Fashion

Guo Pei: Fashion As Eclectic Art

As her new exhibition at Sotheby's goes on view, the Chinese couturier talks bringing together East and West, the importance of the past, and the power of beauty.
Reading time 10 minutes

Guo Pei is the definition of a couturier. While she's technically a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, all her work roots back to the artistic side of fashion, with an intricate portfolio of designs that has moved beyond being a Chinese celebrity favourite to achieve international acclaim. Guo has been showing in Paris since the beginning of 2016, just after she caught the attention of the Western world with the gown Rihanna wore to the 2015 Met Gala. We all know the one: with a maximalist train, a border of lush fur, and the designer's expert embroidery, this true fashion moment cemented its wearer as a style icon and Guo as a couturier to watch. Since then, the fashion world has kept its eye on the designer as she presents collections full of symbolism and luxurious details in Paris each season. 

Now, Guo has returned to the city that made her famous in the West, this time for an exhibition at Sotheby's. As part of the auction house's Asia Week, a curated selection of her designs will be on view alongside several artworks through Monday, September 9. Exhibited alongside traditional Chinese artworks both in her own exhibition and across several others, the couturier's creations stand out in their references to the past and their modern eclecticism. A true highlight is the way the dresses coincide with objects in the vicinity, sharing key details that display the way Guo brings multiple periods and traditions into the fashion space.

Photo via Getty Images

"I was looking at the dragons that are coming up at the bottom of this red dress, and their elongated necks, and I can't help but think of [one of the artworks]," Angela McAteer, Sotheby’s Head of Chinese Works of Art, said of how the selections align. "I mean, it's uncanny, some of it. And this is made somewhere between 200 BC to 200 AD, whereas some of the crane or phoenix designs on the blue jacket reference the 16th through 18th centuries. You can place them across a huge spectrum of dynastic periods. It's fascinating. "

The spectrum of time McAteer mentions is just one of the ways Guo integrates multiple influences into her work. Never one to stick to only one source of cultural inspiration, the designer also brings together her Chinese background with her experiences engaging with the Western world. She aims to use her work to spark exploration of multiple cultures and histories, crafting an eclectic, globalised dialogue that brings her couture into a truly modern space.

"As an artist, it's my responsibility to take history and bring it to the present or even the future," Guo said. "I'm not saying to bring people back to the past, but it's a reminder to understand history...it's not something that we have seen in the past, because otherwise, people may not be interested, but that doesn't mean the past can't translate to work now. You can say it's more of a modern, or contemporary, type of couture."

Ahead of today's exhibition opening, L'Officiel USA had the chance to speak with Guo about her new project, what she loves about the color gold, and where she believes couture stands today.

What was the process like collaborating on the curation?

This was my first time collaborating with Sotheby's. It's such a prestigious, world-renowned company, and it's rare to see haute couture collaborate with art and transcend the two spheres at the same time. It's rare and it's great. Because it's not something you see on a daily basis, this is a great opportunity to show haute couture to the world.

 

How do the couture designs compare with the artworks?

With haute couture, every dress is like a work of art. It shows many years of culture and art, and it's very historical and emotional. It transcends memory and challenges those who experience it to continue to be creative in their roles within society. It also challenges our view of the past. 

 

What is one thing you want the world to know about Chinese fashion?

In Chinese heritage, our culture is our life. It's our blood; it's inseparable [from our identity]. The pieces themselves are very natural. The culture that we have in China deliver a message to the world, letting everyone understand our cultural history, our ancestors, and the emotions we want to show the world.

 

Many people still know you best for the gown you designed for Rihanna at the 2015 Met Gala. When people are intrigued by this, what do you hope they discover about your body of work?

I want to show the power of beauty and love. I strongly believe that we as humans pursue a high level of beauty. Due to changes over time, our standards of beauty are different than they were hundreds of years ago, but because this world is getting more fast-paced and more connected, we can connect to our past through recognising this similar level of beauty. I want people to discover this unified appreciation of beauty.

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Where do you get your inspiration for your work?

My inspiration comes from my daily life and my culture. I also believe every artist has a similar inspiration of creating work that takes from their background and experiences, and through this, we encounter emotions and deeper influences. The pieces take inspiration from my culture and my past, but it's not only from the East, as Western civilisation also comes through in the pieces I've developed.

 

As a couturier, how do you think fashion and art enhance each other and how does this exhibit show this?

Haute couture is more similar to art instead of the fashion you see every day. Sometimes, when you look at this piece, it's not realistic, it's something beyond what you usually see, and it's more similar to what an artist pursues and has a symbolic presentation. But unlike paintings and sculptures, which one person can finish, it's the result of collaboration with a strong team, with sophistication and a high level of skill that they can use to produce a collaborative piece to show to the world. The clothing itself is like a structure, but if you look at the embroidery, it's similar to the skin of a human. These are the types of details that show in this form of art.

 

In a world that's so fast-paced, where do you think couture stands?

It's true that technology and the world are getting faster and faster, but at the same time, we shouldn't forget the past, as well as human needs. As an artist, it's my responsibility to bring history to now, or even to the future. I'm not saying to bring viewers back to the past, but it's reminding people to understand history. And it's not like there is a mutually exclusive process from the past to the present and future, and creating something now can transcend time. It's not something that we have seen in the past, because otherwise, people may not be interested, but that doesn't mean the past doesn't translate to work now. So you can say it's more of a modern, or contemporary, type of couture.

 

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As a couture designer, you're typically showing your work in shows alongside other couture houses, but this Asia Week exhibition coincides with New York Fashion Week, and it's also showing more of your work to people in New York. What does this mean to you to have this happening?

Fashion plays a big role in our world. In this industry, fashion is a part of life on a daily basis, and in the sense of comprehending and communicating, it's great to inspire each other through different cultures during Fashion Week and at this couture exhibition. We don't just want to inspire people with the Eastern culture I have in these pieces, but we also want to let others inspire me with the work they are presenting. To improve and keep going in this world, you have to acquire new sources of inspiration. You have to keep communicating with each other, not only through fashion but also through culture and language.

 

You're also working on a sale next month with gold in London. What do you think is the power of gold in enhancing fashion?

Gold is actually my favorite color. The reason why is that the color shows a high level of wealth, and even culturally it symbolises power. And it's very warm, like the sun. In human history, gold was the first to have acquired that high status.

 

Is there a piece you've created using gold that especially stands out to you for what the material brought to it?

There are two pieces that I really like. One is "Little Gold," which I designed in 2006, and the other is "Big Gold," which was on view in the Met for the "China: Through the Looking Glass" exhibit. For that one, it took six years to research and develop, and they used the thinnest golden thread for these pieces. Because of the technique as well as the time and effort that we have put in so far, I can assure you the quality is worthy of emperors in my culture. That type of extravagance is like nothing I've ever seen in other museums that have displayed such techniques of these dresses. I wanted to show the world how much goes into an haute couture piece.

 

Do you have anything else you'd like to add?

I'm hoping—and actually I believe—that haute couture should be considered art. It presents ideas of today alongside those of history, and its complexity evokes memories. I hope that in New York as well as next month in London, people can view it in a very artistic way, to appreciate this haute couture.

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