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GUO PEI

China’s fashion empress on creating Chinese couture BY MARIANNA CERINI AND TONGFEI ZHANG

Hailed as the Chinese Coco Chanel, although more akin to Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, Guo Pei is China’s couturiere extraordinaire - the reason bespoke fashion exists in the country. We chat with the designer about her work, ascending career and why she loves ‘harsh women.’

L

ooking



at



Guo



Pei,



one



wouldn’t



guess



 that this petite woman with a bob was the fashion powerhouse she is. Diminutive,



pretty



and



still



looking



very



 much



like



a



college



student,



the



47-­‐year-­‐old



 has



a



gentleness



unmarred



by



circumstance,



 and a poised attitude that’s a study in etiquette.



Unexpected



traits



from



someone



so



 high up in the industry. High



up



she



certainly



is



though.



Since



 launching her business 17 years ago – when luxury brands were a foreign concept in China – the designer has become a trailblazer



in



the



country’s



fashion



realm,



building



 her



atelier,



Rose



Studio,



into



an



internationally admired name whose gravity defying creations are so intricately crafted that they caught the attention of Lady Gaga. If one can talk



of



Chinese



haute



couture



today,



it’s



because of her. “I’ve



just



been



sticking



to



my



own



ideas,”



 she



says



almost



dismissively,



“and



tried



always to be persistent and passionate about what I do. It’s all about following a routine – that’s the most challenging and interesting part



of



the



job.”



 For



her



fashion



house,



that



has



meant



 years of honing a level of craftsmanship so meticulous



it



now



equals,



and



in



some



cases



 surpasses,



the



technical



feats



of



Paris



couture. Reinterpreting



both



Eastern



and



Western



 motifs,



her



couture



collections



are



displays



 of sartorial grandeur; risk-taking designs that draw easy comparisons to the aesthetic of Alexander McQueen. Like



the



late



British



designer,



her



works



 are created to be worn. But could also easily



sit



in



a



museum:



lavishly



embellished,



 they



are



made



of



visionary



garments,



from



 weighty,



exaggerated



dresses



and



skirts



 moulded into bell shapes to majestic headpieces



that



are



total



fantasy



or,



as



fashion



 mogul



Hong



Huang



once



described



them



 “Chinese



embroidery



on



steroids.”



 One



dress



alone,



made



entirely



of



golden





28

November 2014 / www.thatsmags.com

panels,



took



50,000



hours



to



 inish.



 “For



that



particular



gown



we



adjusted



 the



shape



millions



of



times,



and



worked



on



 the



embroidery



over



and



over



again,”



Guo



 recalls.



“It’s



a



personal



milestone,



and,



in



a



 way,



I



think



it



really



marked



the



emergence



 of



haute



couture



here.” Guo



debuted



it



in



2005,



after



a



visit



 to the Musée de l’Armée in Paris where she found herself inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte’s regal military uniforms. One hundred artisans worked on it. Today,



her



studio



counts



a



team



of



450



 people,



300



of



whom



are



exclusively



specialized



in



traditional



hand



embroidery.



Yearly,



 they



generate



3,000



to



4,000



pieces



for



some



 500



regular



clients,



including



public



 igures



 from China’s and the world’s highest political,



media



and



social



circles.



 Dresses go from anything between RMB40,000



to



RMB5



million.



Although



Guo



 says



margins



are



low,



it’s



an



impressive



volume



for



a



couture



operation,



one



no



doubt



 tied to relatively cheap labor. The



road



to



get



here,



Guo



says,



has



been



 a long one. The daughter of an army platoon leader who later held a high-ranking position in the



state



housing



authority,



Guo



was



born



in



 Beijing



in



1967,



at



the



start



of



the



Cultural



 Revolution.



Her



family



remained



in



the



capital,



and



in



1982



she



enrolled



in



fashion



studies at Beijing Second Light Industry School. China lacked any sort of worldly information about



fashion



at



the



time,



but



that



did



not



 stop the designer from falling in love with the art of dressmaking. Upon



graduating



in



1986,



she



 irst



took



 a



job



designing



children’s



clothing



and,



soon



 after,



went



on



to



work



for



woman’s



fashion



 company



Tianma,



one



of



the



 irst



generation



 of privately owned businesses in a China where



the



drab,



functional



Mao



uniforms



 that had been obligatory wear were starting to



disappear.



She



stayed



on



10



years,



taking



 a



pro it



share



in



Tianma



that



allowed



her



to





save enough money to start her own bespoke atelier,



Rose



Studio,



in



1997.



 Located



in



Beijing’s



798



Art



District,



 an industrial area of former power plants and



factories,



the



studio



–



a



non-­‐descript



 three-­‐story



of ice



building



that



also



acts



as



 exhibition hall for some of her dresses – is a far cry from anything you’d imagine when thinking of couture. Yet it’s here that Guo took



the



 irst



steps



towards



the



exclusive



art



 of



custom-­‐ itted



clothing.



