For her fifth Parisian show, Chinese Haute Couture designer Guo Pei welcomed us last Wednesday night at the heart of the Cirque d’Hiver Bouglione, a symbolic centuries’ old monument in Paris.
For the occasion, the centuries’ old monument was transformed into a romantic and colorful Elysium, sporting a gigantic and poetic tree root, entirely made by hand by paper artist Charles Macaire. Materializing Guo’s attachment to Nature, this magic root evokes the source of life, absorbing and returning the nutrients and energy necessary for the good health of the tree.
A show that lasted more than 30 minutes, during which we could discover no less than 23 pieces, whose flower was the key element. Declined through extraordinary interpretations, from silhouette to form, from accessories to embroidery, the flowers took on dozens of different forms, combining the richness of techniques with the most vivid forms.
Brought to the spotlight when Rihanna wore her iconic elaborately embroidered, fur-trimmed yellow dress at the 2015 MET Gala, Guo Pei has been an invited member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, since January 2016.
A few days after the show, in the private salons of Paris’ Shangri-La, we met the designer and her assistant Rachel Lim-Pinoncely, to ask them our questions and discuss over the sumptuous experience Guo Pei and her team gave us last Wednesday evening.
Futur404: Could you tell us more about the first dress, made entirely of bamboo?
Guo Pei: The opening dress is made entirely of bamboo, sourced from Huangshan in Anhui, China. This region is famous for producing things made out of bamboo, they have lots of bamboo ateliers with skilled craftsmen who know how to manipulate the material. For this collection, our focus was really on natural materials and resources, the rational behind it is because of the idea of the Elysium: it represents an ultimate state of happiness and perfection; and the world started with vegetation, it was the first thing that grew on Earth before Human beings, and so I felt it was appropriate to open the show with a dress made out of entirely natural materials.
F404: How can the narrative of this show serve as a basis to trigger a more sustainable vision for Haute Couture?
Guo Pei: I feel no matter how developed and how technologically advanced the world gets, at the basis of it all was nature – and perhaps it is why in the world today we see a return to using naturally sourced products and sustainable fabrics. We can’t forget our foundations, and Elysium gives you the vision that you are back in a Nature Wonderland, it can be a forest, by the beach or out in Nature, but you are surrounded by Nature and that’s where everyone’s soul, at the end of the day, thrives to be, not somewhere full of technology and iPads; that’s a place where Nature brings you happiness.
F404: How important are inclusion and cultural diversity to you? We spotted a lot of African vibes in this collection, and in the choice of some of the models as well. Is it something that you take into account on a regular basis in your creative process?
Guo Pei: It was not a deliberate effort to combine all these elements, but it is very interesting that you’ve got to see it, and that you felt how important it was for us to have all these elements put together. Although I am Chinese, I don’t deliberately try to show it through my collections. Of course the embroideries and all that is a culturally very important art for us, but it does not define us. We do not just show the Chinese side of our designs, in today’s world, we are all influenced by all these outside forces and cultures, so inevitably I will also get nuances of these influences and incorporate them, consciously or not, into my work. I don’t feel boundaries when putting a show or pieces together.
My very first inspiration came from a picture / painting of the discovery of Africa. There was a very small African boy, and a very big plant next to him. I got inspiration from this to think that at the beginning of our lives, plants and vegetations were actually way bigger than humains, and they live longer. Plants were there to open the routes for us.
F404: What kind of natural materials did you use? And how hard was it to manipulate and integrate into your designs?
Guo Pei: We used a lot of linen for a lot of the dresses, especially the puffy ones. The material was very closely linked and the embroideries were made on top of it. So, the material itself is just strings, it’s the fabric in its purest form.
We actually had to explore a lot of new ways to manipulate the fabric, because it is not the same as before. For example, many of the dresses do not have seams. In order to hide the seams, we had to have another layer of fabric around it. I was very touched by my team’s dedication to making this work out, because it requires double the effort. It’s not just making a dress, it’s also about figuring out a way to make it perfect, because with the closure, the seam and then the material on top of it, the embroidery looks more 3 dimentional, more life-like. It was indeed a big challenge, and it took us about a year to figure out the whole process, but in the end it pays off, as we managed to make it a big learning gap for the team.
I love to work on new collections, because everytime we explore new ways of working with materials, new materials, and I feel that with the team, we grow with every collection, we’re not making collections for the sake of running collections, it’s a learning process for everybody, everybody gets to the next level of skills. It’s like running for the A-level every year, each year you get better.
F404: The China 2025 plan, launched by China in 2013, seeks out to return Chinese quality to its millennial meaning, making the largely connoted “Made in China” move towards a meaning of quality rather than the opposite. In this context, does the government support your work?
Guo Pei: When the government announces a plan like this, they usually fully support the designers. I feel that we have more and more progress towards this goal. At the moment, I see a lot of government support behind hand craft, promoting previously probably neglected and lost arts of Chinese artisanat. It is a big leap for us.
F404: So, are you trying to help some of these craftsmen, like the one who made the bamboo dress, is it a way to preserve this savoir-faire?
Guo Pei: Yes, it is indeed a contribution. It has always be my wish to be able to revive these so-called lost Arts, handicraft and savoir-faire. Little by little, we get there.
F404: How do you feel France has been welcoming you since you first joined the Haute Couture invited members in January 2016?
Guo Pei: As an Asian designer, particularly as a Chinese, because Japanese designers are well known for their crafts, it’s quite different for a Chinese designer. Because China is more known as a manufacturing country, than for its savoir-faire. It hasn’t always been easy, but I feel with each show that I am gradually get more understood, more appreciated and eventually more accepted. So it comes a little at a time, and so I’m glad to hear with at every show more and more people are expressing their appreciation and acceptation of my designs, creations and art.