Jill D’Alesssandro, Curator of Costume and Textiles at the Fine Arts Museums and author of a new book on Guo Pei, fully acclaims the magnificence of the “Rhianna” gown, but reminds me that it represents just one admittedly shiny jewel in the designer’s crown. Fortunately, audiences will have an opportunity this spring to sample some of Guo’s sumptuous creations at the Legion of Honor, celebrating the cultures of East and West.
Gwynned Vitello: Guo Pei is acclaimed as China’s first couturier, but before we start, let’s define couture.
Jill D’Alessandro: Couture refers to the creation of exclusive, made to order fashions for a specific customer. Garments are made from high-quality fabrics and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finish, often using hand-executed techniques.
How long did it take to orchestrate such a gorgeous, big exhibition, and how long have you been studying her work?
I first met Guo Pei in 2013 or 2014 when she and her husband, Jack Tsao, were visiting museums across the US. Situated on the Pacific Rim, I think the de Young was one of the first. We connected immediately and she gave me DVDs of her Beijing runway presentations that I shared with my colleagues. We were so excited about her work, and discussed the possibility of an exhibition. Since then, I’ve followed her career—from Through the Looking Glass at the Met, to her previous show Guo Pei: Couture Beyond at the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion and Film. It was when Tom Campbell became director of the Fine Arts Museums that this came to fruition, and in January, 2019, Guo and Jack visited again and we commenced work. Guo remembered our first meeting—especially because I had taken her into our costume storage to show her the stunning Christian Dior 1939 ball gown, Junon.
Tell us about her childhood and the almost fairytale path that led to her career.
Guo Pei has lived a remarkable life, spanning the privations of China’s Cultural Revolution to the heights of international fashion, when, in 2016, she became a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de Haute Couture. Her father was a platoon leader and her parents lived an austere lifestyle, based on Maoist principles. Guo’s mother is legally blind, so Guo learned to sew at two years old in order to help out, but found solace and inspiration in her maternal grandmother, who was brought up during the twilight of China’s last imperial era. During the Cultural Revolution, Guo’s grandmother was forced to destroy all personal possessions, including clothing, jewelry and photographs. Yet she would regale the future designer with stories of beautiful silken robes, stories that continue to incite Guo’s vivid imagination.
It’s exciting that Legion of Honor’s collections will be stage sets for her art. How will the show be displayed?
Downstairs, where the exhibition begins, it follows a traditional layout with each gallery dedicated to one or two of Guo Pei’s most important collections from Beijing and Paris. These galleries are organized thematically and loosely chronologically, examining major themes in her work—China’s imperial past, the grandeur of European court ife, architecture, the botanical world and reincarnation. The upstairs are conceived as an intervention, with individual creations or groupings of Guo Pei’s designs throughout eleven of the permanent collection galleries, aiming to encourage a transcultural dialogue through a juxtaposition of her designs and the art in our permanent collection.
How did you choose the ensembles to open the show? Were you guided by her favorite themes, as well as your permanent collections?
The downstairs opens with her 2007 collection, An Amazing Journey of a Childhood Dream, which was initially presented in Beijing and sets the stage for the exhibition. Created when Guo was pregnant, she materialized the dreams of a little girl whose dolls came to life. It began with a young girl falling asleep in a canopied bed high above the runway. As she dreamed, models pranced below her in pastel confections constructed of tightly folded silk, reminiscent of the origami toys Guo made as a child. The constructions were paired with separates embellished with raised metallic thread embroidery, an homage to the jeweled costumes donned by Spanish matadors.
Upstairs, Guo and I chose ensembles responding to the Museum’s permanent collections. Displayed within the neoclassical architecture of the Legion, amid our collection of European art, her designs reflect on the rich historical ties between China and the West. For example, in the gilded French reception room, the Salon Dore, the Phoenix gown from her Legend of the Dragon collection is presented as guest of honor. The majestic, gold-embroidered Dajing (Magnificent Gold) ensemble from the Samsara (Lifecycle) collection takes center stage among works of Baroque and Rococo. Gowns from the Legends collection, inspired by the cathedral at St. Gallen, Switzerland, are situated among saint icons and Madonna figures in the Medieval gallery. In the French and British paintings and Decorative Arts galleries, pieces from the Encounter and Courtyard collections highlight the cultural nature of Guo Pei’s designs. In Gallery One, a special presentation juxtaposes our collections of Chinese export art and European chinoiserie, including tapestry, vases and a tea set with the “Porcelain” dress from the One Thousand and Two Nights collection.
