Chinese designer Guo Pei was propelled into the spotlight when Rihanna wore one of her stupendous gowns, leaving everyone in the fashion industry slack-jawed.
In 2015, the American singer entered the annual celebrity love-fest known as the Met Ball in New York dressed in a canary yellow gown, and train, that seemed to envelop the entire red-carpet staircase.
The media-savvy star milked the moment to the max, preening and posing every which way for the photographic phalanx, and the resulting images were used worldwide on television news bulletins, Instagram feeds, magazines and newspapers.
But once the immediate hullabaloo had died down, the question being asked in fashion circles was this: who on earth had designed the fantastic creation? The answer was a name that few people outside of China, apart from a small group of fashion cognoscenti, would recognize. Guo Pei is well established in her native country, with a two-decade career making couture gowns for the fabulously rich, but until that Met Ball moment, she was little known internationally.
The Met Ball gown – the most talked about part of the annual fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, organized by the most influential person in the frock-making industry, Anna Wintour, editor of the American edition of Vogue – was certainly a sensational way to change that anonymity.
Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of Guo. Even the notoriously elitist French couture body, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, invited her to be a guest at its twice-yearly shows in Paris. The Beijing-based designer grasped the opportunity enthusiastically, showcasing, of course, the Rihanna dress and other creations that are almost as extravagant.
Guo does not appear to have a minimalist bone in her body, sticking single-mindedly to the excessive end of the style spectrum, yet in person she is a quiet, modestly-dressed and softly-spoken individual with a friendly smile. Make the effort to visit her studio, out in the further reaches of the Beijing suburbs, and she will readily sit down to chat at length about her inspirations and influences.
The schlep out there is also worth it for the surprise element. Rose Studio is located in a drab industrial complex, with nothing at all to indicate that any creative force exists in the vicinity. Opening the Rose Studio door, then, is like stepping into an alternative universe, where color, contrast, eccentricity and eclecticism are all strongly represented; the main lounge has gold mirrors on the wall, a tiger skin spread on the floor, a bird cage hanging from the ceiling and a chaise longue planted in the center.
There is nothing there that even hints at modesty or inhibition – as with Guo’s designs. Inspirations for her often-wacky creations come from disparate sources and include bullfighting outfits, imperial gowns and Hollywood fantasy movies. The intricacy of the embroidery and beading work on each special order can involve up to a year of work and a delivery bill that reaches well north of US$50,000.
“I like garments that are very elegant and classic and have a lot of detail,” she says. “I am like an author with my clothes, I like to tell a romantic story, a fairy tale. I get my inspiration from many sources. Watching the Tim Burton movie (Corpse Bride) about the bride who died and came back to life in the moonlight, wearing a beautiful dress, was one source. From movies like that you can see the meaning of life and how precious it is.
“Another of my collections was inspired by bullfighting and a collection called ‘Childhood Dreams’ was influenced by the fact that I had just had a child. On a visit to Paris, I saw Napoleon’s costumes in a museum and that really gave me ideas also.”
Famous clients for the one-off numbers have included actresses Li Bing Bing and Zhang Ziyi, along with dozens of lesser-known socialites from the nouveau riche ranks. Guo’s more exotic creations have included a Chinese blue porcelain-print dress with a long train and fan-like head-dress; a shimmering, beaded outfit with sleeves like upside-down traffic cones; and a skirt with three tiered levels paired with a bolero top.
For one collection, the septuagenarian model Carmen Dell’Orefice was flown in from New York to parade a jeweled gown that was so heavy it needed a two-man escort to bear the weight, and another two-man escort to help carry the train. Other gowns have included a Japanese geisha-style creation with embroidered dragons, a yellow fur coat with matching gold boots that appear to have been inspired by the Apollo moon-landing missions and sultry scarlet frocks that would not look out of place in a Wild West bordello.
A long career working in China means the designer has access to an unrivaled pool of expert seamstresses and skilled embroidery workers, at prices that are significantly cheaper than the ateliers of Paris and Milan. Clearly, the undisputed queen of China couture has many other ideas bubbling under, along with the energy and enthusiasm to carry them out.
She says: “I think there are two sides to my personality – inside, when I am creating, it is very dramatic, but outside it is the opposite. I am just the creator of the dream: my personal style is very simple because I have to work every day, so it is more convenient to dress simply. Although I do wear my own designs for parties and events it is not necessarily the showpiece ones.
“For me, it is the technical side of design that I find interesting. For inspiration I like to go to museums all over the world. I like all designers, they all have their strengths and personal styles; Yves Saint Laurent was an influence, and John Galliano at Dior.
“I talk to my staff with emotion and hope that I can teach them how to go further, and to have a clear aim for the future. I think of it like a school where they are students and I am the teacher.”
They can learn a lot from the maestro. Although she comes from a well-connected military family, giving her access to high-level potential buyers right from the get-go, Guo is also a canny entrepreneur who has never been afraid to take a chance.
After fashion college and factory experience, she branched out on her own in 1997, confident that newly-rich Chinese would be enthusiastic buyers of one-off gowns. And so it proved: the more elaborate, and intricate, the better when it came to gowns for celebrities appearing in nationally televised shows, or tycoons’ wives looking to make a mark at a charity ball. Weddings also became a major source of revenue, with Guo Pei regularly commissioned to design gowns for brides and their bridesmaids and family members.
A side effect of those commissions has been a resurgence in traditional Chinese crafts such as embroidery and beading – all used extensively in the higher-price-tagged gowns. The spotlight on the Rihanna dress – along with the other Guo Pei dresses exhibited at the accompanying Met Museum show, which focused on China – has also led to a new appreciation of traditional artisanal talent in China.
And it has left Guo sitting pretty, with a new stream of clients, a name that now has resonance in all the upper fashion circles, and a major face gain in her own country.
“I hope people in Paris New York and London can appreciate and like my work,” adds Guo. “I think we will get more international attention on Chinese fashion. I think it will grow very fast.”