Tuesday 20 August 2019

Couturier Guo Pei's Universe of Mysticism and Magic

Like a field of marigolds, Guo Pei's extraordinary embroidered silk chiffon creation, that took seven years to make. A virtuoso feat of couture, the flowery tableau was the last look of her Paris AW19/20 show. All photography including cover picture by Elli Ioannou.
Highlighting Guo Pei's growing stature as a potent creative force in fashion, the couturier showed an intriguing new collection in Paris last month and a retrospective of her work in Singapore opened at the Asian Civilisations Museum. We take a look backstage at her Autumn/Winter 2019/20 haute couture show called Alternate Universe. Story by Jeanne-Marie Cilento. Photography for DAM in Paris by Elli Ioannou

Roman statues in creamy marble
at the Cour vitrée flank
Guo Pei's gowns
GUO PEI is a couturier who brings not only intelligence and poetry to her work but also a questing spirit. Along with the whimsical flights of fancy she takes with the themes of her haute couture collections, she similarly likes to explore new fabrics and techniques. Her latest collection uses pineapple skins to create a series of diaphanous, otherworldly gowns.

The designer chooses the location to present her couture collections in Paris with a great deal of thought, melding the motifs of the designs with the architecture of the space. This season, she held her show under the glimmering glass roof of the Cour Vitrée inside the Palais des Études, at the École des Beaux-Arts.

The oldest and most prestigious fine art school in Paris, it is located on the left bank, across the Seine from the Louvre, in the 6th arrondissement, at 14 rue Bonaparte. The École des Beaux-Arts has a history spanning more than three centuries with a long roster of students who went on to become some of Europe's greatest artists. The Beaux Arts ethos and teaching method was based on the study of classical antiquities, including Greek and Roman statues.

The Cour Vitrée, glassed over by architect Félix Duban in 1863, was once lined with Roman classical statuary and full-size copies of the Parthenon's columns that were studied by art students. Today, there are still classical sculptures in pale, creamy travertine marble (see image above) that fill the arched niches of the great hall. They form the perfect backdrop to Guo Pei's long, columnar gowns in the ivory-hued pineapple fabric which has a rich, lustrous texture suitable for draping.

Guo Pei is a couturier who brings intelligence and poetry to her work and a questing spirit

Opening the show were twins
in richly embroidered bodices
and panniers
The silhouettes of the dresses are inspired by European civilisation, from the fluid lines of Grecian drapery and flowing Italian ecclesiastical robes to stiff Baroque English ruffs and the wide panniers of Renaissance skirts. A subtle background palette of light gold and grey gave the collection a cohesive look suggesting Greek statuary, despite the sumptuous embroidery.

The final look of the Paris show (see main picture above) was like a field of marigolds amid green grass, all created from embroidered silk chiffon and tulle that Guo Pei said took her atelier seven years to make. The model glided out wearing this flowery tableau ~ a virtuoso feat of couture ~ carrying a crowned, bejewelled black crow.

This creation summarised the sense of magic and mystery that infused the entire show, from the opening pair of conjoined twins in a heavily embroidered black and gold gown with white powdered faces, (see at right). They appeared on the runway underneath an arch of entwined black branches filled with crows. The design of the twin's panniers or side hoops originates in the 17th and 18th centuries when skirts were wide at the side, leaving the front and back flat. Guo Pei used these panels to display her elaborate esoteric decorations and rich embroidery.

A sense of magic and mystery infused this season's haute couture show

The fluttering leaves of this gown are
home to bees, beetles
and butterflies
Guo Pei called the new haute couture collection Alternate Universe as she wanted to explore transcendent ideas and philosophies about life beyond the physical realm. "I imagine it as a dream, an alternate universe, parallel to this world, where everything returns to its original state of true pureness and beauty," she said. "I see it as the start of a mysterious journey."

Beneath the transparent domed glass of the Cour Vitrée, Guo Pei created a sense of light and dark, a chiaroscuro world of strange creatures from the preternatural twins to elfin figures with turned-up skirts and curly-toed shoes.

"Humans are not masters of this world," she explained. "Monkeys sit on the king's throne under the guidance of prophets." Animals and mystical symbols are embroidered on to dresses and capes in blue and red with an impasto richness. The designer uses crows in the collection ~ realistic fabric ones draped across shoulders and skirts ~ to symbolise the afterlife. She imagines them as the messengers of wisdom between one world and the next.

Guo Pei also created pearl snails and hand-embroidered, three dimensional beetles, spiders, butterflies and bees to  cover her gowns and represent mythological creatures (see image above). Animals from Aesop's fables are created by layers of stitching in deep blues and blacks with dashes of red and gold.

 A chiaroscuro world of preternatural creatures from conjoined twins in 18th century gowns to elfin figures in turned-up shoes

 Ruching, ruffling and rosettes
using pineapple hemp fabric with
an impasto of embroidery
Long, dramatic dresses depicted scenes of angels and demons, flocks of birds and Delphic motifs (see image at right). One gown even had an illuminated manuscript worn like a belt at the waist. Another one had a hooped skirt that when you looked closely was designed like a puppet theatre, with curtains and exquisitely dressed dolls.

Guo Pei built the collection around ideas of transcendence but also as an exploration of the qualities of pineapple hemp. Originally from the Philippines, this natural fibre is highly valued and has been widely used there for 400 years as it is light yet very strong.

