Guo Pei makes art from fashion, exemplifying the rise of Chinese couture

By Centra Wilson

Special for the Examiner

If you’ve ever had doubts that fashion can be considered art, this is the show that will convince you. The Legion of Honor hosts a lavish retrospective by designer Guo Pei: more than 75 pieces selected from the Paris and Beijing catwalks over the past two decades. The work is otherworldly and dazzling: each piece literally represents thousands of hours of painstaking and expert tailoring. These treasures are present in the surprisingly ideal setting of the neoclassical architecture of the Legion of Honor and its various rooms filled with works of art.

Guo Pei is perhaps best known for dressing Rihanna for the 2015 Met Gala in a canary yellow dress with a train that took three people to maneuver (a dress that took 2 years and 50,000 hours to build).

In 2016, she became the second Chinese-born and educated designer to be inducted into the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture of the French fashion industry; that year, she was also named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

Guo Pei, now 55, hails from Beijing, where he spent his early childhood under the restrictions of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Taught to sew by her mother, she rebelled against the restrictions on “mao suit” clothing and dared to wear oversized dresses.

His grandmother was a repository of the memory of China’s opulent and imperial past and told young Guo Pei about fabulous silk dresses, richly decorated with traditional embroidery.

When Mao died and Deng Xiaoping assumed the position of supreme leader of China in 1978, Guo Pei had the opportunity to enroll in college and was accepted into a government fashion program.

After graduating with a degree in fashion, she worked for one of the first Chinese manufacturers of branded clothing. She was successful there, but she left her own design house and atelier, called Rose Studio, hiring 25 employees. Part of her plan was to revive traditional tailoring skills lost during the Cultural Revolution.

As Guo Pei told curator Jill D’Allessandro, “I wanted my collection to describe the reincarnation not only of human life, from life to death, but also of my culture. … During the Cultural Revolution, they destroyed their own culture, but my generation found it “.

His Rose Studio now employs nearly 500 people, capable of the kind of traditional embroidery and other forms of magic and sartorial expertise usually reserved for the papacy or royal weddings.

Guo Pei’s vision further evolved after frequent trips to Europe, where she was exposed to Western art, architecture and haute couture. The work featured in this exhibition is an outrageous and sublime fusion of her Chinese heritage combined with elaborate French court fashions and even religious vestments – ideal creations for a Eurasian incarnation of the goddess Quan Yin, had she gone for the Oscar of Vanity Fair after party, or Lady Gaga, if it were also the infallible Word of God.

“Faith, dreams, devotion and love” are what Guo Pei claims are his motivators, according to a video message recorded by the artist at the museum. (Guo Pei herself was sadly detained due to COVID restrictions.) She is also explicitly inspired by imperial China, European court life, theater, Chinese export art, and the world of botany. The Catholic Church and her insignia obviously made a good impression on her too, as seen in a huge gold dress full of orphans that would be just as comfortable as her on the Infant of Prague.

Strolling through its haute couture collections is to take your breath away in front of magnificent feats of the incredibly opulent time and expert detail work; there are miles of brocade and gold thread sprinkled on collars and necks, bodices and giant trains: real wearable Faberge eggs. Well, theoretically wearable: “I use the weight of the clothes, the height of the shoes and the bulkiness of the dress to represent a woman’s inner strength and confidence,” reads a quote from Guo Pei on one of the museum walls. A pair of conjoined dresses is actually made to be worn by two women at the same time (symbolizing the coexistence of two worlds in one place).

There is also a playfulness and humor at work in Guo Pei’s creations that are flirtatious and sexy at the same time. There are dresses that on the top resemble what Marie Antoinette might wear to go to the bullfight, but with layered silk miniskirts and layers that give off a kind of botanical gogo dancer / 60s skirt silhouette.

While learning from costume designers how to structure circle skirts, Guo Pei discovered a love of bamboo and wicker, which is employed in several pieces that make short dresses look like the kind of gold lampshades you might find in the mansion of the Sultan of Brunei.

In the L’Architecture collection – from Guo Pei’s Fall / Winter 2018 collection at the Cité de l’Architecture in Paris – there are beaded midi dresses, gothic church details and dresses made with translucent panels, embroidered with street scenes.

Another room contains pieces from “East Palace”, Guo Pei’s Spring / Summer 2019 collection, inspired by contemporary interpretations of what Guo Pei imagined women wore in the Forbidden City during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Fabrics incorporating mother of pearl have been developed for her; recognizably the Chinese silhouettes have bold new splits and ridiculously involved beadwork.

In addition to his own gallery, Guo Pei’s creations are also dotted throughout the main floor of the museum, creating excellent juxtapositions between his works and works of art from Italy in the 1600s and France in the 1700s and religious works of art. of the Renaissance.

This show is a must-see experience for fashionistas and non-fashionistas alike. Guo Pei is a couture mastermind and her work is China’s statement that she too has earned a vital place on the global fashion runways.


“Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy”

Where: Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave., SF

When: 9: 30-17: 15, Tuesday-Sunday

Tickets: $ 15 youth, $ 21 student, $ 27 seniors, $ 30 adult

Contacts: (415) 750-3600,

Guo Pei's Elysium dress from his Spring-Summer 2018 collection. (Photo by Lian Xu, courtesy of the San Francisco Museums of Fine Arts)

Guo Pei’s Elysium dress from his Spring-Summer 2018 collection. (Photo by Lian Xu, courtesy of the San Francisco Museums of Fine Arts)

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