A gown from Guo Pei’s 2017 “Legends” collection.

“Her career is remarkable but also parallels China’s emergence in the global fashion world,” D’Alessandro says. “As Guo Pei explains, the late 1980s into the 1990s were a remarkable time to embark on a professional career; Chinese people were so willing to help one another. She describes it as being handed a blank piece of paper—the possibilities were endless. As a result, her work is full of joy and optimism."

Creating dialogue between East and West

That sense of endless possibility is on display at “Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy” at FAM’s Legion of Honor, the first comprehensive exhibit of the couturier’s work. Sponsored by East West Bank, the exhibit showcases the interplay between Eastern and Western cultures in Guo Pei’s work and features more than 80 pieces from her career covering the past 20 years, including some that have never been shown to the public.

“Each collection starts with an abstract concept—a spark of inspiration—drawn from a wide range of sources: China’s imperial past and export art, the grandeur of European court life and architecture, theater, and the botanical world,” says D’Alessandro.

The “Da Jin” gown from Guo Pei’s 2006 “Samsara” collection.

To highlight how Guo Pei draws inspiration from both Eastern and Western techniques and designs, the museum placed each piece in the gallery they felt would best showcase that cross-cultural interplay in her creations and her career. Guo Pei’s designs are shown alongside the museum’s collection of European paintings and decorative arts.

For example, the “Da Jin” (meaning “magnificent gold”) gown, one of Guo Pei’s most iconic pieces, takes the spotlight in a gallery filled with Baroque and Rococo art. The gown is made of 29 vertical panels embroidered with a repeating lotus pattern, gold thread from India, and measures 11.5 feet long and 9 feet wide. Inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte’s gold-embroidered military uniform, the dress represents the rebirth of China after the Cultural Revolution. Another gown, reminiscent of a pope’s robes, from Guo Pei’s “Legends” collection was inspired by the medieval Abbey of Saint Gall in Switzerland and looks right at home among the Catholic iconography in Legion of Honor’s medieval gallery.

The exhibit begins at Legion of Honor’s opening gallery, Rosekrans Court, and features pieces from her 2008 collection, “An Amazing Journey in a Childhood Dream,” which is one of D’Alessandro’s favorites. Guo Pei created the collection when she was pregnant with her second child and envisioned the collection as the little girl’s dreams of her dolls coming to life. When Guo Pei put together the show, she staged it like a theatrical presentation, which opened with a young girl falling asleep in a canopied bed held high over the runway. As she slept, the models/dolls “acted” out her dreams, prancing below her in pastel-colored silk confections constructed of tightly folded silks, which were reminiscent of the origami toys Guo Pei made herself as a child.

The “conjoined twins” dress from 2019 “Alternate Universe” collection.

“She paired these garments with separates embellished with raised metallic-thread embroidery, an homage to the bejeweled costumes donned by Spanish matadors during bullfights,” says D’Alessandro. “The overlay of personal experiences and artistic influences was a stunning instance of Guo Pei’s signature fusion of design traditions.”

The next gallery features two collections—“Elysium” and “Garden of Soul”—that dive into the botanical world. Others highlight the work of the skilled artisans employed at the atelier, the impact of past European exhibits on her work (shown in her collections “Legends” and “L’Architcture”), and China’s own cultural history. The exhibit culminates with “Alternate Universe,” which serves as Guo Pei’s meditation on death, reincarnation, and the afterlife, and features her stunning “conjoined twins” dress.

D’Alessandro hopes the exhibit will provide visitors a deeper appreciation of the ties between East and West. “With its significant Asian heritage, San Francisco is a natural location to share Guo Pei’s work,” she says. “Audiences will be inspired by the fantasy world of Guo Pei’s imagination and the exquisite craftsmanship of her creations, which draw from both Asian and European artistic traditions to foster intercultural understanding.”

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