For Chinese couture designer, Guo Pei, sartorial stories were her rebellion.
Santa Ana’s Bowers Museum, which is currently hosting a retrospective of the designer’s work, is an assurance that her story is amplified in one of the capitals of Western Culture and fashion: the west coast.
The couturier was born in Beijing in 1967, a year following Communist dictator, Mao Zedong’s takeover of China. He uniformed Beijing with propaganda and called it the Cultural Revolution. This was the world the Chinese couture designer was born into, but in the privacy of her home, her grandmother taught her a different way.
“My grandmother taught me about elegance. Every night when I was four or five, she described the dresses that women wore in the old days, and I pictured them before I fell asleep,” Guo Pei was quoted in the exhibition. “She told me how she used a thread to embroider flowers onto her clothes. Back then, there weren’t photos, but my imagination could run freely.”
Pei had a revelation that through clothing, creativity and free will could rise like a defiant, trailblazing phoenix. Perhaps that was what captivated my interest most about Pei: she saw clothes for what they were and are: stories.
Mao Zedong’s was telling one story of China by making the country’s citizens wear unimaginative tunics: that China was a united front, and at the same time disciplined under Mao’s example and rule. But Pei didn’t let one man’s interpretation of what a country’s message should be let that define her legacy and the heritage of Chinese couture. She would tell the story of China that was the way her grandmother recalled it—one flourishing with art, forward-thinking philosophies, delicious foods and elaborate garments that were wearable poetry.
So, Guo Pei continuously fuses Chinese motifs with other literary concepts as is evidenced in her 2016 haute couture line, Encounter, which is showcased heavily throughout the exhibition (though the exhibit does feature over 40 looks across her collections from the last 12 years). Encounter depicts sumptuous styles that dripped gold and silver and were lined with fur—threading themes of Edwardian England, 1920s America and ancient China alike.
Another example of this marriage of cultures is through Guo Pei’s third couture collection, 1002 Nights—which features a magic carpet-like dress reminiscent of the legends in Arabian Nights. The puffy-sleeved sky blue gown adorned with silver leaf detailing looks like something Queen Elizabeth I would wear if she was having a diplomacy meeting with the ruler of the Ottoman Empire.
As far as I’m concerned, any human who basks in Guo Pei’s work can see what true talent and what a strong representative of cultural fertility she is. No wonder she became the first Chinese designer to become a guest member of Paris’ Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the gatekeeper that decides what brands are considered ‘haute couture’ and those that are not. No wonder Rihanna’s custom Guo Pei number at the 2015 Met Gala, a canary yellow cape dress fit for a monarch, will go down in history as one of the most iconic red carpet looks of all time. Guo Pei’s mind is an infinite well of design genius. It is also proof that while western nations are more often thought to be the hubs for fashion, eastern cultures deserve to be just as much in the fashion mainstream.
Keeping it Krischic,
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