Guo Pei: a Chinese Couturière Takes on the World

Guo Pei: a Chinese Couturière Takes on the World

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Guo Pei - Daijin gown
"Daijin", one of Guo Pei's masterpieces, was shown in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's "China Through the Looking Glass" exhibit (2015)

(All photos courtesy of Guo Pei)

Until 2015 the renowned Chinese couturière, Guo Pei, was known by few people outside of China. For over 20 years, the designer has been dressing Chinese A-list celebrities and well-heeled elites in her show-stopping, intricately embroidered and beaded creations.

From daywear for businesswomen to gorgeous gowns for the red carpet or the 2008 Beijing Olympics to elaborate costumes for martial arts films, she is one of the country’s most prolific couture designers. But it was when pop queen Rihanna donned an Imperial court-influenced Guo Pei robe for the New York Met Gala in May 2015 that the Chinese designer skyrocketed to fame on the global stage. A year later, TIME magazine also named her one of its 100 Most Influential People in the world.

INSPIRELLE speaks to the talented designer about her work, her passions, and plans to expand internationally from Paris, the world’s fashion capital.

Rihanna wearing Guo Pei
Rihanna wearing the now-famous Guo Pei robe at the May 2015 Met Gala.

Welcome to Paris, Guo Pei! How does it feel to be the first Chinese couturier to become known internationally and to open a studio in Paris?

As one of the pioneer fashion designers in China, I have over 30 years of experience behind me. I’ve been designing since 1986; but it was in 1997 when I established my own brand, Rose Studio, that I was able to pursue my dream of creating beautiful, made-to-measure women’s clothing. Today, I’m thrilled that my work has attracted more international attention. It was a great honor to be invited in 2015 by the Federation of Haute Couture to show on the official couture calendar in Paris.

I believe all this is the result of my persistence in pursuing my dreams, my passion for couture and the spirit of handicrafts. I am pleased with what I’ve accomplished so far, and feel very fortunate to be able to do what I love. Hopefully, my designs will continue to have an influence on the world.

Guo Pei - MAC cosmetics
Guo Pei with the MAC cosmetics on which she collaborated, and one of the dresses she designed to inspire the collection.

In 2015, you collaborated with MAC cosmetics and designed the show stopping trailing yellow gown that singer Rihanna wore to the New York Met Ball. Would you say these events were turning points in your career?

Yes, 2015 definitely marked an important turning point in my career. The collaboration with MAC Cosmetics and Rihanna wearing my “Yellow Empress” gown at the 2015 Met Ball helped raised both my profile, and that of Chinese fashion, on the world stage.

Since then, the gown which Rihanna wore has been widely viewed in media and in exhibitions around the world. This increased international recognition has been very encouraging; it has also inspired me and further fuelled my passion for my work.

Guo Pei Spring/Summer 2016
Two looks from “Courtyard” for Spring/Summer 2016, Guo Pei’s first Paris Haute Couture show

The French adore embroidery and luxury design. Have they embraced your unique style?

France is a pioneer in international fashion, and the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture is committed to the protection of traditional craftsmanship, which is clearly reflected in French design. China also has a long history of great achievements in traditional handicrafts and embroidery.

My designs are rooted in traditional Chinese techniques, while incorporating western technology and silhouettes. My first two shows on the Paris Haute Couture Week calendar, “Courtyard” and “Encounter”, were well received, which was very encouraging.

Is Paris and working with the French what you expected it would be?

In Paris, we will focus on our international branding and marketing, and welcoming guests from all around the world. Unfortunately, Paris doesn’t have a particularly booming economic or business climate at the moment. I chose to open a studio in Paris because of its major influence and rich history in the world of arts and fashion.

“Guo Pei’s Courtyard”, situated on Rue Saint-Honoré, one of the most prestigious streets in Paris, is my window to the world.

Guo Pei
Chinese couturière Guo Pei

You are one of the most significant couture designers in China today, known for producing lavish and intricate gowns for the elite and celebrities. Why leave the comforts of this familiar market for the unknown?

The journey from establishing my own couture brand to growing my presence internationally has happened quite naturally. In the past, I never thought of expanding overseas, as I am very single-minded and focused on my design work.

My husband who has been a huge source of inspiration told me, “You do not have to expand internationally, you do not have to do shows overseas, but you must learn to understand the international market.”

When my creation Daijin (Magnificent Gold) was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s “China Through the Looking Glass” exhibit last year and Rihanna wore “Yellow Empress” to the MET Gala, people around the world marvelled at the splendor of Chinese couture. That convinced me that I should promote Chinese traditional craftsmanship through couture.

In Paris, the haute couture industry has very strict standards — something we should learn from in China, where the definition of haute couture and industry standards vary. One of the reasons I’m opening a showroom in Paris is so that we can become more familiar with the demands of international markets and clients.

Guo Pei
Guo Pei during the finale of her second Haute Couture show in Paris (July 2016)

Do you see your role as an ambassador for your country?

I do not necessarily see myself as a cultural ambassador. But, as a Chinese designer, my work naturally incorporates elements of my culture. If, through my work, more people learn to understand and appreciate China’s culture and history, it would be my greatest joy and honor.

My showroom in Paris will be a space where people can come to discover Chinese culture, fall in love with my work and develop a new understanding of Chinese fashion.

Haute Couture: Guo Pei
Guo Pei held a major retrospective exhibition of her masterpieces at Le Musée des Arts Décoratifs in June 2015

For a long time, the public never associated haute couture with China. Your exquisitely hand-embroidered gowns influenced by the Chinese Imperial court do not reflect the China we think we know and see today. How did your creativity evolve as a designer?

Before I founded Rose Studio, I had already spent a decade designing ready-to-wear fashion. At that time, the concept of fashion, colors and printing techniques were unable to fulfill my design needs, so I wanted to find new methods to fully express myself creatively.

Back then, embroidery was rare — especially on clothing. I remember seeing some embroidered pieces of cloth torn out of old clothes in a store in Beijing. Inspired by these elements, and the tales of lavishly embroidered gowns my grandmother told me about when I was a child, I began to incorporate the art into my creations.

Guo Pei embroidery
With the opening of her Rose Studio in 1997, Guo Pei breathed new life into the nearly lost fine art of Chinese hand embroidery

But as this traditional fine art was banned during the Cultural Revolution, it was hard to find skilled embroiderers. So, I went searching around the countryside for people who had the skill, and began training others. I also began exploring museums in Europe, the United States, Morocco, and other places to discover more about the fine art of embroidery, which had nearly vanished from China.

So, you’ll see that at Rose Studio, we have developed a unique “Guo Pei” style of embroidery, which integrates traditional Chinese craftsmanship with international influences.

Will Paris become a second home for you and your family?

I am still very focused on my work in Beijing, but I will be in Paris during our annual couture shows and other events. Like many people around the world, I love Paris for its romance, its fashion, art and history. Anyone who likes the arts will fall deeply in love with the city.

For me, Paris is like a palace, a palace where I can realize my haute couture dreams.

 

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