Thursday 9 February 2017

Medieval Majesty in Paris: Guo Pei's French Revolution

Guo Pei's haute couture show beneath the soaring medieval stone arches of a Parisian Gothic palace. Cover picture and all photographs by Elli Ioannou. Tap photos for full-screen slideshow 
If haute couture is about imagination, fantasy and exploring the realms between fashion, art and theatre, Guo Pei's ebullient show in Paris embodied it all. Her opulent collection made a strong contrast to Paris Couture Week's other often pragmatic presentations that were more like ready-to-wear. Instead, the diminutive couturier created an enthralling collection held in a French Gothic palace imbued with a richness and magic that only two years work and 500 artisans could bring to fruition, writes Jeanne-Marie Cilento. Photography by Elli Ioannou

 Crowns and coronets at Guo Pei 
POISED in velvety darkness, under the soaring stones arches of the medieval Salle des Gens d'Armes, a glimmering figure appeared to open Guo Pei's haute couture show in Paris. Emerging from the dim recesses of the vast hall to lilting music, an 18th Century gown with wide panniers could just be glimpsed, wearing a crown and carrying a candelabra. It was a filmy, phosphorescent Marie Antoinette, the ghost of the last Queen of France who had been imprisoned here during the French Revolution. As a red glow lit up the massive columns, the ghostly form disappeared and twenty-one gold and silver embossed creations floated down the runway, redolent of a medieval world evoked by the great, Gothic hall that was once part of the palace of French kings. Pei chose the stony glory of the Conciergerie as the backdrop to her Spring/Summer 2017 show because of its medieval history and connection to mythical kings and queens.

Medieval riches: encrusted with jewels
The Salle des Gens d'Armes was built under King Philippe IV (Philip the Fair, 1284–1314) and survives intact from the days when the Conciergerie was a medieval palace. The kings of France left at the end of the 14th Century for the palaces at the Louvre and Vincennes and it was transformed from a royal residence to a Palace of Justice where part of the building was converted into prison cells. By the late 1700s, the Conciergerie was one of the places where aristocrats were held in detention during the French Revolution including Marie-Antoinette just before she faced the guillotine.Today, much of the the palace is still used for the Paris law courts. Guo Pei drew on this history for her atmospheric and theatrical show, a strong contrast to many of the other haute couture presentations in Paris held in contemporary, minimalist spaces with collections that more prosaic and tailored for wearability and a new generation of couture clients.

 Ecclesiastical follies in silk and silver
Instead, Guo Pei created a show imbued with a richness and opulence, especially the extraordinarily elaborate embroidery and beadwork. Pei says she wanted to return to her design roots, making fashion more about art and ideas. She wanted the collection to be a metaphor for the spirit of devotion and power of faith embodied in ancient architecture and hand-crafted design through the forms of medieval warriors, saints and goddesses. Models wearing gold-encrusted gowns like monarchs and silvery ecclesiastical creations slowly made their way along the runway. There were tightly-laced, patterned bodices, billowing sleeves and bejewelled crosses. Crowns and crystal orbs above long, windswept hair completed the image of magnificent medieval queens.

St Gallen's frescoed dome on a dress
Called Legend, the collection was originally inspired by a trip that Guo Pei took when she visited the Swiss town of St. Gallen, well know for its embroidery and specialist fabric workshops. She was there to meet textile manufacturer Jakob Schlaepfer's art director Martin Leuthold. He took her to visit the town's cathedral where she became so engrossed with the paintings of the fresoced dome and the brilliant gold of the interior, she missed her plane. This turned out to be the inspiration for the Paris collection including using the cathedral's archive of medieval architectural drawings to create the printed silks. Afterwards she worked closely with Leuthold to create  gleaming woven gold fabric from metal fibre and silk thread.

Finale with Carmen Dell'Orefice in bold red
Another key inspiration for the richness of the collection was Pei's discovery of spools of rare gold thread in a tiny antique shop at the Saint-Ouen market in Paris. The thread was originally designed to be used for couture embroidery and Pei ended up buying the shop's entire collection, using it a year later for the embroidery in her new collection. 

Closing the show and flanked by two young male attendants was the legendary model Carmen Dell’Orefice. Wearing a specially-made, long scarlet robe of silk, woven with fine metal thread and sewn with jewels and beads on a fan-like cape, Pei says the gown is a metaphor for both blood and sacrifice. Dell’Orefice first appeared on a Vogue cover in 1947 and 70 years later here she is on a runway in Paris, part of Guo Pei's theatrical exploration of the nature of beauty and the spirit.
Additional reporting by Francois Belmont from Paris

 Designer Gou Pei walks out for the finale of her haute couture show in Paris

Guo Pei captures the opulence of ecclesiastical gowns with the rich embroidery

The finale of Guo Pei's haute couture show at Paris La Conciergerie, a former medieval royal palace
St Gallen's cathedral gold rococo interior was an inspiration for the collection

Tulle and pale silks are used to conjure a contemporary evening gown
The beautifully draped silks depict the soft pastels of the frescoed dome of Switzerland's St Gallen's cathedral.
Guo Pei's five hundred artisans in her ateliers create the embroidery by hand 
 Modern medieval warrior with rich, beadwork and queenly crown
Beneath the 14th Century groined arches another modern princess walks the runway
Detail of the gown showing it's structure and the extraordinary workmanship of Guo Pei's ateliers
Close up of the designer's rich embroidery
A crystal ball crown and boned sleeves make this one of Pei's most theatrical creations
The crystal ball gave an eccentric silhouette to this sinuous, shimmering gown

 Guo Pei's "Legend" theme was captured by the fantasy of this glimmering gown in pale pink silk
Guo Pei's silken gowns covered in the pastel baroque paintings from the dome of St Gallen's cathedral in Switzerland  
Other worldly grace amid the stone canopies of a Parisian royal palace
Like a figure from a fairytale, Pei's princess wears a floating crown and scalloped skirt with a gold-encrusted metal supporting structure created with wires
The guests at the Guo Pei haute couture show were enthralled by the pageantry
A boned bodice contrasts with a filmy gown and jewelled cross
Some of the collection had an "Alice in Wonderland" sense of fantasy
Marie Antoinette was imprisoned in the palace where the show was held and some of the models captured a sense of melancholy
Diaphanous shimmering silk and rich embroidery were a theme that ran through the show
A glittering crown was replaced with an elaborate beehive for this complex ensemble of curvilinear pleats
Roccoco romance in swirling sequins and gilded crown
The dramatic backdrop of the Conciergerie palace added to the theatre of the show
Glimmering silk and embroidery for a trouser and cloak ensemble
Silken petals and gold boots make this one of the most whimsical of Guo Pei's collection
A bejewelled diadem and feathered cape of filmy taffetta
Tall crowns and sinuous gowns made Pei's medieval monarchs look regal
The brilliant gold and embroidery encrusted creations gave the collection a feeling from another age
Close up you can see the layers of precious stones and hand-sewn details that make Pei's work extraordinary 
A silver encrusted creation that seems to be both ecclesiastical and from the Mad Hatter's tea party
Couturier Guo Pei takes her bow at the finale of her show in Paris

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