Most people would probably know of Guo Pei primarily as the Chinese designer behind one of Rihanna’s most iconic looks – the canary yellow caped gown she wore to the Met Gala in 2015 that launched a thousand omelette memes. But Guo Pei has been in business for more than 20 years, and now, her designs and her are the star of the fascinating new “Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture” exhibition that opens this Saturday at the Asian Civilisations Museum.
Executed in collaboration with the museum, the exhibition will present 29 Guo Pei designs alongside 20 artworks from the museum’s own collection – and yes, many of her most striking designs over the years will be on display, including the exact gown worn by Rihanna.
If you’re wondering what’s the connection between art and couture – the artworks from the museum’s previous exhibitions have inspired some of Guo Pei’s designs. For example, the couturier came across the Peranakan Museum’s (a sister institution) travelling exhibition on Peranakan Chinese art in Paris back in 2010. That birthed a bridal gown that was eventually worn by Chinese actress Angelababy – also on show at the exhibition.
Here, we talk to the couturier about her business and why she espouses taking a “globalist” approach in her works:
On the relationship between couture and ready-to-wear:
I distinguish between the two in my designs. If we rely solely on couture, we may not be able to survive at all. However, the influence of couture lies in the power of communication and leadership. In the past, there was a saying that couture drives the direction of trends while ready-to-wear brings you market return to sustain a brand.
There are two distinct parts of my design. People can see the couture side in museums, where one can study the details and be inspired. The other part of my designs are commercially available for my clients. We have worked in China for over twenty years, accumulating a large number of clients, and that success leads us to the success of our couture collection.
On the Guo Pei clientele:
I think my works are suitable for all women who are passionate about life, who love themselves, one who is full of love. She is not just one with outer beauty, but one who pursues inner beauty. I feel very blessed that my designs can attract these women. I do not choose clients by their stature, skin colour, and facial features. Rather, I look out for a positive spirit, who will bring perfection when they wear my creations.
On how Rose Studio (her atelier) operates:
The team of Rose Studio was founded more than 20 years ago and has gradually developed into a team of a few hundred people today. In this process, there was little influence from the Western couture system as, back then, China did not have that much knowledge or understanding of couture. The team has always been exploring its working style and hence it is different from a Western atelier in terms of organisational structure and method of production.
However, we also find many similarities as both sides seek common ground in their processes. The difference is that our team produces everything manually and in-house, from dresses, shoes, and ornaments to bags and more. This is hard to find in the West. In such a special environment as China, help is limited and we can only rely on our own hands. This relatively tough environment honed the skills of our team. It has been difficult to find experienced craftsmen in the Chinese environment over the past twenty years. Hence, training is very important. But it is not crucial for everyone to meet the masters’ criteria as our team relies more on collective collaboration and not entirely on one person. We have many specialisations. One example is embroidery. For embroidery designs and techniques, we all have our own expertise. This kind of specialisation allows us to work together to complete a perfect piece of work.
On contextualising the background behind a work:
For any work, I believe that the person behind it is very important. Today, when we look at an artist’s work, we may pay special attention to the era in which he or she lived, as that era created the artist’s unique emotions. I was born in Beijing, a special city, and grew up during a unique era. I experienced the changes of the country and also witnessed its gradual progress towards prosperity. What I have experienced will definitely show up in my works, and that past can never be separated from the artist. Perhaps not only in the past and present. An artist’s life experiences will also be continually expressed through his or her future works.
I think my creative style is constantly evolving, but it has never changed. People might think that it is different from my designs ten years ago, but I do not think it is possible for a person to remain unchanged. Human beings are constantly learning and updating our understanding of the world. Furthermore, people mature and become more understanding and inclusive. This maturity is also reflected in my works.
On taking a “globalist” approach when it comes to mining for inspiration:
A lot of the inspiration for my work comes from the West, from different cultures. Couture is based on a very professional foundation, and many experiences from the West cannot be ignored. From the first day I did couture, I respected Western design methods and expressions. The silhouettes and tailoring of my works are referenced from the West and incorporated with three-dimensional tailoring. However, the inspiration of my designs and colours are more from the East, which I am more familiar with, and with which I can better create beauty that resonates.
The concepts of East and West have always been used to define world cultures. Although there are some differences between Eastern and Western cultures, they have been constantly communicating and interacting over thousands of years, and till now, and they continue to influence each other. In today’s world, there is no barrier in terms of information exchange, so exchanges can stimulate each side to produce new heights. I’m delighted to be working with Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum to further this dialogue between historical and contemporary Chinese design, demonstrating the limitless possibilities of cross-cultural creations.