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Interview with Fashion Designer Guo Pei

A journey into the creative universe of Guo Pei between silhouettes, three-dimensional embroidery, shared cultural heritage, spirituality, and philosophy

Born in Beijing, Guo Pei began sewing at a very young age, in an interview with Forbes magazine, she says that she got her start in sewing at the age of 2 years old, helping her mother make clothes for the winter and developed her love for dressmaking. Guo Pei studied fashion at the Beijing Second Light Industry School in the 1980s. During her fashion design studies, she also learned a lot thanks to the theater, an environment, in which clothing designers could freely express their creativity more than in other artistic disciplines. Guo Pei graduated from the best in her class and spent the next ten years designing for major manufacturers, designing children’s clothing and womenswear before launching her own brand and atelier in 1997, Rose Studio. Exhibiting in Paris and traveling in Europe had a profound impact on her work. Guo Pei nowadays is China’s most famous couturier. She has been dressing celebrities, royalty, and the political elite for over 20 years. She made Song Zuying’s dress worn during her performance with Plácido Domingo at the closing ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics. The dress, covered with 200,000 Swarovski crystals, took two weeks to be complete. In 2015, Guo Pei became the second native Chinese member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the main governing body of the high fashion industry, allowing her to run on the Paris Haute Couture Week calendar. Her first collection to be showcased as part of Paris Fashion Week was her Spring Summer 2016 collection. Courtyard, which gained wide acclaim from critics, inspired by spring flowers for femininity and the phoenix for peace and purity, has had traditional Chinese influences such as golden tassels, intricate thread embroidery on silk, bibs, and long trains. In the same year, Guo Pei was also named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and one of Business of Fashion’s BoF 500, a list of the most influential people who shaped the global fashion industry. Guo Pei’s works were also exhibited at the annual exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, entitled “China: Through the Looking Glass”. In her sculptural fashion works, there are historical and iconographic references that interact constantly reflecting and taking into consideration different sources such as architecture, literature, nature, and philosophy, without ever losing sight of the spark of her personal touch that springs from her experiences and ways of seeing the multiple layers of reality. Her creations triumph in the coexistence of universal symbolism. She transforms and shapes lights, shadows, dreams, and darkness into beauty with her originality. Some of her creations can take nearly five hundred skilled craftsmen, thousands of hours, up to two years to complete.

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What does fashion mean to you? How did you develop your interest? 

For me, fashion is an expression of an era in aesthetics and popular culture. I started my design journey with ready-to-wear, but once I was in touch with the couture, I realized that what I pursue is something more timeless. I want my design to transcend time and not be limited to trends and ephemeral aesthetics. I create it with art and craftsmanship to make a more cultural and collectible value. I believe that interest is often not deliberate cultivation but may be related to the environment in which one grows up. The atmosphere of childhood will constantly influence and guide you. Growing up with my grandmother, I listened to the stories of her fantastic clothes and embroidery when I was young. The seeds of this beautiful yearning were planted in my heart, making me interested in clothing, which became an ideal—until now, making the most beautiful garments in the world is my pursuit. 

Since death is inevitable, I prefer to imagine it as a dream, an alternate universe parallel to this world, where everything returns to its original state of true pureness and beauty. It is the start of a mysterious journey.” – Guo Pei

Guo Pei, L'Architecture, Fall-Winter 2018
The beauty of Guo Pei’s garments evokes a dialogue between the human body and spatial dimension, but she also echoes a profound spiritual resonance

What are your sources of inspiration, and what is the creative process behind them? 

There are so many sources of inspiration in my design, from architecture to nature, from jewelry or museums, etc. I often say that design is like a language; the remarkable design must be of sentiment, representing your inner perception. Museums give me the most significant influence and spark. You have to admire the brilliance created by our predecessors. Their work has undergone the test of time and continues to spark infinite imagination in the visitors’ eyes. It conveys the spirit and technical breakthroughs the creator instilled in it hundreds of years ago. All these aspects deeply touched me and inspired me. The inspiration can happen instantly, as in the case of my collection Architecture, for which I quickly completed the sketches while waiting at the airport. It takes a lot of time to realize the sketches, from the custom fabrics to the pattern designs, to the embroidery and decorative details. The final presentation of these designs takes my team months or even years. There are many more tweaks and modifications to be made during this time. 

Guo Pei works with scrupulous skill, and her silhouettes remind us that fashion is a conjunction point: the space where theater, performance, and sculpture are a confluence
Guo Pei works with scrupulous skill, and her silhouettes remind us that fashion is a conjunction point: the space where theater, performance, and sculpture are a confluence

Guo Pei cites the Chinese saying “There is a kingdom in a flower; wisdom in a leaf” as the inspiration for Garden of Soul (2015). She further explains, “I always find the power of nature fascinating, especially when the flowers are blossoming,” and she draws comparisons between the human soul and gardens and their mutual need to be nurtured

When it comes to fashion there is a balance between the look and the touching. Can you tell us your relationship with the materials and fabrics you chose for your high fashion garments? 

