Guo Pei’s extraordinary drawings are currently on display at the Legion of Honor in the exhibition, Guo Pei: Fancy Sewing. Fusing elements from China’s architecture, botany, decorative arts and imperial history, these opulent and unconventional pieces – 80 in total – will be on display until September 5.
As China’s most renowned fashion designer, Guo has dressed royalty, celebrities and politicians for over 20 years. Born in 1967, she was passionate about sewing and tailoring at a very young age. After graduating from Beijing Second Light Industry School in 1986, she spent several years designing for major manufacturers until she launched her own brand and workshop, Rose Studio, in 1997. In 2015, Guo was named one of Weather among the magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and one of the Business of Fashion’s 500 Most Influential People, a list of the most important personalities shaping the global fashion industry.
A MULTIDISCIPLINARY APPROACH
Each gallery is dedicated to one or more of Guo’s catwalk collections. An incredible journey in a childhood dream (2008) was inspired during Guo’s second pregnancy. Creations based on dolls from her childhood and pastel-colored pleated dresses with origami-style pleats recall the artist’s early years during the Cultural Revolution. The pastel palette is inspired by 18th century French designs and Guo’s raised metallic threads are inspired by the matador costumes worn by Spanish bullfighters.
Traveling through Europe and exhibiting in Paris left a deep mark on the designer. His stay in France and Switzerland influenced two collections: Legend (2017), and Architecture (2018-19) inspired by Romanesque, Gothic and neoclassical cathedrals. Silk garments were transformed into flying buttresses and other structural elements served to communicate “the beauty of strength” and to encourage “a dialogue between the human body and the spatial dimension”.
TRADITION MERGED WITH CONTEMPORARY
China’s imperial history is at the center of the collection Eastern Palace (2019). Creating a rendition of the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City in Beijing, the pieces draw inspiration from Qing Dynasty court dress. Using pale gold embroidery, the elaborate designs depict imperial dragons, birds and flowers.
Chinese decorative and textile arts traditionally use floral designs. Quoting the Chinese saying, “There is a kingdom in a flower; wisdom in a sheet”, the collections soul garden (2015) and Elysium (2018) echo nature and cultivated gardens as a metaphor for the human soul. Elysium develops the designer’s interest in botanical forms that come to life in her costumes as tendrils that extend from clothing like tree branches or roots.
Guo’s most recent collection, Himalayas (2020), is inspired by the Himalayan mountain range. As a holy place and abode of the gods, the place represents what is sacred in Asian culture. Using a rare collection of Japanese obi sashes, Guo and her team flipped and reassembled them, highlighting the labor process required to create the exquisite textiles.
The finale of the exhibition is the dynamic presentation Alternate universe (2019-2020). Guo says, “Since death is inevitable, I prefer to imagine it as a dream, an alternate universe parallel to this world where everything returns to its original state of true purity and beauty. This is the start of a mysterious journey. Light and darkness, angels and demons combined with Guo’s signature three-dimensional embroidery techniques conjure up a magical and realistic landscape of mythology, monkeys of Aesop’s fables to the serpent that drew Eve to the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
Guo’s designs highlight the rich history between China and the Western world. “Layers of meaning and imagery form a DIY of opulent surfaces imposed on sculptural silhouettes,” says Jill D’Alessandro, curator in charge of costume and textile arts. “For Guo Pei, each collection begins with a philosophical idea – a spark of inspiration – drawn from a wide range of sources in his personal life and travels, as well as art and architecture, literature and nature.” Located on the Pacific Rim, San Francisco’s location, combined with its significant Chinese heritage, is the perfect city to exclusively host Guo’s first major museum exhibit.
Guo continues to employ nearly 500 dedicated artisans to produce his dazzling pieces, some of which can take thousands of hours and up to two years.
Guo Pei: couture fantasy | Tue.–Sun. 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. through Sept. 5, $30, Legion of Honor Museum, 100 34th Ave., Lincoln Park, 415-750-3600,
Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer from Southern California. She can be reached at mindtheimage.com.