It’s not everyday that the ordinary person gets a chance to meet a world famous fashion designer. So it’s no surprise that when Chinese couturier Guo Pei was in town recently to attend the opening of the Asian Civilisations Museum’s new exhibition of her designs, the Textile and Fashion Federation jumped at the opportunity to collaborate, and invite her for a very special TaFF talk at Design Orchard.
Shooting to worldwide attention when Bajan singer Rihanna stunned at the 2015 Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala red carpet with a custom-designed, trailing yellow gown, in line with the theme of China: Through the Looking Glass, the Beijing-based designer is the second born-and-raised Asian designer to be invited as a guest member of Paris’ prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, and was named one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People in 2016. But in spite of these accolades and titles, Guo Pei never comes across as arrogant or with airs, instead, as a brilliant artist who has honed her craft to perfection, fiercely practical while steadfast in her uniquely singular vision and designs.
Speaking at the intimate and cosy Cocoon Space, Guo Pei spent the morning speaking about her experiences as an Asian designer in Europe, constantly pushing at boundaries and making her way in life, as well as her own advice on being a good designer. Speaking about her trip to Paris and invitation the the Chambre Syndicale, Guo comments: “I spoke to the people there about what it actually took to be invited there, because I always had the impression it had to do with how many pieces one had created, or that you had to have you own workshop. But their answer was actually much simpler than that, where they simply wanted people who could contribute something special to the Syndicale. There was always a part of me that was a little afraid that my designs wouldn’t be appreciated by Westerners, but I soon learnt that there aren’t really any objectively good or bad designs, only designs that people like or dislike.”
Besides the Rihanna gown, which took 50,000 hours of work over two years to create, Guo Pei is well known for her inspired and innovative approach, often taking cues from traditional Eastern designs from the past, mimicking the historic embroidery patterns of royalty and manifesting them into living dreams with her intricate skill and incredible craftsmanship. On her choice to pursue such a style, Guo Pei comments: “Technology and fashion moves so fast these days, and there’s really no point in chasing trends, or you’ll just get overwhelmed trying to play catch up. I’ve always enjoyed the idea of creating designs or clothing with long lifespans that can be passed from one generation to the next, especially with how embroidery patterns act as a way of preserving memories. These patterns reveal and say so much about a culture, like how I was inspired by Peranakan culture when inspiring some of my bridal gowns.”
She adds: “My goal is to create timeless beauty, and a lot of that comes from couture. People are looking for something more personal and unique these days, a way of finding identity for themselves, and if the designer creates works that come from a place of truth and sincerity, then it will naturally resonate with buyers.”
Growing up under the Mao regime, and having been born to two members of China’s Communist Party, Guo’s childhood was a rough one at times, where she recalls her father having thrown away her sketches and paintings as a child (according to an interview with Forbes Magazine in December 2015). Her start in fashion began as far back as the tender age of 2, where she learnt sewing and helped her mother make clothes for the winter, slowly developing a love for dressmaking.
On the secret to being a success, Guo reveals: “The thing about Asian designers is that they’re often better known as craftsmen with plenty of attention to getting the details just right. But that’s the very basics of what’s so important in fashion, where you put your heart into each and every thread and detail with each outfit. I take a lot of inspiration not just from Eastern patterns, but also Western ones I see in museums. It’s so important for a designer to have creativity and imagination, with a willingness to be open-minded and try new things. After all, there’s still a certain kind of beauty in imperfection.”
After graduating from Beijing Second Light Industry School with a degree in fashion design, Guo Pei went on to join Tianma, one of China’s first privately owned clothing brand manufacturers. Eventually, she left in 1997 to start her own brand and with plenty of hard work, finally achieved her vision. On finding success, Guo says: “I started my own company because I wanted to to have this space where I had the freedom to do what I really wanted to do. To be successful, it’s very important you keep sticking to your own vision. That’s not to say you think of yourself as the very best, because I also believe in lifelong learning. Even after being in the business for over 30 years, I still invite the best patternmakers in the world to my studio in Beijing to teach both myself and my assistants, and always manage to walk away with new knowledge.”
The fact that she’s received commissions to create styles for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, including singer Song Zuying’s 200,000 Swarovski Crystal dress she wore for the closing ceremony, as well as having her works featured in museums all around the world, is testament to her methodology and philosophy.
It’s something she extends to all her staff as well, stating: “People who want to work with me, I always hire committed people, and never ask people to leave unless it’s of their own accord. There’s just one question that their employment hinges on, and that is whether they can stick with this profession for their entire life. It’s the same question my mother asked me when I told her, at age 15, that I wanted to be a fashion designer. At the time, people pursuing fashion design were practically unheard of, and to my mother, of course, I said yes, I would be able to stick with this, no matter what.”
“The fashion community is so small,” she concludes. “And above all, I’m really glad I’ve become the kind of person that people go to not just to work with, but to learn from and inspire.”
Listening to her in all her confidence, wisdom and absolute sureness in her destiny as a master of couture fashion, one cannot help but feel endeared to this truly one-of-a-kind designer and artist, completely understanding how she’s captured the hearts and attention of countless fans around the world, who believe completely and utterly in her vision and aesthetic.
For more information on The Cocoon Space and The Bridge Fashion Incubator, visit their website here.
Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture runs from 15th June to 15th September 2019 at the Asian Civilisations Museum. Admission charges apply. For more information, please visit www.acm.org.sg