It’s the blockbuster fashion exhibition of the summer. As one of the world’s leading haute-couture designers, Beijing-based Guo Pei will be showcasing more than 60 dazzling works at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki next month. Fashion director Dan Ahwa talks to the designer ahead of her arrival, and how
It took 50,000 hours of elaborate work for Chinese couturier Guo Pei and her atelier to construct an awe-inspiring 25kg golden cape, built from the ground up in a swathe of silk and furs, yet only mere seconds for the grandiose garment to go viral on the internet in a way its maker hadn’t intended.
Up until that point, not since Jennifer Lopez’s plunging neckline Versace dress from the 1999 Grammy Awards had a red carpet convincingly broken the internet. We’re talking about Rihanna’s yellow, embroidered, bedazzled, fur-trimmed confection of a moment at the 2015 Met Gala red-carpet arrivals for the Costume Institute’s exhibition China: Through The Looking Glass.
Talking about right place, right time, the pop-culture moment converged at a time when internet memes were becoming a thing, the look spawning its own glut of countless parodies online. When Rihanna was asked during an interview for Vanity Fair in 2019 about one viral meme that likened the look to an omelette, the Grammy-award-winning Barbadian singer described it as “legendary”.
“I don’t think many Chinese people understood the significance of that moment and its impact on my career,” says Guo, speaking from her studio in Beijing. “I don’t think I even comprehended it myself.”
Known as the Yellow Queen gown, the distinctive design is emblematic of two turning points in the careers of two influential women. For Rihanna, it was a moment that solidified the Bitch Better Have My Money, self-made billionaire as a fashion, beauty and entertainment tour de force.
For Guo, it was timely recognition as a serious contender in the rarefied (and Eurocentric) world of haute couture, the Met Gala acting as a debutante ball for the designer into a global playing field beyond China.
“The initial feeling and the intuitive reaction of seeing Rihanna attending the Met Gala wearing my design could be described as ‘surprised’. I speak not only of my family and friends but myself as well, we were utterly surprised by the suddenness of the moment. As time went by, people started to pay attention to the design of the gown, gradually acknowledging its merit.
“I think this may be what you would call a match made in heaven, or fate, to be more precise,” she says. “Fate is a form of connection. The amazing collaboration with Rihanna could also be considered fate. She breathed new life into my work.”
That same year, the 56-year-old couturier was invited to become an official member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the chief governing body of the high-fashion industry based in Paris. Members go through a rigorous screening process and are required to fulfill certain criteria before being invited.
Guo’s own experience of this was well documented in the 2018 film Yellow Is Forbidden by New Zealand film-maker Pietra Brettkelly, who explained to Viva at the time of the film’s release how the Met Gala moment provided the perfect linchpin for Guo’s personal journey to unfold on screen. “I thought, how interesting for Guo to be part of the fashion industry and not know who one of the most iconic people in music and entertainment and fashion is, certainly in the Western world.”
But the groundwork was already laid well before Rihanna came along.
Graduating at the top of her class in the Beijing School of Industrial Fashion Design in 1986, Guo eventually went on to launch her label in 1997 and became a pioneer in reclaiming Chinese fashion through traditional techniques that sat in contrast to the nation’s well-documented ability to manufacture ready-to-wear for the masses.
“As one of the earliest fashion designers in China, much of my career has been built from firsts that were significant to myself, my industry, and my country,” she explains.
“I was the first professional designer to create formalwear for galas, the first to turn the practice of designing garments for presenters, performers and singers and subsequently into a professional couture industry. I was the first to embrace a proper career as a fashion designer in China, and the first to establish a dedicated registered couture business.”
Come December 9, the elaborate design worn by Rihanna will join more than 60 other garments that will make their way to Auckland as part of Guo’s extravagant exhibition Guo Pei: Fashion, Art, Fantasy 郭培：时装之幻梦 next month at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, a major coup for the gallery.
