Wednesday 22 April 2020

Guo Pei's Himalayan Odyssey in Paris

Couturier Guo Pei takes her bow in Paris at the finale of her spectacular SS20 show. Cover picture backstage and all photography by Elli Ioannou for DAM
As the July haute couture shows in Paris are cancelled due to Covid-19, we interview couturier Guo Pei and take an exclusive look backstage at one of the highlights of the Spring/Summer 2020 season: her snowy show inspired by the Himalayas. In the past five years, the designer has had a meteoric rise on the international stage that began with Rihanna's Met Ball gown and has included major museum exhibitions plus a documentary film. Story by Jeanne-Marie Cilento. Photographs by Elli Ioannou 

Richly embroidered in gold, Buddhist Thangkas
depicted on one of Guo Pei's
creations in Paris.
IN PERSON, Guo Pei is engaging and lively, her long, black hair swinging and emotions flitting across her expressive face as she talks about her work in a soft and melodious Mandarin. She exudes determination yet melds this with fey and dreamy descriptions of her designs as poetry.

Guo Pei's sculptural gowns, undulating shoes and towering headdresses represent her struggle to express her ideas through the medium of fashion. She is not willing to allow limitations of textiles, techniques or the human body stop her from bringing her creative vision to life.

"Haute couture is my favourite form of fashion," Guo Pei explains. "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. "

Her most recent show, the Spring/Summer 2020 Himalaya collection, was held on a cold Parisian evening in late January at the Palais de Tokyo. Guo Pei created a snowy ambience amid the phalanx of tall columns lining the contemporary space. The couturier showed 22 looks that explored her ideas about the influence of the primitive on civilization.

Guo Pei's sculptural gowns, undulating shoes and towering headdresses represent her struggle to express her ideas through the medium of fashion

The design of the show captured the snowy beauty
and austerity of the Himalayas
Although, the collection was inspired by the Himalayas, the designer has never been there and saw it as a symbolic place full of mystery to explore in her imagination. "I like how the height of the Himalayas, the connection to the sky, the peaks all seem to overlook the world," she explains.

"And I like the whiteness; a holy white that fuses mountain pinnacles to the sky; the white snowflakes floating lightly, the white mountain peaks standing steep and lonely. A brilliant white that is so pure it is like the soul and spirit. "

Guo Pei was drawn to the sacred designs on traditional Thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist depictions of  deities and mandalas) which she had embroidered onto antique fabrics, including the buddhas of the three realms and the mysteries of the circles of life, all richly evoked in gold on brocade and embellished with gemstones.

"I am inspired by the steepness, solitude and the icy cold of the Himalayas," says Guo Pei. "They are like a gloriously divine image for me. For thousands of years, the place has symbolized the road to truth, the residence of the gods, the temple of the soul. I like the sense of stillness and purity. "

"I like the white snowflakes floating lightly, white peaks standing steep and lonely. A brilliant white that is so pure it is like the soul and spirit."

The Snow Lotus in all its glory,
created from chiffon, feathers and organza.
Artisans working at Guo Pei's ateliers in Beijing embroidered the vivid religious patterns from Thangkas with both gold and silver threads. Using her in-depth knowledge of colors and fabrics, Guo Pei integrated the embroidery and fabric to show her interpretation of Tibetan art.

Also the layered, flowing silhouettes of the collection are inspired by traditional Tibetan designs including voluminous sleeves and dropped waists that reflect the freedom of movement of the nomads living at the foot of the Himalayas. Brilliant green and gold embroidered capes provided a dramatic contrast to the all-white feathered skirts and shoes.

"The Snow Lotus stands above the icy ground and is an important motif in this collection," Guo Pei says. "Growing far above the snowline, this rare breed of flower remains uncontaminated and for me represents the untainted soul.

"For the collection, I used feathers, chiffon and organza to create the graceful, translucent texture of snow lotuses. The gowns' necklines, cuffs and skirts mirror the elegant outline of this exquisite flower." Guo Pei used crystals and pearls layered in clusters to create the flower's stamen. Pleating and weaving techniques by artisans were used to create snow in different states: melted, powder soft or crystallized into ice.

One of the standout features of the Himalaya collection is the use of antique gold brocades from China and Japanese Obi fabrics. Guo Pei decided to use the reverse side of these textiles, creating contrasting intertwined yarns as a metaphor for different civilizations and cultures.

"The Snow Lotus stands tall above the icy ground and is an important motif in this collection"

Silk kimono obis were sewn together on their
reverse side, symbolizing the convergence
of different cultures.
Hundreds of antique Japanese kimono belts were cut into small pieces and put together to create abstract patterns in different colors and textures. "Sewing together the various fabrics symbolizes the convergence of different civilizations and cultures, weaving into each other like history through the centuries," says Guo Pei.

Guo Pei has a love for antique textiles, which she collects and often reworks in her collections. She sourced rare obi fabrics from Japan: "We transformed hundreds of silk kimono belts by cutting them into squares and reassembling them on their reverse side, exposing the yarn in an amazing, beautifully nuanced fringed texture."

Guo Pei 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 in 2015 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 is inspired by ideas, aesthetics, philosophy and history.  "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," she says.

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, Guo Pei's are all about creating a sense of mystery beyond the mundane concerns of quotidian life or ready-to-wear fashion. 

"Sewing together antique fabrics symbolizes the convergence of different civilizations and cultures, weaving into each other like history through the centuries" 

An evocative and tactile gown
capturing the fluffy iciness of snow.
Guo Pei started her career 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 fruition She sees her couture designs in terms of artworks rather than utilitarian pieces to wear.

"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. "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.

"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."

"Art is not a means of pursuing self-interests, it is about sharing, about disseminating a kind of influence amongst human beings"

Guo Pei' Buddhist 3D motifs were created
with the extraordinary virtuosity of
the embroiderers in her ateliers.
The artisanal work and skill that goes into the gowns are unusual even in the world of couture, some of the sequinning can take months to complete. Guo Pei's palette of glistening colours often includes deep blues, electric reds and shimmering silver and gold ~ the colour she believes represents the soul. 

Guo 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.

Guo Pei's designs are always influenced by designs from the ancient Chinese imperial court and many luxurious pieces in her collection are made using valuable silks.

"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 everyday lives," says the designer.

"But I don’t really want to make the kind of very industrialised fashion that people often have to wear 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.

"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," Guo Pei says. "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."

Highlights of Guo Pei's SS20 collection in Paris plus exclusive pictures backstage 

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