Last Wednesday, in the Conciergerie de Paris (once a palace, then a Revolutionary court and the prison of Marie-Antoinette), I had the chance to attend the breathtaking couture show of Chinese designer Guo Pei. A 30-minutes long performance with two tech-infused dresses, using fluorescent material and LEDs. The designer, who was brought to the spotlight when Rihanna wore her iconic elaborately embroidered, fur-trimmed yellow dress at the 2015 MET Gala, is an invited member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, since January 2016.
Born and raised in China, Guo Pei‘s lifelong passion for couture is deeply rooted in her childhood dream. She grew up after the Cultural Revolution in China (which she doesn’t remember much, except that her and her family had enough to eat), back then, homemade clothes were the norm. Women used to sew for their family, and Guo Pei could thread a needle by the age of two, proud to be able to help her mother who had a bad eyesight. At the time, fashion wasn’t really part of people’s lives, as everything was constrained and monochrome; people being paranoid and encouraged to inform the State on their neighbors or even parents if they saw any rebellious behaviour.
Young Guo Pei was lucky no one overheard the bedtime stories her mother’s mother told her. Her inspiring grand-mother, who live with them (a common practice in Asia), was born in the twilight of the Qing dynasty in a prosperous family. Before the Communists came to power, the family had lost its wealth, but she shared her memories with young Guo Pei, who considers her as her first teacher. Teaching her about elegance, every night when Guo Pei was four or five, describing the dresses women wore in the old days, while the young designer was picturing them before falling asleep.
When she was around 20, she graduated at the top of her class from the Beijing School of Industrial Design, the only fashion school existing back then. She then spent the next 10 years designing for major manufacturers. She left the security of her steady job in 1997, creating the Rose Studio she rans today. As she tells the New Yorker, “There’s a Chinese saying: Timing makes the hero. Chanel came along at the right time, and so did I—at the moment of China’s ascendance.” After two decades of gradual opening to capitalism, 1997 was the year China made its great leap forward to the global economy.
Mixing her traditional Chinese heritage with Western influences, she samples images from ancient times, such as Renaissance art, opera, or fairy tales, recombining it with oriental decoration from her own Chinese heritage.
She has a very precise idea of what she wants her designs to be: her couture is handmade, and her “demi-couture” (she doesn’t do ready-to-wear) is hand-finished,
“Changing your look every season to please a fickle customer isn’t how I work,” she told The Newyorker. “I aim to create heirlooms that a woman can pass down.”
In order to be able to fulfil her ambition, “making clothes that sell in order to finance clothes that don’t, but which speak to [her] soul“, her Rose Studio adopts a particular and shrewd business model: creating a “club” of about four thousand customers, who pay an annual fee, from which their orders are deducted. This system allows Guo Pei to spend the needed time on each dress.
As the designer rises, her Chinese clientele grows and changes. After years of being Western brands’ couture clients, they now feel they’re at an age where traditions become more important, and that they are ready to embrace a more traditional, Chinese style. This also coincides with the results of the large anti-corruption campaign that started in 2012, forcing the regime’s elite to reduce their spending on flashy luxury goods. As they still had to find a way to spend their money, they hence started to patronize native-born designers. A trend that is supported by the government’s China 2025 plan: the Made in China 2025 is an initiative to upgrade Chinese industry, making the largely connoted “Made in China” move towards a meaning of quality rather than the opposite.
Today, Guo Pei employs nearly 500 skilled artisans, dedicated to producing creations that sometimes can take thousands of hours and up to two years to achieve. After the worldwide audience Rihanna gave her brand, and partly because of this exposure, the French Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture invited her as a guest member. The label “Haute Couture”, as “Champagne”, is a legally controlled French appellation, which is being protected by the Chambre – who admits only a few applicants. By the time she received their go, she had to work fast to meet its requirements: a guest member has to have its own Paris atelier, filled with a certain number of skilled artisans.
Focused on showcasing devotion, her latest collection, named Legend, was inspired by the spirits of ancient queens, and featured 87-Year-Old Model Carmen Dell’Orefice closing the show.
“Devotion, I believe, is an everlasting merit of human being. This sense of selfless commitment is always the driving force behind human exploration and creation. Like sunlight, which bestows vitality to all creatures, and brings prosperity to life on Earth, the offer is so simple and complete, without any reservation. My passion for couture is rooted in this belief. Only with the spirit of devotion can a creation stand the test of time, until it eventually becomes a ‘Legend’.” Guo Pei signed on the show’s notes.
The inspiration came from a visit she paid to the Jakob Schlaepfer fabric factory, near the Swiss Lake Constance. At the end of her visit, she was offered a few minutes in the St. Gallen Cathedral. A few minutes that turned into four hours, making her miss her flight but gaining unpriced inspiration. Her collection thus features patterns based from the church’s murals, sophisticated craftsmanship and exquisite embroidery. Using corded, three-dimensional embroidery, traditional knotwork techniques and engraved armour forged in copper.
At the end of the show, I took the opportunity to discuss with the designer and her translator (Guo Pei’s only language is Mandarin Chinese).
Clausette.cc: Please tell us about the impressive dresses that opened and closed the show,
Guo Pei: the creation opening this show is a tribute to Marie-Antoinette, who lived in this place, her shadow has traveled this place. As you saw, it’s a fluorescent creation. When exposed to light, it stores it and restores it in the dark. It recalls a childhood souvenir, when I was a child, we used to have a fluorescent little statue of Mao Zedong. At night, we used to go to bed quite early, and when the light was shut, I watched the statue slowly disappear in the dark. So I wanted to find a material capable of absorbing and restoring light. I find it is kind of the incarnation of Marie-Antoinette’s spirit, which is still here, and contributed a lot to French fashion.
Guo Pei: the last creation pays a tribute to Queens, I named it the Royal Spirit. A royal spirit that comes back. Today, we don’t have queens, but they stay in our hearts. The dress was worn by Carmen, who is 87 years-old today, she is the queen of my heart. I believe that any woman would like to look like her one day. The dress is the most important of the show for me. It’s the only red piece. When red can make one think about blood or death, for me, it represents the devotion, the contribution, a gift. A gift that can be done by creed, but it also can be a gift of time, of love. Young people don’t understand this concept nowadays. Today, I believe, there would not be Couture if this selfless gift wasn’t attached to it. If Haute Couture today was only about money, it couldn’t exist. It’s mostly gift and devotion. You can also see that the shows’ scenography was starting in red, and slowly getting to gold towards the end of the runway. The Golden Era, the most beautiful things that we have made, come from this devotion.
Clausette.cc: Please tell us about the dome dress (featured in the cover picture),
Guo Pei: there are LEDs inside, which enlighten the model’s face. It’s like a spirit, and the dome was shaped after a Church.
Clausette.cc: What place do you grant to technology in your work? Do you think it can be merged with tradition?
Guo Pei: Without hesitation, you know, technology has to ally with traditional craftsmanship. It is a necessity, because we’re not going to go backwards. We go on, progress is inevitable, and we have to accept it.