“Guo Pei’s remarkable talent is evident in the hope and inspiration her gowns evoke,” says gallery director Kirsten Lacy.
“Beholding her masterpieces gives a sense that, with heart and determination, the impossible becomes attainable. This exhibition is other-worldly in its ambition and achievement, representing decades of commitment and effort, exceptional labour and accomplished skill. Guo Pei’s playful imagination, creativity and freedom [are] brought to bear in her ensembles.”
Her last major exhibition in 2022, Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy, at the San Francisco Legion of Honor, featured 80 gowns and with a record attendance, one that Kirsten hopes to emulate with Guo’s New Zealand debut. Speaking with The New Zealand Herald’s Kim Knight upon the announcement in August, Kirsten explained the time was right for Guo to have her works shown in this part of the world.
“We have such a large Chinese population in Auckland and New Zealand and I really have been looking for some time for a project from out of China that would connect with and reflect those audiences.”
Guo is equally excited about the potential to connect with local audiences, and for local Chinese in particular to feel connected to their homeland.
“The key difference is that there will be new works on display that are exclusive to Auckland Art Gallery. These works, distinct from any other I’ve shown in the past, are judiciously hand-picked in response to the specific style of [the gallery’s] architecture and interior design, as well as the exhibition’s unique curatorial perspectives and the wide spectrum of artistic expressions from the gallery’s own collection.”
“We understand that 15 per cent of the nation’s permanent residents are of Asian descent, with 260,000 of them being Chinese. Therefore, my goals are to help viewers in New Zealand get to know modern China through my designs so they may acquire a better understanding of the Chinese communities living here, and to provide my viewers a pathway to understand how culture and emotions are expressed, how fashion and designs are appreciated, as well as the utter beauty of immaculate craftsmanship in modern China.”
But it’s not only her creativity that delivers the spotlight — Guo’s reputation for passing on and sharing knowledge is what makes the 500-plus skilled artisans in her Beijing atelier hang on to her every word. She is the example in China of what a successful fashion career means in a country that makes up 17.72 per cent of the world’s total population.
“I take pride in my team. From embroiderers and pattern-makers to artisans, I have personally trained each and every single one of them. Twenty-five years ago in China, prior to the establishment of Rose Studio in 1997, the art of couture, its concepts and styles, was largely unheard of, let alone any designers who were skilled in the trade to call on.
“Therefore, we had to build a talent reservoir from scratch. Back in the day, pattern-making was exclusive to mass-produced ready-to-wear while pattern-makers for couture were non-existent. The current pattern-makers working for Rose Studio are ex-artisans who went through processes of rigorous training and judicious selection.
“The techniques that the embroiderers from Rose Studio wield are different from those used in Suxiu, which are deemed traditional and mainstream. For Rose Studio, Suxiu is the foundation to our creation, but our techniques have gone far beyond traditions. We have established, in turn, something new and our works define the latest standards of craftsmanship in modern couture.”
While in New Zealand, she plans on meeting with fashion designer Kiri Nathan at her Te Āhuru Mōwai creative hub in Glen Innes. Kiri’s commitment to upholding Te ao Māori values within her practice is a concept that resonates deeply with Guo’s own approach to exploring Chinese identity and creative excellence through her designs.
“Our cultural languages are natural to us, they are also convenient vehicles for us to express our emotions. Therefore, the cultural identity of a designer is an inseparable part of who they are and like blood running through in the veins, a component that sustains their life.
“I feel that, just like me, indigenous designers in New Zealand are proud of and deeply in love with the culture they identify themselves with. Their culture becomes a part of their being and their artistic expression. For designers, it is what matters the most.”
Dan Ahwa will conduct an intimate in-person interview with Guo Pei on Sunday, December 10, 2023, at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki from 2pm to 3pm. Tickets are $35 and are limited. To purchase tickets, and for a full list of programming, visit Aucklandartgallery.com.
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