High fashion’s trends, its love of the avant garde,and its perpetual release of new collections give it a feeling of impermanence. Yet for haute couturier Guo Pei, a dress can be a timeless monument. She built her “Legends” collection, for example, in a manner similar to the ancient architects of St. Gallen Cathedral in Switzerland. The cathedral’s aesthetic inspired the collection — throughout the building’s 1,200-year history, various elements have been added, creating a harmonious mix of different styles. Guo used fabrics printed with the paintings that adorn the cathedral’s interior.
But it was not only the building’s outer form that inspired Guo, it was also the spirit with which it was created. “Built more than 1,000 years ago, maybe no one now remembers the people who created it, but this work is still intoxicating,” Guo says. “Such silent dedication ultimately created a beauty that is beyond time.”
A single one of Guo’s designs can take her team of 500 artisans tens of thousands of hours to create. “People don’t understand why I spend so much time creating a garment,” she says. “But now, this clothing is exhibited in museums around the world.”
Her work was most recently featured in VancouverArt Gallery’s exhibit “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond.” In 2015, her work gained international fame when it was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and pop star Rihanna wore one of Guo’s most conspicuous designs to that year’s Met Gala — a yellow silk coronation cape with a 16-foot train, embroidered with 24k gold thread, and weighing 55 pounds.
Guo says her literally heavy designs represent the “weight of responsibility” on a woman’s shoulders.The married mother of two has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, and she is the only Chinese designer whose work has ever officially been considered haute couture by France’s Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
Her interest in haute couture design was first piqued, in part, by seeing a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte wearing an elaborately designed uniform. It stood out to her that so much thought and effort went into making a military uniform — it represented to her a respect for beauty even while facing death on the battlefield.
Guo embodies that love of beauty and spirit of creativity that cannot be quashed by dismal realities.
Born in 1967, during the height of China’s brutal Cultural Revolution, she entered a world that was drably garbed. Colourful, unique clothing was not allowed, and plain Maoist uniforms were the only acceptable attire.When Guo altered one of those dreary dresses as a young girl, her school teacher accused her of being a capitalist.
But the spirit of ancient China remained alive through oral tradition within Guo’s family. Her grandmother would tell her about the ancient ways of dressmaking, with its vibrant colour and embroidery.Guo began to learn the basics of dressmaking at the age of two.
Her grandmother was born during the Qing Dynasty(1636–1912), the last dynasty before the Republic of China was established. Imperial China inspires Guo: “I hope that my works will not only show the beauty of this era, but also the spirit of tradition.”
In the 1980s, when some restrictions had eased up after Mao’s death, Guo was one of 26 applicants accepted from among 500 to enter a clothing design program that opened at Beijing Second Light Industry School.
When she opened her own studio in 1997, after having spent years designing ready-to-wear for other clothing companies, she scoured the country for the rare artisans remaining who could, like her grandmother,remember the old ways. She was instrumental in reviving traditional techniques of making clothing that had almost died in the Cultural Revolution.
For example, Guo’s workshop has perfected gold embroidery over the course of decades. “It’s an innovation of traditional craftsmanship. In ancient times, people used gold thread to sew the dragon pattern on clothing. … Because the thread was very solid, it could only be used on the fabrics’ surface. Also, the pattern that could be created was very limited. I trained an embroidery team myself, and our team constantly tried and finally innovated more gold embroidery techniques to express richer patterns. Now our gold thread has reached 24k, which is a very difficult test of the craftsman’s patience and technique.”
She has also innovated upon the symbolism of the dragon, which was traditionally used on men’s clothing. She has made it also a symbol of women’s courage and strength, embroidering the dragons with softer lines and surrounding them with flowers.
Her designs bridge East and West. She says her work has helped “people from all over the world enter China.” Her inspirations include the popular 19thcentury European furniture that featured Chinese motifs. She incorporates in her designs Western flowers, Rococo elements, and other Western motifs. “I think this is why people all over the world can always see their country’s elements and shadow in my work.”