There are so many themes to explore, like how she incorporates Chinese theater.
The impact of drama and film on Guo Pei’s work is deeply rooted. Theater was one of few art forms that survived during the Cultural Revolution—Mao Zedong’s wife was an actress! So, through theater, elaborate costume traditions survived during the Revolution. For Guo Pei, a pivotal moment occurred as a student at the Beijing Second Light Industry School. After asking her professor how to create a full skirt she had spotted in a Western film, she was sent to the Beijing People’s Art Theater. There, staff showed her how to create a wide pannier out of bamboo. Consequently, many of her early designs were inspired by dramas and movies, and she also has designed for theater and opera. Most ensembles in the show, created for runway presentations, were conceived as theater, and she often collaborates with directors on the staging.
In a conversation with director of exhibition design, Alexander Stein, Guo Pei shared the importance of shadow and light in her work, sharing stories about a lamp she had as a child and making references to Chinese shadow puppet theater. Sparking Alejandro’s imagination, he proceeded to design the exhibition around puppet theater, which captures the drama and mystery of Guo’s work.
And embroidery is such a key element in her work.
Opulent embroidery is a signature of Gao’s, where she says she expresses herself best. For her, embroidery is personal. As that young girl growing up during the Cultural Revolution, her solace and inspiration came from her grandmother, whose upbringing during the twilight of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) starkly contrasted Guo’s. The stories of elaborate, embroidered robes enthralled the future couturier. As a young designer working for brand-name companies, she longed to design embroidered garments, but the craft ceased being taught by the 1930s, and richly embroidered clothing, forbidden during the revolution, had not regained popularity. After establishing her studio in the late 1990s, Guo was determined to discover artisans who could execute fine embroidery. Today she employs 450 craftspeople, and 300 are embroiderers. Over the decades, she and her team developed their own interpretation of traditional stitches, fused with Indian, European and Russian styles. “I especially care about my artisans, patternmakers and embroidery artisans,” Gao says, “because they are the people who helped me realize my dream.”
There are so many botanical and floral patterns that I feel like they are muses for her.
I think it’s very telling that she named her atelier Rose Studio, after her favorite flowers. For Guo, flowers express happiness, joy and pleasure. In Chinese literature, they have symbolic meanings and are associated with womanhood, so her interpretation of the botanical world is deeply personal and culturally symbolic. The exhibition explores this through Garden of Soul, inspired by flowers in blossom, an emblem of prosperity, and Elysium, where she compares the afterlife and the regenerative nature of plant root structure through the creation of elaborate ensembles constructed out of the natural fibers of bamboo and raffia.
The Alternate Universe is also very symbolic, a natural way to end the show
In Alternate Universe, Guo explores the existence of life after death. In this fantasy, Guo fuses multiple references, from parables of Aesop’s fables, the silhouettes of late seventeenth and eighteenth century dress, eccelsiastical vestments and Salvador Dalí’s jewelry designs with the Taoist principle of reincarnation. The runway presentation opened with two models wearing the same dress, symbolizing two worlds in one space. The animal kingdom, particularly the monkey, is portrayed throughout the collection, beautifully rendered in embroidery. Here, Guo cautions her audience to show respect for animals, “Our soul might transmigrate or reincarnate between lifeforms, so if today we don’t care about a certain animal, in the next life we might become this animal, like a bird or monkey.” Organizing this exhibition during Covid gave the collection deeper significance. In our conversations, Guo spoke about her belief in reincarnation, and not to fear death at this time when people have lost their loved ones.
After so much research for your book, as well as the upcoming exhibition, what do you think most defines her as an artist?
In one of our conversations, Guo Pei told me that her earliest memories have had the most impact. When you look at her work, you see myriad influences from her early childhood—from learning to sew at an early age, attending the theater with her family, her grandmother’s stories about beautiful, embroidered butterflies on clothing, to making her own toys out of origami and taking walks in Ritan Park, where she developed a love of both nature and architecture.
Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy will be on view at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco from April 16–September 5, 2022