Redefining Tradition

January 29, 2024

Graphic by Srisha Chakraborty 

In a dystopia of monotony and dreadful conformity, enchantment and vibrancy withered. Gone were the days of a desire for splendor, not for the sake of being sumptuous, but rather, an aspiration to recreate the otherworldly beauties that heaven beheld for their grand deity on earth. An erasure of the great imperial dynasties, daily existence under Mao-ist rule was reduced to cultural uniformity and self-censorship. But alas, even a revolution must have its own uprisers. For this one rebel, it was not through words or protest that she marked her path. Her weapon of choice? Fashion.

In a dark and dour halting of imagination and creative freedom, one young girl would unwittingly redefine the world of fashion, while completely unaware of its formal existence. Delicate yet bold, revolutionary yet traditional, her artistry knows no limits. A champion of couture, perpetually defying the conventional, she is not just a pioneer but also a luminary in the fashion world — Guo Pei. Although her name is not as recognized as her Western counterparts, her designs and legacy will be just as, if not more, iconic for years to come.

The seeds that sowed Guo Pei’s life-long relationship with fashion were planted early on.  Yet, while her designs exude an aura of glamour and sophistication, the narrative of her early life began with a subtler, less dazzling catalyst. In the late 60s, during the advent of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a little starlet was born. However, in a time of strict adherence to austere Communist ideals and suppression of personal expression, any traces of opulence were eradicated. Concealed by societal constraints, her gifts remained unseen for decades waiting patiently to debut. From the tender age of two, Guo would guide her visually impaired mother with sewing and at times, even take on the task herself. When attempting to explore her artistic talents, her devoutly communist father would eradicate any of her attempts to express creative freedom by throwing out her sketches and paintings. Despite having a minimalistic and ascetic childhood, Guo Pei discovered a realm adorned with exquisite garments and jewelry.

At night, Guo found herself transported to her grandmother’s enchanting childhood through her wondrous tales of her former life in an elite family before the scourge of the Cultural Revolution. In the garden of her grandmother’s memories, Guo’s dreams bloomed like a thousand lilies, each petal an intricate detail of her grandmother’s old gowns. Steeped in the fragrance of nostalgia, these stories unfolded in Guo’s mind like an orchard of endless splendor. She saw the vibrant designs, regal and splendid as if plucked from the very blossoms that adorned her grandmother’s cherished clothing. Inspired by the butterflies and resplendent flowers that adorned her grandmother’s attire and Guo’s adolescent mind, she desired to transform her dreams into reality: “I want the flowers that I sew to bloom and the butterflies that I sew to fly” (Harper’s Bazaar). Now, even years after her bedtime journeys into the past, she persists to amaze the world with her imagination. With ethereal designs plucked from a fairy tale, her artistry never fails to transcend an individual when appreciating the otherworldliness of her designs.

In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Guo reminisces, “Although I’d never seen these clothes, they were, in my mind, the most beautiful things that had ever existed.” With an imagination nourished by vivid and evocative memories of the past, a “wish was planted in (Guo’s) heart” — a “belief that she could create even more beautiful clothes,” she told BBC Culture.

In her adolescent age, Guo went on to attend the Beijing School of Industrial Fashion Design. Through Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms in the late 1970s, Guo was able to attend a newly established government-operated fashion program. Frequently immersing herself in the enchanting world of films and novels like “Gone with the Wind,” she dreamed up extravagant designs and yearned to “make a very large skirt, like in Western movies.” However, as her ideas and designs developed, Guo realized that she and her professors lacked the knowledge to produce the garments she conceptualized. Due to the Cultural Revolution, there was little circulation of knowledge of global fashion trends from both students and teachers alike. Thus, without much idea of how to aid their student, her mentors sent her to study one of the only remaining art forms allowed to survive during the Cultural Revolution: theater. In a free environment for clothing connoisseurs, designers were allowed to continue exploring and expressing their artistry in theater costume design. Through the expertise of seasoned theater costumiers, Guo acquired the intricate art of crafting a pannier — a whimsical side hoop reminiscent of the bygone elegance of 17th and 18th-century women’s undergarments. Weaving bamboo and veiling it beneath layers of petticoats hidden inside the skirt, she utilized what little available materials she possessed due to the restrictive era and location.

While limited, she learned how to create beauty and an homage to history, a talent that remains unchanged even years later. In an interview with the BBC, Guo reflects that this experience “was the beginning of (her) making big dresses.” An augury to her future brilliance, this experience marked the beginning of Guo’s inclination for gowns and the avant-garde.

In 1986, Guo Pei graduated at the top of her class, moving on to work for major manufacturers for a decade.  Yet, her rise in fashion was continually halted by higher-ups who rejected her designs. While manufacturers focused on utilitarian clothing, she envisioned more than ready-to-wear apparel. She saw clothing as something greater than mere fabric; she saw it as a canvas for artistic expression, a medium for others to admire and appreciate. Thus, her desire to create beautiful designs only grew more every year and pushed her to keep trying to make them into reality. Eventually, in 1997, she established her own design house — Rose Studio.

