In Atlanta With Guo Pei, Who Spins Stories in Couture
The pieces included in the museum exhibition span both the designs shown on Parisian runways (and, of course, on the Met Gala red carpet, where Rihanna set off a firestorm of memes in Guo’s now-iconic yellow gown), as well as some of her made-to-order work, created for wealthy clients over the past decade. There are two different types of design, according to Guo: one in which you provide a service to other people “to help them realize their dream,” and the other, in which you design for yourself. “As you can see in this exhibit, these are the pieces that I have designed for myself,” she says, eager to share the stories that inspired her to create each of the pieces on display.
In anyone else’s work, the designer’s often varying qualities may have seemed like contradictions. But Guo smooths them into a harmony that is unmistakable when in her presence. She is soft-spoken while also talkative and eager to share her opinions and experiences. Her life and work is rooted in tradition — evident in a career spent crusading to preserve the Chinese design techniques that were nearly lost — and she is happy to discuss why she designs wedding gowns (marriage “is very important to the whole world and all humans”). But she has also forged a revolutionary path, creating unconventional and fantastical designs using traditional craftsmanship and racking up an impressive list of fashion achievements.
Aside from being the first Chinese designer to debut at Paris Haute Couture, Guo’s Magnificent Gold gown took center stage at “China: Through the Looking Glass,” and the designer was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential people in 2016. Her husband, Jack, jokingly calls her a “perfectionist and dictator” in the office and at home. (She laughs that she couldn’t afford the textile dealer’s fine wares, so she agreed to marry him in exchange for a wedding gift of 50,000 meters of fabric. According to Guo, he still owes her 10,000.) Yet she is nurturing when teaching the next generation of designers, a role she relishes.
At the root of all of her work is a dedication to evoking beauty and emotion that crosses the line into the poetic. (“It looks like it lost its spirit. It fell asleep,” she says of one of her designs that had not been sufficiently ironed and fluffed before it was photographed.) One of her favorite pieces in the exhibit is a knee-length white coat with black fur and feather trim from her first haute couture show. On a cursory look, the piece is less sensational than many of the gowns on display. But it is decorated with complex embroidery executed in gold metal thread that her technicians had to cut and restart after every seven stitches. It took four artisans 20 months to complete, and Guo honored the amount of labor and technique that went into the garment by sewing her name on the inside with a strand of her hair.
“As a very young designer, I would always have to move myself with emotion before I could do my work,” Guo says. After 30 years in the business, finding inspiration is not her problem, only the time to carry out all of her ideas. “I want my work to be preserved in history and I want it to be remembered for a long time. I want generations from today… to see our thoughts and techniques.”
With ever-growing interest in her work from Western clients and critics, Guo is interested in expanding her business to reach more people. In addition to designing couture for the runway and custom commissions, she is conceptualizing a lower-priced line that will still be “particular about the technique and craftsmanship,” while also looking for a store to partner with to sell her collection in New York. After all, according to Guo, fashion just may be the best form of cultural exchange. “I think, in general, everyone is pursuing the same thing,” she says. “Which is beauty.”
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