Childhood dreams have led the diminutive Guo Pei down the unlikely path of becoming a couturier whose stunningly realised works have found home on the backs of Rihanna and the social elite in China, and in museums worldwide. We speak to the Chinese designer on her inspiration, her unique perspective on oriental design and the difficulties she’s faced as an Asian designer.
How did you get started in fashion?
I always dreamt of making beautiful dresses as a little girl. At an early age, I felt I had a particular way of creating – that’s why I learnt to sew. I’ve also always been influenced by China’s traditional culture and by elements from the imperial and royal past, especially elements that represent royalty of the highest level.
What excites you about designing clothes?
The ability to offer someone something new and fresh, and to give them a sense of satisfaction.
Why did you decide on making clothing that’s so intricate?
Simply because I love making beautiful, elegant clothes. My clothing involves complicated processes that reflect a culture of quality, and I hope wearers can feel my emotion and spirit, and see that the clothes embody the spirit of quality and heritage, and depict the essence of human wisdom, civilisation, and culture.
What are the challenges you’ve faced in your work?
To me, each day and each step I take and make in Chinese fashion is unprecedented. When I was on the verge of failure, I walked my own path. Survival, sticking to what I believe in – that’s the real challenge. But I don’t see this as a difficulty. There’s no pressure, really. I love what I do.
Do you face any difficulties being a female and Chinese designer?
I don’t see any specific difficulties. Even though the industry is mostly led by men, there are many talented and renowned female designers, Chinese or not. But women can bring a unique charm and beauty in their perspective and interpretation of things. The old master [Karl Lagerfeld] is the one maintaining the fashion empire of Chanel, but we can’t ignore the fact that the brand was created by a woman who is an excellent example of female representation. As an Asian woman, I hope I can use my perspectives to bring a unique aspect of beauty into the spotlight.
Do you think there is a difference between French haute couture and the work you’re doing?
I’ve been doing custom work at Rose Studio from day one and I’ve developed a very rigorous production process. But it took more than a decade after starting my studio before I had the chance to get close to and understand haute couture. At the time, some friends of mine in the Paris fashion circles said to me, “Guo Pei, all you’re doing… is couture”. I think it has always been somewhere in my soul. So what I am showing on the catwalks these days in Paris is essentially no different from what I show and present to my clients. The only difference is the tension, performance and strength of the catwalk.
It’s interesting to me because you seem very focused on making Chinese fashion, rather than designing something global or European-based. Why is that so?
I grew up in Beijing where there was the integration of a multi-ethnic Chinese culture and a historic city. The essence of traditional Chinese culture is, to me, the greatest treasure. I want these influences from deep in my heart to transform something in the design. Every old building, royal costume and piece of fine jewelry… these superb technological feats are worth learning about. In my January 2016 haute couture show in Paris, we showed exquisite traditional Chinese embroidery, but integrated it with Western silhouette and cut – a good combination of the beauty of East and West.
Do you think oriental design has the potential of global appeal?
I feel, in terms of beauty, that the East and West are the same. The only difference is that the West is more outgoing whereas the East is more introverted. But if there is mutual exchange and understanding, both sides can attract each other. I think Western designers want to understand Eastern fashion and beauty through the works of Chinese designers.
Which designers most inspire you?
The one who influenced me the most would be Mr Christian Dior. And, of course, early designers like Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent for their exquisite tailoring, cutting and design. However, the process of finding ideas and inspiration often begins in museums, where there is an inexhaustible collection of creative design and a fine collection of human wisdom.
You’re known for dressing the social and political elite in China, who order couture from you. Do you have any plans to design ready-to-wear?
Right now, I’m putting all my focus on doing couture. I think in order for me to do ready-to-wear or other fashion products well, I would need a really big team – I’d have to build a fashion empire! Unless I have more people joining the team, I would prefer to do my best at what I’m good at.
Rihanna gave you a lot of international exposure. What’s changed since that night at the Met?
The partnership with Rihanna was really a chance for her to be the focus of attention on the red carpet. But it was also a chance to give my work a new interpretation. It allowed me to get attention and coverage from the world’s major media. The foreign press was shocked that the dress, which was a very technically challenging piece, took nearly two years to realise. It showed people a different image of China: It’s no longer a backward economy, no longer just a source of cheap labour, no longer a rough workshop. Those images were replaced by 5,000 years of Chinese cultural heritage.
You’ve been in the fashion business for about 30 years now, what do you think has changed from when you first started?
I’ve stuck to my goal which has always been to be very confident, to want to make the most beautiful and the most valuable clothes, to represent this era of technology and humanity, and to showcase the height of the manual techniques of fashion. I’m going to continue moving forward as a Chinese brand on the haute couture stage.
This article on Guo Pei first appeared on L’Officiel Singapore’s August Issue.