Beyond Couture: Seeing Guo Pei’s Creations in Person

The environment of the exhibit was one very much in line with Pei’s work: joy and an everlasting appreciation for life. Truly, the work spoke for itself.

Guo Pei, 52, has created dresses (if they can be described with such a quotidian word) that have been worn and featured in the Met Gala. She’s one of 6 guest members to the beyond-exclusive Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the collection of houses which create custom-fitted clothing for its high-profile customers. Each piece in an haute couture collection could range from 10,000 to over 100,000 dollars. Guo Pei’s pieces are no exception, selling for around 650,000 dollars. Founding her own studio, Rose Studio, after designing for 10 years, she was finally able to create the extraordinary visions in her head, much to the interest and adoration of major Chinese celebrities. Most of these gowns take years to produce and teams of people arduously working by hand. Guo speaks to an emerging time for Chinese fashion; following the 1978 Open Door Policy, designers now have the ability re-define what fashion means for China, combining western influences with traditionally Chinese ones. While Pei’s designs have many influences, displaying elements of fantasy and traditional alike, she’s always maintained a strong Chinese touch on her clothing, proudly boasting her nationality.

While Pei’s designs have many influences, displaying elements of fantasy and traditional alike, she’s always maintained a strong Chinese touch on her clothing, proudly boasting her nationality.

Her first runway show was in 2006, entitled “Samsara” which translates to “Life Cycle,” and she even designed a number of outfits for the Chinese Olympics in 2008, but her most prominent work was the 55-pound imperial-yellow gown Rihanna wore to the 2015 Met Gala (themed China: Through the Looking Glass). The dress was not made for Rihanna, despite the grace with which Rihanna wore it, but rather comprised over a 20-month span for Pei’s 2009 “1002 Nights” show. Rihanna’s outfit, almost expectantly becoming a meme, also garnered major media attention to Guo Pei’s work. And rightfully so, the gown is a walking fantasy, with a sweeping fur-trimmed, hand-embroidered cape. However, after over two decades of work, Guo Pei is finally receiving wide scale recognition for her work, with a documentary entitled Yellow is Forbidden and most recently with her first solo-museum exhibit entitled “Couture Beyond.” Its first American stop was Savannah, Georgia and its second and current home is the Bowers’ Museum in Santa Ana, California, where I had the pleasure of seeing.

I’ve never experienced an exhibit which garnered such visceral reactions. The subtle background music was frequently broken by gasps from the audience. With just over 40 pieces featured, there was a sense of intimacy and play both in the works and the exhibit itself. With no glass separating the viewers from the gowns, each spectator leaned in to inspect the handiwork and beading almost incomprehensibly put together. Volunteer docents knew what a gift it was to feature Pei’s work, excited to provide extra details on the dresses or a bit of what Pei shared during her visit to the museum. One docent described her as patient and seemingly not intimidating woman--she’s simply incredibly creative. Those working the front desk even joked with my father, saying he could take home any dress he could fit in. The environment of the exhibit was one very much in line with Pei’s work: joy and an everlasting appreciation for life. Truly, the work spoke for itself. Each of the visitors I spoke to boasted a different favorite piece, but the general disbelief for the work they were experiencing was nearly tangible. It was like watching kids in a candy store, except it was previously unbeknownst to them. Most people were unfamiliar with Pei’s work prior to attending, so each turned corner was a new discovery. I could speak endlessly to the reasons to attend this exhibit, but instead I’ll allow some pictures to speak on its behalf.