Her style revealed itself to us long before we knew her name. Bold. Original. Lavish. Whether you loved it or hated it, one thing was certain: it demanded attention. While cameras, capturing Rihanna’s familiar face flashed repeatedly, the face behind the gown had yet to be revealed. The bright and highly embellished canary yellow gown seemed to travel for miles and miles. Comprised of fur trim, shining jewels and gold floral patterns, it was flamboyant, fabulous and required 50,000 hours of labor. True to the 2015 Met Gala’s Chinese theme, the unforgettable gown was designed by none other than Beijing’s famous couturier, Guo Pei.
“I design stories. My designs and clothes are my words,” Pei has been quoted saying over various social media accounts. From her birth into design during the Chinese Cultural Revolution to today, her designs have always told a different yet colorful and intricate story. In fact, while all of China followed suit by wearing the mandated “Mao,” uniform, Pei studied fashion at the Beijing Second Light Industry School. Intrigued by the extravagance she saw in the look books, she came to the realization that clothes could be more than merely functional; they could be fashionable as well. Four years later, she emerged as one of the first professional designers China had ever known.
Dressing China’s most prominent singers, beauty pageant competitors, actors and actresses, including Zhang Ziyi, Pei’s designs are meant to be the center of attention. Largely influenced by traditional Chinese court costumes worn by royalty, her intricate designs are highly sought after by China’s wealthiest citizens. In fact, Pei designed the ceremonial dresses for the 2008 Olympic Games. Despite being compared to fashion moguls Alexander McQueen, Coco Chanel and Valentino, Pei has her own definition of luxury. “In China, luxuries are seen as things you don’t really need and it conveys a negative feeling,” she told The Huffington Post. “In my opinion, luxury is products that are beautiful, elegant and represent the culture.”
Chinese heritage is obvious in most of Pei’s designs, though she also creates Western clothing as well. Her “Legend of the Dragon” collection particularly illustrates the culture. Emphasizing Pei’s interpretation of the dragon’s femininity, the gowns were comprised of several brightly colored Chinese prints, innumerable pearls and high wedge shoes only models familiar with the culture could wear. Meshing a fantasy world with mixed art, her collection showed both the light and dark of China, telling stories of China’s evolving trends and fashions. To make her designs even more appealing, Pei’s husband, Cao Bao, works in the textile industry, ensuring she acquires the very best fabrics not only from China, but from Italy and France as well.
Pei’s desire to create clothes that fit into the fashion world as art has inevitably crowned her one of the fashion world’s most flamboyant designers. “When a dress weighs 50kg it’s no longer fashion,” she told L.I. Art, a global art magazine. “It’s a sculpture, [and] it’s also a painting.” It’s this kind of imagery that helps everyday people get a glimpse of what Pei’s Rose Studio looks like. Similar to a kind of fashion art gallery, rainbow colored fabrics color the floors and walls. Hand embroidered pieces breath life into the large showroom as handmade dresses act as visual stories of womanhood, breaking limitation and China’s long fashion history.
Despite being 48 years old, Guo Pei’s designs are as youthful as her smiling face. Fresh, vibrant and highly imaginative, she’s always thinking of something new. In fact, she’s set to release a ready-to-wear collection later this year. Even though she’s designed clothes for over 26 years, she never wants to limit herself. Like the Chinese proverb says, a book tightly shut is but a block of paper. As Pei continues to explores the depth of her passion, she carves a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten.