Guo Pei creates art from fashion, illustrating the rise of Chinese tailoring

By Cintra Wilson

Special for examiner

The Legion of Honor organizes a sumptuous retrospective of couture designer Guo Pei – more than 75 pieces selected from the Paris and Beijing parades over the past two decades. The workmanship is otherworldly and dazzling – each piece represents literally thousands of hours of painstaking and expert wearable art.

If you’ve ever had any doubts about whether fashion could be considered art, this is the show that will convince you. The treasures are presented in the surprisingly ideal setting of the neoclassical architecture of the Legion of Honor and its various rooms filled with works of art.

Guo Pei is perhaps best known for dressing Rihanna for the 2015 Met Gala in a canary yellow dress with a train that took three people to maneuver (a dress that took 2 years and 50,000 hours to build).

In 2016, she became the second Chinese-born and educated designer to be inducted into the French fashion industry’s Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture; that year, she was also named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

Guo Pei, now 55, is from Beijing, where she spent her early childhood under the restrictions of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Taught to sew by her mother, she rebelled against the dress restrictions imposed by the “Mao suit” and dared to wear oversized dresses.

His grandmother was the repository of the memory of China’s opulent and imperial past and told the young Guo Pei about fabulous silk dresses, richly decorated with traditional embroidery.

When Mao died and Deng Xiaoping became China’s supreme leader in 1978, Guo Pei had the opportunity to apply to college and was accepted into a government fashion program.

After graduating in fashion, she worked for one of China’s first branded clothing manufacturers. She succeeded in this, but left to create her own design house and workshop, named Rose Studio, hiring 25 employees. Part of her plan was to revive traditional sewing skills lost during the Cultural Revolution.

As Guo Pei told curator Jill D’Allessandro, “I wanted my collection to depict the reincarnation not only of human life, from life to death, but also of my culture. … During the Cultural Revolution, they destroyed their own culture, but my generation found it.

Her Rose Studio now employs nearly 500 people, capable of the kind of traditional needlework and other forms of bespoke witchcraft and expertise usually reserved for the papacy or royal weddings.

Guo Pei’s vision further evolved after frequent trips to Europe, where she was exposed to Western art, architecture and haute couture. The work featured in this exhibition is an outrageous and sublime amalgamation of her Chinese heritage combined with the elaborate fashions of the French court and even religious attire – ideal creations for a Eurasian incarnation of the goddess Quan Yin, should she go abroad. Oscar from Vanity Fair. after party, or Lady Gaga, if she was also the infallible Word of God.

“Faith, dreams, devotion and love” are what Guo Pei claims to be his motivations, according to a recorded video message from the artist at the museum. (Guo Pei herself has unfortunately been detained due to COVID-related restrictions.) She also draws explicitly from Imperial China, European court life, theater, Chinese export art, and the botanic world. The Catholic Church and its regalia obviously also impressed her, as evidenced by a huge golden robe filled with orfrois that is said to resemble the house of the Child of Prague.

To browse her couture collections is to marvel at incredibly opulent and magnificent feats of time and expert detail work; there are miles of brocade and splashed gold thread on collars and chokers, bodices and giant trains – veritable wearable Fabergé eggs. Well, theoretically portable: “I use the weight of clothes, the height of shoes, and the heaviness of dress to represent a woman’s inner strength and confidence,” reads a quote from Guo Pei on the one of the walls of the museum. A pair of conjoined dresses are actually designed to be worn by two women at once (symbolizing the coexistence of two worlds in one place).

There is also a playful and humorous side at work in Guo Pei’s creations, which are both flirtatious and sexy. There are dresses that additionally resemble what Marie Antoinette might wear to go bullfighting, but with tiered silk miniskirts that give off a sort of 1960s gogo dancer silhouette.

Learning from costume designers how to structure hoop skirts, Guo Pei discovered a love for bamboo and basketry, which is used in several pieces that make short dresses look like the kind of golden shades that the found at the residence of the Sultan of Brunei.

In the L’Architecture collection – from Guo Pei’s Fall/Winter 2018 runway collection at the Cité de l’Architecture in Paris – there are pearl-encrusted midi dresses, detailing Gothic churches, and constructed dresses from translucent panels, embroidered with street scenes.

Another room contains pieces from ‘East Palace’, Guo Pei’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection, which is inspired by contemporary interpretations of what Guo Pei imagined women wore in the Forbidden City during the Qing Dynasty (1644 -1912). Fabrics incorporating mother-of-pearl have been developed for her; recognizable Chinese silhouettes get bold new cuts and ridiculously involved beadwork.

In addition to his own gallery, Guo Pei’s creations are also dotted around the ground floor of the museum, creating excellent juxtapositions between his works and Italian 1600s and French 1700s works and works Renaissance nuns.

This show is a can’t-miss experience for fashionistas and non-fashionistas alike. Guo Pei is a mastermind in couture, and her work is China’s declaration that she too has earned a vital place on the catwalks of global fashion.


“Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy”

Or: Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave., SF

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday

Tickets: $15 youth, $21 student, $27 senior, $30 adult

contacts: (415) 750-3600,

Guo Pei’s Elysium dress from her Spring/Summer 2018 collection. (Photograph by Lian Xu, courtesy of San Francisco Museums of Fine Arts)

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