Da Jin (Magnificent Gold) Gown

After 50,000 hours, $1 million, and two years of work, Da Jin was completed. Displayed in 2005, this piece catapulted Guo Pei into the international spotlight. A golden soldier-bride covered in Swarovski crystals and rhinestones, the gown represents the sun and the rebirth of China after the Cultural Revolution. Although it pays respect to her birth country, the dress is a culmination of different cultures. Inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte’s gold-embroidered military uniform, it is made of almost 30 vertical panels embroidered with a repeating lotus pattern, and gold thread specially imported from India. As much as the gown symbolizes the radiant glory of the sun for Guo, it also signifies the bright entry of her career into haute couture. After years of searching for her identity as a designer, it was finally the making of Da Jin that provided her with the profound revelation of what she wanted her essence as a creator to be.

Like its birthgiver, the gown represents the heralding of a new era in couture. Now, the world would come to witness Guo’s blossoming talent on the global stage. Featured inside the Met’s “China: Through the Looking Glass” exhibition, the grand finale look of her first full couture runway show is now displayed at the Legion of Honor in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

Olympic Gown via Rose Studio

Two years later, due to her growing acclaim, Guo Pei was commissioned to create pieces for the highly anticipated Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. Most notable of her creations was another Swarovski crystal-gown designed for the renowned Chinese singer, Song Zuying. This masterpiece not only showcased Guo Pei’s unerring eye for detail but also radiated the dazzling opulence of the classic Guo Pei trademark touch. With the world watching Beijing for the Olympics, this gown became a powerful reminder of China’s cultural roots and emergence on the global stage. In this moment, Guo Pei’s creation was not merely another gown; it was a statement of national pride and creative innovation.

Yellow Queen Gown via SCAD

From the moment that Rihanna graced the 2015 Met Gala steps, the gown became an immediate sensation. Paparazzi clamored around the star with cameras flashing frenetically, and news outlets eagerly disseminated images online. Circulating through the vast expanse of social media, the internet erupted with uproar and took to Twitter to commentate several (and various comedic) takes about the gown. Social media went into a craze, from hilarious comparisons of a colossal omelet and pizza to children’s characters such as Big Bird and Spongebob. While Twitter ruthlessly meme’d Rihanna’s dazzling gown, the fashion world recognized its instantaneously iconic status. A revolutionary shift in fashion, articles from Elle, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Forbes, and the Times celebrated and praised the “Yellow Queen”, lauding both the brilliance of the garment and Rihanna’s elegant donning of the masterpiece. 

Upon designing the gown, Guo Pei revealed to Dazed Digitals that she “had a queen in mind when designing this piece.” Recognized as a Queen of R&B and innovative style by fans, it’s fair to say that Queen RiRi truly did give “the piece a new lease of life.”

The gown envelops the wearer in a sea of golden silk, meticulously embroidered with intricate patterns and motifs that evoke the grandeur of Chinese imperial robes. Its voluminous silhouette exudes regal elegance, with an endless train that seems to stretch for miles, trailing behind like a luxurious river of golden fabric. At the heart of this creation is an intricate dragon motif, a symbol of power and prestige in Chinese culture, adorning the back of the gown.

However, it was not until Rihanna’s appearance at the Met Gala that Guo Pei gained significant recognition beyond her native China, making a notable entry and impact into Western mainstream media. The Met Gala’s theme was “China: Through the Looking Glass,” but ironically, many attendees still opted for American designers. Through Rihanna’s persistent push for inclusivity and showcasing of nonwestern designers, her regal arrival in the majestic cape has since opened doors for American celebrities to embrace international talents, including Prabal Gurung from Nepal and Rebecca Zoro from the Ivory Coast, a particular favorite of Beyoncé.

Named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2016, Guo’s “Yellow Queen” gown is a magnificent testament to her unparalleled artistry and mastery of haute couture. Even years after, the dazzling fourteen-foot royal yellow cape, lined with fox fur, remains widely regarded as one of the Met Gala’s most legendary looks. A true masterpiece, it is a tour de force of design, craftsmanship, and cultural symbolism. With its fusion of traditional Chinese aesthetics and modern couture sensibilities, the “Yellow Queen” gown has become an iconic representation of Guo Pei’s ability to blend the past with the present, captivating the world with her timeless and breathtaking designs. 

Graphic by Srisha Chakraborty

Guo Pei’s journey and legacy transcend the boundaries of culture and time, speaking to her indomitable spirit and otherworldly artistry. Her life and work represent the extraordinary impact that a singular vision can have on the world of fashion and beyond. In an interview with the BBC, Guo reveals that she’s been pursuing to create her “ultimate dress” her entire life, and while she does not know how beautiful it will be, she is constantly working on improving it.  Like whispers from a different dimension, she weaves stories that resonate with the soul, bridging the past and the present with grace and precision. With her designs, she hopes that they will not be simply dresses to admire, rather, they will be records; artifacts that people centuries from now will learn from to see how society today lived — “our memories, thoughts, and emotions.” With her enchanting mastery of interlacing tradition with avant-garde designs, she has become and will continue to be a muse for not only designers, but for artists everywhere. ■

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