The hemp is first extracted from the leaf fibre of pineapple plants and then put through seven different artisanal processes, all done by hand. It is spun, rinsed, dried and knotted to produce the fabric which has a natural creamy colour with a translucent and delicate texture. The pineapple fabric is the perfect foil for the collection's Grecian style silhouettes and Guo Pei's vision of mythological goddesses.

In this collection, she experiments with the pineapple material testing out different techniques, from ruffling and ruching to smocking and pleating. The fabric also forms the base for embellishments of pearls, feathers and Swarovski crystals. The pineapple leaf has a pale ivory colour that is a good neutral background for the splendid embroidery in silver and gold of creatures great and small.

The collection is built around ideas of transcendence and an exploration of pineapple hemp

 Backstage in Paris, a bird's
nest is created as a
Backstage at the École des Beaux-Arts, before the show in Paris, Guo Pei's team were busy at work creating the elaborate hair and make-up to go with both her ethereal and extravagant creations. Bird's nests were created in piled-up locks and topped with feathered creatures. Heavily embroidered head pieces in glittering colours were carefully placed and matched with equally scintillating eye-shadows.

The make up worn by the models for this Autumn/Winter 2019/20 collection was imaginative and varied. Some models wore barely a dusting of pale powder and sparkles while others had dashes of electric blue around their eyes with a yellow-green colour on their cheeks. It took time and care for the models to be dressed in the complicated, dramatic gowns such as a dress with a blood-red heart and branches and flowers growing from its centre or the broad crinoline skirt designed with a theatre of  miniature dolls.

Guo Pei has mastered the delicate balance of creating conceptual shows full of engaging new ideas with the ability to design desirable and wearable pieces. Amid the birds with jewelled, ruby-red eyes and opulently embroidered beetles were romantic, fluid gowns with full sleeves and flattering waists and slim bodysuits with capelets that could be worn on a night out in Paris. All of Guo Pei's creations are imbued with a beguiling mystique yet she brings her terrific skill as a couturier to making them beautifully fit the human form.
Tap on images to see highlights of Guo Pei's collection in Paris and backstage before the show
A diaphanous, pineapple hemp gown depicting an illuminated manuscript in embroidery, worn like a belt at the waist of a leaf-like bodice.

An elfin figure wearing a turned-up, translucent skirt and curling shoes added to the sense of a fairytale atmosphere.
A long, fluid romantic gown with a beautiful, ruched bodice and full sleeves that shows Guo Pei's mastery of the ethereal and the wearable.
A blood-red heart with branches and flowers growing from its centre was one of the more abstract creations of Guo Pei's oeuvre.
The elaborate embroidery in blue, black and gold of this long cape give it an ecclesiastical look and depicts mystical figures and symbols and animals like a ram with curling horns.
 Guo Pei plays with forms, shapes and materials so that a dress becomes a living tableau that frames the model.
A jaunty bodysuit decorated with golden crystals and feathers and worn with a layered capelet with a high collar.
Opening the show were a pair of conjoined twins in black and gold gowns with white powdered faces. The panniers form panels where Guo Pei displays her elaborate decorations and rich embroidery.

The finale of the AW19/20 show evinced the remarkable variety of textures and fabrics Guo Pei managed to create
from pineapple skins.
A whimsical dress with a high bodice and full skirt with flowing, beribboned "curtains" framing rows of miniature dolls as puppets.

A gracefully, draped gown with a full skirt and long sleeves that could be easily be worn outside Guo Pei's mystical fashion show, sans the bird's nest. Photograph by Abbie Biegert

Backstage a model has a final touch up before she goes on to the runway wearing a dress made of fabric lilypad leaves, pearl snails and embroidered beetles.
The make-up worn by the models was suitably otherworldly with dustings of coloured powders and sparkles around the eyes and lips that were otherwise kept bare.
A feathered bird with a jewelled crown completes this outfit of gold-embossed pineapple hemp sewn with embroideries of all-seeing blue eyes.

Backstage this model wears a Renaissance-inspired dress finished with rows of tufted feathers and a bejewelled binding and topped by a birdcage with blackbird inside.

A faux-hawk adds a note of contemporary drama to this embroidered long jacket that shows an Aesop's Fables mix of monkeys and princesses and symbols of moons and suns.
Backstage at the École des Beaux-Arts, models wait to go on the runway, wearing shoes with flowered pom-poms and baroque neck ruffs made from woven pineapple fibre and gowns decorated with feathered birds and elaborately dressed dolls. 

This detail of a cape shot backstage shows the attention to detail and skill of the embroiderers in Guo Pei's ateliers. This ecclesiastical gown displays the eye, monkeys and serpents that are a leitmotif of this collection.

A monkey face embroidered in gold with blue eyes and three-dimensional fur embellishes this top with clever, elliptical sleeves and a poplin, pleated waist worn with a crocheted skirt.

Looking like a fairytale figure from Alice in Wonderland, a model waits backstage with a little, black feathered friend on her shoulder.
Backstage a model looks at her phone while an elaborate headpiece, resplendently embroidered with flowers, leaves and swags of black beads, is carefully put into place.

The versatility of pineapple fibre is exhibited in these two gowns worn backstage, showing how it can be woven to create different densities and transparencies.
Models wearing the lavishly embellished gowns that Guo Pei created from the humble pineapple skin which provides a great foil to the blue embroidery.

Coming out on to the runway under the Cour Vitrée, Guo Pei's collection of strange and splendid gowns entranced the audience. Photograph by Abbie Biegert.
Couturier Guo Pei on the runway in Paris after the finale of her Autumn/Winter 2019/20 show.

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