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World-famous couture designer Guo Pei brings exquisite creations to Canada for the first time

Guo created Rihanna’s stunning 2015 Met Gala gown, and was named one of Time’s most influential people.

Guo created Rihanna’s stunning 2015 Met Gala gown and was named one of Time’s most influential people

Rihanna made a late entrance in fur-trimmed yellow cape with floral swirls of gold and a train so long it required three wranglers, according to the Associated Press, an ensemble by Chinese designer Guo Pei. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

When Rihanna stepped onto the red carpet at the Met Gala in 2015, the yellow gown she was wearing took people's breath away. Weighing an astonishing 50 pounds and featuring a 16-foot train, the exquisitely embroidered dress took 30 months to make — and more than 50,000 hours of work.

The creator behind that stunning dress was Guo Pei, the first Chinese designer to become a guest member of the Chambre Syndicate de la Haute Couture, the French body that determines which fashion houses can rightfully label themselves haute couture. Other designers on the remarkably short list include Givenchy, Hermès, Saint Laurent and Versace.

Guo Pei is one of China's top coutouriers, and was named among Time magazine's 100 most influential people. (http://www.guo-pei.fr)

Guo had already been designing for more than 20 years, and creating jaw-dropping fashions for royals, political elite, celebrities and other power brokers — many of them selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars — and was revered in Asia and in fashion circles around the globe. But when Rihanna wore that infamous gown, which Met gala fans dubbed "the omelette dress," fashion watchers in the West took even greater notice. (Ironically, Guo admits that, when Rihanna's team first approached her, she had no idea who the singer was).

"The weight of the dress and the height of the heels represent responsibility," explained Guo in an interview. "I believe the more responsibility a woman takes on in her life, the greater she becomes." 

Now Guo's designs are the subject of a major exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery — the institution's first-ever fashion exhibit — and a documentary film, Yellow is Forbidden, that wowed audiences at Hot Docs in Toronto, the Vancouver International Film Festival and at Tribeca, where it premiered.

In 2016 Guo was also named among Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People for her work, which the publication said "showcases Chinese technique—intricate skill and incredible craftsmanship—and it reflects the endless hours dedicated to bringing beauty, romance and her imagination to life. ... Guo's work is art." She also had a special-edition cover of Vogue, and a collaboration with MAC at the Met.

'I didn't know what fashion was'

Her beginnings, however, were far more humble. Born in 1967 to members of China's Communist Party, Guo grew up helping her mother to sew basic clothing — but at the time, fashion was forbidden. Guo later studied at Beijing's Second Light Industry School, graduating in 1986 and working with a Chinese manufacturer before officially launching her brand with her husband in 1997.

"When I was little, I didn't know what fashion was. The word didn't exist," says Guo in Yellow is Forbidden. "My Granny told me many stories about embroidery, what people wore in the palace, and I would fantasize about that. When I was eight, I asked Granny for a yellow dress, and she got very angry at me. She said, 'Yellow is forbidden.'"

Made by a staff of hundreds of meticulously trained embroiderers, her work combines Chinese embroidery and painting traditions that date back thousands of years, mixed with decidedly contemporary Western style. And each piece is imbued with a narrative, whether it's drawn from fairy tales or military history or dynastic times. For Guo, it's not only fashion; it's about creating timeless art.

"The details to me are very much like colours and lines to painters," explains the designer through a translator in an interview at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

"I use my design to tell a story, and there are different themes, different topics. So when we look at the design, we think about what the designer wants to tell us. What is the story?" she explains. "I'm using my work to express my emotions. When we create work it's like beautiful music or beautiful paintings. When you look at them, the design work touches your soul. That is the kind of connection I am striving for."

Guo is also striving for perfection. In person she is open, warm and approachable, but her determination to create fashions that can last generations is unyielding — and it shows in her work, which is made entirely by hand and seems almost impossible in its detail and precision. Sometimes an embroiderer will work on a single piece for years. 

For her, time is the major challenge — especially since her position in Paris requires two shows a year — but the greatest joys come when she achieves breakthroughs in design and technique. Guo says roughly 80 percent of her designs are items meant for people to wear, and that work sustains her more museum-minded creations, which involve incredible skill and patience.

"There is no rush when I create this work. I want to use the details to express my emotions, so when I am able to experience breakthroughs in the techniques that apply to create those details, I feel really happy. For example, in that garment you can see over there, that silver one," says Guo, pointing to an elegantly detailed silver coat. 

"It may not have the most elaborate design, but the thread is very, very thin. It's like a hair. So the embroiderers used the needle seven times and they would have to rethread it, because the thread was so thin it would break. So each day they would need to do this 300 times," she explains. "That type of patience is not what everybody has, so in the process of creating those details, I am really, really touched. I often think we as humans are losing too much patience."

After a long stretch in Afghanistan working on her film A Flickering Truth, veteran documentary filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly decided she wanted a change of pace when she got in touch with Guo, whom she had also discovered through Rihanna's Met Gala appearance. Over the next two years, Guo gave Brettkelly nearly unfettered access to her design process and philosophy, her family life, and the behind-the-scenes of her business, just as her career was skyrocketing internationally.

Brettkelly was impressed not only by Guo's unforgettable work, but by her boundless imagination, her fearlessness, and the way she treats her workers with remarkable respect and dignity.

She doesn't court celebrity. She's really happy to be at home with her family, and upstairs in the room that she has, sketching out her designs. That's her happy place.- Pietra Brettkelly, director of  Yellow is Forbidden

"She has inspired all of them to be on this journey with her, because she is one of them," says Brettkelly. In fact, Guo is so modest and understated that, at a major fashion event in France, several staff had to ask Brettkelly which one she was because they were so accustomed to designers who spoke loudly and ordered people around. 

"Also something that attracted me to her is that she doesn't court celebrity. She's really happy to be at home with her family, and upstairs in the room that she has, sketching out her designs. That's her happy place," says Brettkelly, whose striking documentary Yellow is Forbidden was recently named New Zealand's Academy Awards official submission for best foreign language film. "For me, that's so refreshing that she hasn't bought into the idea of touting your celebrity to get more clientele. That isn't her gig at all, and I really admire that. She has remained really true to her vision."

'There are no fashion designers in China'

Guo has also had to overcome preconceptions about fashion in China — more specifically, the belief that China is home only to fast fashion and cheap clothing manufacturing, not serious and enduring design.

"Ten years ago I met an Italian designer who advised me, 'When you speak to the media, don't say you are a Chinese designer. Say you are a designer whose nationality is China. There are no fashion designers in China.' And those sorts of comments I have heard more than once," says Guo, who argues that there are many designers in China, and resists the pressure to represent an entire nation in the fashion world.

"It's not up to me to say I represent China. If I do well people say I represent China. But what if I don't do well? I cannot guarantee I can always do great work," she says. "So I believe the best thing to do is to be the best person I can be."

At the same time she keeps her standards painstakingly high, not only measuring her work against that of her contemporaries, but also aiming to set an example for generations to come.

"When we see the work from previous generations, 200 years or 500 years ago, we are very often impressed by the amount of amazingly challenging work they achieved," she says. "I'm hoping this work will live longer than me, so maybe someday future generations will look at this and see the achievements of today."

Guo Pei: Couture Beyond is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 20, 2019.

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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