 Eight



years



after



starting



her



brand,



she



 made her foray into haute couture with a irst



collection



of



38



dresses



(including



the



 gold ball gown) showcased in front of China’s key



fashion



media



in



Beijing.



Her



star



soared. Guo has been holding fashion shows every



two



or



three



years



since



–



surreal,



opulent



 spectacles that resemble art performances rather



than



simple



runway



walks,



with



references to Chinese fairytales and the yearnings of



a



woman,



gothic



impressions



and



long-­‐lost



 dreams. In



2008,



three



of



her



designs



inspired



 by Chinese elements such as jade and pagodas were selected to be worn by the medal presenters,



tray



bearers



and



athlete



escorts



 at the Beijing Olympics victory ceremonies. Chinese singer Song Zuying also donned one



her



creations



during



the



closing



night,



 a



gown



adorned



in



200,000



Swarovski



diamonds sewn on by hand. In



an



almost



submissive



manner,



however,



Guo



does



not



hold



the



event



as



the



 highlight



of



her



career.



“The



gowns



I



produce



 for



events



like



the



Olympics,



or



for



some



of



 my



clients,



don’t



really



represent



me



as



a



designer,”



she



says.



 “I



like



to



think



of



them



as



mere



commodities,



rather



than



genuine



re lections



of



my



 own



artistic



inclination.



In



a



way,



I



am



just



a



 seamstress,



a



service



person



who



does



what



 the



customer



wants.” If such dutiful attitude has proved popular



among



her



wealthy



clientele,



it



has



also



 acted



as



a



double-­‐edged



sword.



In



2009,



 www.thatsmags.com / November 2014

29


I like what I call my ‘harsh clients’: women who know themselves well and have high standards. They are a propelling force for us designers.

30

after a number of hostesses for the televised Spring Festival Gala – a star-­‐studded



show



produced



by



China



Central



Television



(CCTV),



and



 shown on the eve of Chinese New Year with a yearly viewership of over



700



million



spectators



–



wore



her



designs,



a



wave



of



Internet



 postings accused Guo of copying famous fashion houses in Paris. “For



a



long



time,



particularly



at



the



beginning,



I’ve



had



to



keep



 my



head



down,”



she



considers.



“It’s



hard



when



you



want



your



ideas



to



 thrive,



yet



have



to



satisfy



your



customers’



needs,”



she



explains.



 “Particularly



when



they’re



trying



to



follow



the



trends



of



the



market rather than their own ideas. That’s why I like what I call my ‘harsh clients,’”



she



adds.



“Women



who



know



themselves



well



and



have



high



 standards. Women who really understand beauty. I think those kind of



customers



are



a



propelling



force



for



us



designers.” Perhaps



no



one



better



than



legendary



model



Carmen



Dell’Ore ice



 its



such



description.



The



eternally



elegant



fashion



icon,



whose



career



 began



in



1945,



is



one



of



Guo’s



biggest



fans.



The



designer



 lew



her



in



 from New York in 2010 for her third collection – held in the National Stadium



at



the



Olympic



Village



before



an



audience



of



2,600



people



 –



and



dressed



her



in



a



bejeweled



sheath



and



an



embroidered,



fur-­‐ trimmed



cape



 it



for



a



Ming



empress



(and



heavy



enough



to



require



an



 escort of four men…) Talking



about



the



experience,



Dell’Ore ice



compared



Guo



to



 Charles



James,



America’s



 irst



couturier,



saying



she



was



“awestruck



 by the pure beauty. She brings some part of the Chinese history forward



and



jumps



over



Mao



Zedong.”



 Guo’s ambitions have only continued rising over the last few years. While she keeps delivering dazzling haute couture collections – the latter of which was presented to an audience of high-end New Yorkers



at



the



 irst



China



Fashion



Night



Gala



during



last



year’s



New



 York Fashion Week – the designer has also made plans to open an atelier



in



Paris,



and



branched



into



what



she



calls



“demi-­‐couture.” In



2012,



she



launched



a



bridal



line



called



Chinese



Bride,



opening



 a



wedding-­‐themed



 lagship



store



in



Shanghai’s



Bund



22,



one



of



the



 city’s



premier



luxury



developments.



Besides



being



more



accessible,



 dresses



don’t



have



a



lead-­‐time



of



three



months,



and



can



be



made



in



 two weeks. It’s a smart move to target and lure the fast-growing ranks of upper-­‐middle-­‐class



Chinese



brides.



The



gowns,



on



their



parts,



are



as



 stunning



as



her



couture,



and



very



much



in



line



with



the



designer’s



 fashion identity. “I’m



trying



to



move



beyond



the



recognized



criteria



of



haute



couture,”



she



says.



“In



that



sense,



I



am



still



re ining



my



ideas. “I



design



stories.



My



design



and



clothes



are



my



words,”



she



adds.



 Just sit tight and wait for the next chapter from this fashion storyteller.

Legendary model Carmen Dell'Orefice in a Guo Pei gown. Above,



more



fantastical



creations



from



the



Chinese



designer

November 2014 / www.thatsmags.com

www.thatsmags.com / November 2014

31

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