Tuesday 28 May 2019

Interview: Couturier Guo Pei's Art of Fashion

One of Guo Pei's highly structured creations inspired by Gothic architecture for her Fall 2018 haute collection collection held at Paris'  Cité de l’Architecture. Photograph (above) from the Spring 2018 show, by Elli Ioannou.

Couturier Guo Pei's rise and rise continues with a new documentary film about her life, Yellow is Forbidden, that premiered at New York's Tribeca Film Festival. We take a look back at her most recent dramatic couture shows, before the new collection is launched in Paris next month. Jeanne-Marie Cilento talks to the designer about her life and work. Additional reporting and photography by Elli Ioannou. Interview translated from the Mandarin by Ella Palermo Patera

Designer Guo Pei at her Fall 2018
 couture show in Paris
ELFIN and charming, Guo Pei exudes a light, effusive energy and speaks in a soft, lilting voice that belies the grit that has taken her from Beijing's Second Light Industry School in Maoist China to the top of the Paris world of haute couture today. She started her career when fashion was at its very infancy in China but worked her way to the heart of  European couture as the first Chinese designer to be invited to become a guest member of Paris' Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.

The dramatic, yellow caped concoction that Rihanna wore to New York's Met ball three years ago brought her to the attention of the world, beyond the rarefied circle of high fashion. Guo Pei's work stands out each season in Paris as her collections are all imbued with a poetic vision that may be inspired by Gothic architecture or the sheen on a ball of antique golden thread.

There is a superlative intricacy to her designs and a virtuosity that even exceeds the expectations of Parisian haute couture. While big brands are making their couture collections more wearable, Gup Pei's are all about creating mystery and magic with teetering headdresses and heels and dresses with wide panniers. Her collections are about art and ideas not selling clothes.

There is a superlative intricacy to Guo Pei's designs and a virtuosity that even exceeds the expectations of Parisian haute couture

 Like a domed cupola, an evocative
 and complex dress from Fall 2018
"Haute couture is my favourite," Guo Pei says. "It is not made for commercial gain, but more for a kind of inner quest, a satisfaction of our spiritual being. It is not like building a brand and making commercial designs.

"I think the pursuit of humankind gradually evolves from the practical to the spiritual realm. When people talk about haute couture, it’s not about the form but a kind of inner spirit. This passion comes from being able to manifest yourself, to express yourself. "

Guo Pei began as the only designer making high fashion clothes in China when it was against Communist ideology and yet now she has a large atelier in Beijing with teams of artisans who do the extraordinary hand work her gowns demand, some taking years to finish.

Her creations are brought to life directly from her imagination and she can allow her collections to take flights of fancy knowing that the skills of her team can bring them to life. She sees her couture designs in terms of art works rather than utilitarian pieces to wear.

"Haute couture is not made for commercial gain, but more for a kind of inner quest, a satisfaction of our spiritual being"

"I think when creating art, in order to put your love and emotion into your work, you really need to have a devoted attitude," the designer says. "Art is not a means or method of pursuing self-interests, it is more about sharing, about disseminating a kind of influence amongst human beings. So I really hope my work can influence people, can influence this world. The recognition I have today, I think it is more importantly due to my work.

Reflections of a gilded
gown from Spring 2018
"In society now, a lot of designers and artists work on their personal branding and deliberately market themselves, but I think all of this must be founded on your work. To be honest, I myself am not very good at networking, and personally I feel that I’m not very good at facing society in those terms.

"A designer or an artist can maintain their influence for a long time based on their work, not based on their personal branding. I enjoy focusing on my creations and they carry with them genuine emotion, love and something that is very real, and I believe people are attracted to these qualities."

Gothic architecture, the opulence of ancient China, Nature's growing plants, roots and flowers and the beauty of rare materials are just some of the inspirations for Guo Pei's haute couture shows in Paris. The artisanal work and skill that goes into the gowns are unusual even in the world of couture, some of the sequining can take several years to complete in her Beijing atelier. Guo Pei's palette of brilliant, glistening colours often includes Royal blues, electric reds and shimmering silver and gold ~ the colour she believes represents the soul.

 "I think when creating art, in order to put your love and emotion into your work, you really need to have a devoted attitude"

She designs couture that is all made to order and is completed by hand as well. Each piece has an unusual attention to detail and her atelier uses traditional talismans of good luck and longevity in her embroidery, such as the symbol of the dragon, butterfly and phoenix. The designers draws from her own cultural heritage combined with influences from 1920s and 1950s Western haute couture. Contemporary yet luxurious gowns are Pei's signature.