I think there are two essential elements when it comes to fashion. One is the silhouette design, which could also be described as the look, and it often expresses a state of the moment. For example, in my “Legend” collection, I was moved by the architecture and sculptures in the church and felt a kind of great beauty, and I would use the silhouette’s design to express how I felt at that time. We can find the shoulder design from wide to narrow and the pants from thin to fat in the fashion. This change of silhouette is an expression of the current trend. The other thing is texture, and it is also touching. It is a more delicate feeling; frequently, the material of a garment determines the price and grade. The lower-priced fashion can express trends and have a solid visual experience with beautiful colors. However, it hardly brings you a very delicate feeling, especially when you go to touch it. The touch is the choice of material that determines the grade of the garment and reflects its value. The couture must choose the best materials so that people will experience a sense of well-being when they come in contact with the clothes. The sense of touch is crucial to designers.

One of the connecting pieces in Guo Pei’s collections, is the use of gold in a lot of her shows. Guo Pei believes that not only does gold embody the top of terms of knowledge and wealth, but also believe that it is, “the color of our souls”.

Guo Pei fashion

Can you share with us any meaningful story from backstage of your work? 

From the design of each collection to the presentation of the final show, we have experienced so many challenges. For example, I was pretty nervous on the backstage of each show, rarely having seen my presentation in the front. As a designer, I think that’s pretty interesting. They always share their best moments with the audience, and rarely can they sit in the front as happily as the audience to enjoy the final work, which I think is also the biggest regret for designers. I stand at the runway entrance at almost every show. At that moment, I only care about the perfect presentation of the models. My designs are usually quite spectacular, and I am worried about the models accidentally falling because of the height of the heels and the weight of the garments. But I’ve been fortunate that the models have shown my designs well in basically every show. 

In Elysium (2018), Guo Pei continued to explore botanical life, looking not to the flower petals but the root structures. “Roots are the source of life and vitality; without roots, there’s no life,” she explains

Installation view of Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy, Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 2022. Photograph by Drew Altizer. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Installation view of Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy, Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 2022. Photograph by Drew Altizer. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Your fashion design creation garments represent a cultural bridge that connects the East and the West. Can fashion help people to overcome cultural differences? 

I think fashion can totally help people overcome cultural differences because it has no boundaries. As in China, after the reform and opening up, we were first connected to western fashion and followed this trend. Until now, most Chinese people wear Western-style clothes. So whether we really accept western culture and philosophy or not, we accept the culture of clothing, so fashion is borderless and very tolerant. It is not like art which is difficult for many people to appreciate, nor does it entirely fall into reality and vulgarity. It contains the past and future and people’s aspirations for a better life, and it has the styles of various countries and nationalities under different cultures. Therefore, fashion is one of the best ways to exchange cultures. 

Couture Fantasy celebrates the extraordinary designs of Guo Pei 
Guo Pei’s Couture Fantasy is the first complete exhibition of the artist’s revolutionary fashion design works are on show at the Legion of Honor Museum. Guo Pei is the first Chinese couturier, exhibiting more than 80 ensembles over the last two decades. These outstanding and exclusive creations and collections have paraded on Beijing and Paris catwalks. Also included among the garments are many unreleased models that have never been shown to the public before. Guo Pei’s creations blend the boundaries between art and fashion and draw inspiration from Western and Chinese traditions. The event is an opportunity to get closer to the fashion designer’s artworks and acquire greater awareness and understanding of her passion for fashion and design. Furthermore, the exhibition allows the audiences to have a privileged point of view on Chinese culture and traditions and the new countenance of contemporary China. Guo Pei merging the Chinese imperial past, the decorative arts, the European architecture, and the botanical world creates extraordinary fantasies, where sumptuous embroideries, precise and meticulous details, and exquisite craftsmanship are balanced with unconventional tailoring techniques.

Interview with Fashion Designer Guo Pei
Installation of Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy at the Legion of Honor museum. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Photo: Gary Sexton

The Legion of Honor Museum, where is showcased Guo Pei’s retrospective, through its neoclassical architectural context, encourages viewers to consider the rich historical ties between China and the West. Each of the Legion of Honor’s special exhibition galleries is dedicated to one or more of Guo Pei’s major catwalk collections. The exhibition explores the stages in Guo Pei’s career as an extraordinary leader in the world of fashion since the beginning of the twenty-first century. Couture Fantasy is presented as part of the museum’s global textile and costume arts exhibition program, highlighting extraordinary artists and movements that have changed the course of fashion history. Couture Fantasy is presented exclusively at the Museum of the Legion of Honor from 16 April to 5 September 2022. Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy is curated by Jill D’Alessandro, Curator in Charge of Costume and Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, in close collaboration with Guo Pei; and is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco with significant support from the Asian Couture Federation.

Guo tells BBC Culture remembering the stories of grandmother’s childhood “I thought the clothes looked better because I couldn’t see them, so a wish was planted in my heart. It made me believe I could create even more beautiful clothes.”

A special thanks to Robyn Day, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Photos courtesy of Guo Pei and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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