Call us a little bit unimaginative, but any story written about Guo Pei since 2015 would be remiss not to mention Rihanna at the Met Gala. The diminutive, motherly Chinese designer even admits it herself. “When Rihanna wore my design, the whole world asked, ‘Who is Guo Pei? Oh, the dress Rihanna wore.’ Now they know who Guo Pei is, so I’m deeply grateful to her.”
Guo might have unexpectedly been catapulted onto the international stage, but she’s managed to find a foothold. She’s become a regular presence in Paris fashion circles and her work continues to earn accolades across the globe. Her spring/summer 2017 couture show, Legends, which was first shown in Paris, is now being exhibited at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria for its NGV Triennial event. Guo’s latest spring 2018 couture collection, with its recurring dark blue florals and gold embroidery, has also been well-received by the global press, with Vogue praising the designer for her “extraordinary imagination” that “once again elevates her pursuit of handcraft to the sublime.”
Today, the number of Chinese designers is on the rise, but few have managed to fully establish themselves on the international stages in Paris, New York, London and Milan. For those who have made it, high fashion is still primarily the domain for people who’ve honed their skills in the West – studying, training and basing their careers there. Qiaoran Huang, who co-founded Babyghost, studied at Parsons School of Design in New York. Even long-time luminary Ma Ke, whose designs have been worn by China’s First Lady, Peng Liyuan, studied womenswear at Central Saint Martins in London after graduating from the Suzhou Institute of Silk Textile Technology.
But why have so many designers chosen not to develop themselves within China’s borders? Long known as a manufacturing powerhouse, Guo says the country is only beginning to develop its own design sensibility. “China’s development in the fashion world has only been about 30 years,” she explains. “Thirty years ago, it didn’t even really have a word for ‘fashion’. It’s only in the last 10 years that we’ve transitioned from producing garments to creating garments.”
Few have taken the route Guo did – and based their entire practice in China. After graduating from the Beijing School of Industrial Fashion Design at the top of her class in 1986, she spent the next 10 years designing for major manufacturers. She then launched her own label and atelier, Rose Studio, in 1997, where to this day she continues to pass on her savoir faire to the next generation of embroiderers. Guo has more than 500 skilled artisans working for her today, producing mind-blowing creations such as the canary-yellow gown Rihanna wore to the Met Gala, which took thousands of hours to embroider and about two years to complete.
It’s clear to see that Rihanna gave her a hand in worldwide exposure, but it was patience, persistence and prowess that have been the real keys to Guo’s success. “If it wasn’t for Rihanna, there would have been another ‘hanna’,” she says with a smile.
That’s certainly true; for one, Lady Gaga has approached Guo repeatedly, hoping to sport her designs on stage – but the gowns didn’t fit her frame and the designer wasn’t willing to alter the sizes. Guo’s creations are beautiful, exquisite works of art, but they’re also notoriously heavy, with a certain silhouette that’s hard to pull off. In fact, the famed Rihanna gown – at a whopping 11 kilos and with a five-metre train – is so heavy that the first time Guo showed the dress in China in 2012, the model who wore it only made it halfway down the catwalk before the show had to be cut short because she simply couldn’t carry on.
Did Guo ever dream of showing her work elsewhere? She sheepishly says that it wasn’t until a few years ago, after she’d worked for almost three decades. “I remember the first time I answered that question. I said: ‘If I told you I’ve never thought about it until now, would you believe me?’ But I really hadn’t thought about it! Even three years ago, I felt I had nothing to do with the international scene. My market was in China, my buyers were in China and a lot of my inspirations were Chinese elements.” There was also an element of practicality in her approach. “Your dreams can’t be unattainable goals,” she says. “You can have ideals, but they also do need to be achievable.”
Of course, this achievability also comes down to whether you’ve planned well enough to make your dreams a reality. Guo took three decades to hone her craft and establish herself as a couture designer in China before she even thought about debuting her collection in Paris. “If I had to chart my own career, I’d say the first 30 years were to build my foundation,” she says. “The next 30 years is for me to grow my brand.”
And grow her brand she will. Guo is the first Chinese-national designer who’s been invited to join the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Apart from the NGV Triennial, she also has an ongoing exhibition, Guo Pei: Couture Beyond. Her US solo exhibition debut is showing at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)’s Museum of Fashion & Film in the US state of Georgia and closes on March 4.
Guo, whose daughter will be attending SCAD, was recently in Hong Kong to mentor a group of the school’s fashion students at its annual fashion showcase. Her advice? Follow her cautious career approach. “This is very important – I often tell young designers that they should only do shows after establishing themselves for at least 10 years. You should first work for 10 years and really work hard to position yourself in the industry – really take the time to establish a strong foundation. That way, when new designers showcase their collection, it shows that they’re experienced and mature, not amateurs. You don’t go into Fashion Week overseas thinking you’ll only do one show. A lot of young designers go to Paris or New York focused on that one show – and then you never hear about them again,” she laments.
Getting to where Guo is today hasn’t been easy – and staying on top is even harder. “It’s a waste if you only want to get noticed for a short while,” she says. “If you’re not prepared and you give up, people will immediately forget you. I’m always under pressure to give up; it’s too much work, I’m too anxious, I don’t have enough time. I really want to tell young designers today that if they’re not ready for the main stage, it’s okay. Take your time and prepare yourself better.”
This feature originally appeared in the March 2018 print issue of #legend