Flowers and growing plants were the inspiration
for the Spring 2018 collection
"I am the first designer in China to start making evening gowns, high fashion and haute couture," she comments. " I think I have been very fortunate, because the Chinese often have a saying that goes, 'the times create heroes'. Sometimes, you might not be able to build your whole life based on talent alone. It has been my fortune to have been born into a very good era."

Although now based in Paris, Pei was born in Beijing and studied fashion there, graduating in 1986. Three years later, she had become a senior designer at one of city's independently owned clothing companies, leaving in 1997 to set up her own fashion brand with her husband, textile magnate Jack Tsao. Pei's fashion style is still influenced by designs from the traditional Chinese imperial court and many luxurious pieces in her collection are made using silk, fur and embroidery.

Before she came to Paris, Guo Pei's work included fashion collections in Beijing and designs for the closing ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics where she designed the dress worn by Song Zuying during her duet with Plácido Domingo. The dress had 200,000 Swarovski crystals hand-sewn into the white gown. Pei has also done costume design for the film The Monkey King which was nominated for a Hong Kong Film Award. Pei’s works have exhibited around the world including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.
 "In today’s society, a lot of designers and artists work on their personal branding and deliberately market themselves, but all of this must be founded on your work"

Made entirely of bamboo, a creation from Spring 2018
made by artisans from Huangshan in Anhui, China,  
"I have been working in the Chinese fashion design industry for almost 30 years, which has only really matured during that time,'' says Guo Pei. "Entering into the fashion industry in China felt like a natural thing to me, because my early experience was also at the birth of Chinese fashion. I’ve seen a lot, from when I first started studying fashion design when nobody really knew what fashion design was, to after I graduated when so-called “brands” first started to emerge in China, which was very vague as a concept. When the masses started to follow fashion and follow trends, a lot of people on the street at that time were wearing the same clothes, because they thought that being fashionable meant being the same as everybody else."
One of Guo Pei's outstanding collections was Legend that went on to be exhibited around the world including at the National Gallery in Melbourne. The designer chose the stony glory of Paris' Conciergerie as the backdrop to the Spring/Summer 2017 show because of its medieval history and connection to mythical kings and queens. If haute couture is about imagination, fantasy and exploring the realms between fashion, art and theatre, this ebullient show in Paris embodied it all. Her opulent collection made a strong contrast to Paris Couture Week's other pragmatic presentations that were more like ready-to-wear.

The brilliant woven gold fabric that Guo Pei used in
her extraordinary Spring 2017 Legend show
The enthralling collection was held in a French Gothic palace imbued with a richness and magic that only two years work and 500 artisans can bring to fruition. The Legend 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 frescoed 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.

"For this collection that was later shown at the NGV in Melbourne, a lot of people thought that the pieces in the collection are no longer clothes that are wearable but they invoke thought and emotion in people," the designer says. "So for this collection I’m not so much a designer as an artist, which makes me very happy, because I believe art is humankind’s language that has no borders.

"For this collection I’m not so much a designer as an artist, which makes me very happy, because I believe art is humankind’s language that has no borders"

A bejewelled and embroidery encrusted
creation from the Paris Spring 2017
Legend show
"Art can really make everyone think and make everyone feel something, and through art everyone can find a sense of belonging for the soul. Art is everlasting and never dies. So, when we are designing clothes, if we can turn the clothes into a representation of the times, of abundant emotions and of love, so that they become a spiritual sustenance, I think that is really the ultimate pursuit."

Guo Pei created a show imbued with a richness and opulence, especially the extraordinarily elaborate embroidery and bead work. She wanted to return to her design roots, making fashion more about art and ideas. She wanted the Legend 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 in Paris. 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.

"If we can turn designing clothes into a representation of our times, of abundant emotions and of love, so that they become a spiritual sustenance, I think that is really the ultimate pursuit"

"It was more than a year ago, when the director of the NGV contacted me about showing Legend at the Triennial exhibition, a comprehensive art exhibition bringing together the works of almost 100 artists from dozens of different countries around the world," explains Guo Pei. "I was really overjoyed, because I felt like I was no longer a designer but had become an artist. The reason I selected pieces from this collection is because it has a special significance for me. It is a summary of the 30 years of my career, and the 20 years that I have been working on this brand. "

"That collection was more complete; it is like a peak or a summary after I have grown to a certain stage," she comments today. "You can say that it is a complete reflection of my life, my ideological realm and my values over these 30 years. I called it “Legend” because I wanted it to invoke thought in a lot of people. From borrowing inspiration from the churches, to my decision to showcase the entire collection at an ancient Parisian prison, to Marie Antoinette, and even to my choice of featuring Carmen Dell'Orefice, an 87-year-old model, all of this is trying to convey a sense of devotion."

Three dimensional flowers and
crystalline platform shoes
Spring 2018
For her next and fifth Parisian show, Guo Pei's presented the collection at the Cirque d’Hiver Bouglione. Called Elysium, the show featured a poetic tree root on stage, made by paper artist Charles Macaire. This symbolized Guo Pei's belief in Nature as the source of life and the importance of roots both literally and metaphorically. Flowers and growing plants were the inspiration from the silhouette and forms to the embroidery and accessories.

"Haute couture sits at the tip of the pyramid and faces a very limited audience ~it is more about leaving behind certain memories for the world, whereas ready-to-wear will ultimately enter into our lives," says the designer.

"But I don’t really want to make the kind of very industrialised fashion that people see these days. I hope that every single item I create, regardless of whether it is haute couture or ready-to-wear, will accompany you for a long time in your life, instead of being discarded along with the passage of time."

For Guo Pei, time is always pressing as her position in Paris means she must create two haute couture shows a year. She says the greatest satisfaction is when she can make new developments in design and technique. The designer says most of her designs are ultimately meant for people to wear and it is this work that sustains the more elaborate, artistic creations which call for enormous skill and time.

"Haute couture sits at the tip of the pyramid and is for a very limited audience ~ it is more about leaving behind certain memories for the world, whereas ready-to-wear ultimately enters our lives"

Guo Pei's remarkable sculptural
skill that combines whimsy
and technical mastery
Spring 2018
"I would really like to find a new path for ready-to-wear fashion in contrast to couture. The kind that I would like to create is the kind that will awaken your love, so I hope that my ready-to-wear clothing will also convey that same sense of devotion. As to how to make it more universal and acceptable to more people ~ this is actually something I am currently thinking very hard about. I think in the not-so-distant future, soon, people will be able to see my ready-to-wear collection."

The Spring 2018 couture Elysium show had a twilight colour palette with dark blue floral embroideries that evoked the mystery of that hour and its sfumatura colours. The models all wore towering crystalline platform shoes that extended the line, like the stem of a flower. Guo pei wanted to represent the life force as roots and flowers, as the sources of vitality.

While Guo Pei's fabrics are made in Switzerland, the atelier located in the Chaoyang District of Beijing makes the intricate embroideries. From the Gothic theme of Legend to the exploration of nature in the Elysium collection, the search for the divine is a key motif in the Guo Pei's work.  She believes gold embodies both knowledge and wealth.

"Perhaps many people would consider everything I have done so far as having reached a certain level of success, but to me it is only just a beginning," she explains. "What’s important is that the future is built on your foundations. I think my last 30 years have helped me build a very solid foundation, but I am only just standing on the starting line today. So I believe there will still be another 30 years for me going forward, and I hope my work will really become accepted by more and more people. If one day, my work could be remembered like that of Dior or Chanel, I think it would be a life very well lived. "

"Perhaps many people would consider everything I have done so far as having reached a certain level of success, but to me it is only just a beginning"

Severe and yet magical, an
architectural skyline
in black tracery
Fall 2018
For her most recent collection for Fall 2018,  Guo Pei’s show was held amid the ancient sculptures of the Romanesque gallery of the Cité de l’Architecture. This collection was overtly architectural with wide, structured panniered skirts, embroideries like Gothic stone tracery and patterns and designs like the silhouette of a cityscape or a ball gown shaped like a cupola. Guo Pei described her inspiration as wanting to evoke architecture’s “beauty of strength” with designs that demonstrated “a dialogue between the human body and spatial dimension.”

The technical mastery was evinced by creating architectural details into dresses, such as flying buttresses twisted into bodices or platforms with heels like columns, dresses like gilded spires and necklines in black tracery. Many of the designs were in black, giving the collection a modern, Goth look and gave a contemporary edge to her spiritual whims.

"If you ask me about the future of fashion, I believe it will experience more change," she says. "In fact everyone is thinking about it now ~ there is just too much ready-made clothing and no one is really in need of “that dress” anymore. Often when we go looking for new clothes, we can’t feel that sense of being drawn to something. Perhaps too many choices are making people feel more disorientated.

"I hope a fashion will emerge that is more universal than haute couture, but higher and more lasting than ready-to-wear, that no longer pursues temporary popularity. I think 'popularity' can sometimes make people feel very lost: something might have just come out onto the market ~ a new creation, a new design ~ but after less than two or three months it has already become outdated. I hope for a kind of stability that will allow a lot of designs to assimilate into everyone’s daily life and to accompany you for a long time to come ~ that would be my ideal."

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