In a world of fast fashion and synthetic fabrics, my visit to San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Couture exhibit of fashion designer, Guo Pei, felt like a breath of opulence and originality. Above, you’ll see one of the period rooms at the Legion showcasing Guo’s ornate, fanciful designs.
“I use the weight of the clothes, the height of the shoes, and the unwieldiness of the dress to represent the inner strength and confidence of a woman.” Guo Pei
It is a return to an era of extravagance and a time when couture stood for masterful craftsmanship, exceptional fabrics and design.
What makes Guo Pei’s work exciting is her fluid mix of imaginative ideas. China’s imperial past, European architecture, the decorative arts and the botanical world come together in themed categories best described as theatricality and fantasy. She unapologetically eschews the dominant minimalist aesthetic of contemporary life.
Pei’s world goes beyond fantasy and romance. Emerging from China’s Cultural Revolution, she exaggerates the opulence that once defined China’s aristocratic past. In 1986, after graduating from the Beijing Second Light Industry School with a degree in fashion design, Pei established her own atelier in 1997.
She soon became the star of Chinese fashion after the famed Met Ball in 2015 with superstar singer Rihanna’s Red Carpet walk wearing an extravagant golden silk cloak of heavily embroidered and jeweled fabric, much like the dress pictured below.
I found nearly every garment, with its heavily jeweled, embroidered or engineered construction made me reflect on the Chinese history, with their devotion to detail unrestrained by the demand of hours of labor. The famed ateliers of China and France can fabricate the most elaborate designs requested of them.
“During the Cultural Revolution, they destroyed their own culture, but my generation found it again…”
Guo Pei’s devotion to a history of couture is evident in each of the 82 gowns on display. In 2015 she joined the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Some of the 450 craftspeople from her atelier have dressed the royal family of China, and Pei trained many of her embroiderers by using Tibetan Buddhist paintings as a teaching resource for color composition and stitching practice.
This “Couture Fantasy” is expertly curated by Jill D’Alessandro. It begins in the downstairs gallery where the themed fantasies are grouped into categories, and text panels assist the viewers in understanding Pei’s synthesizing of multiple traditions and personal memories.
The creations are arranged in several gallery rooms by theme, some of which include architecture, botanical, Buddhism, European and Western culture.
One of Guo Pei’s truly innovative themes is her use of Romanesque, Gothic, and Neoclassical architecture. She explains, “In both fashion and architecture are many works that express the transcendent spiritual realm, a pursuit of the soul, of the spiritscape.”
Venture upstairs, and the flow of these constructed dreamscapes take on a new relevance when paired with period rooms like the Louis XV room, or seen against a backdrop of 17th C Paintings or Chinese bowls and antique porcelain.
These romantic backdrops emphasize the dazzling, fanciful, ornate luxury of every creation, and showcase her devotion to extravagance or an aristocratic European past. The rooms seem to be animated with the presence of her clothing, and for a while it feels like living inside history.
Guo Pei’s immense imagination, along with the workmanship of her atelier, have created some of the most spectacular, memorable and awe inspiring pieces found in today’s fashion world. I believe it also illustrates how the mix of East and West, time past and present together seem to break the barriers of differences, and move us closer towards an accepting, brighter, more interesting future.
The Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy exhibit is currently on until November 27, 2022
Photos: Wendy Verlaine
Wendy Verlaine is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer, jewelry designer and artist whose work can be found at Saatchiart.com. Formally a San Francisco art dealer and owner of Wendy Verlaine Design, she continues to stay closely connected to the art world.