“I’ve been a designer for 33 years, and I still think that my technique still limits my thoughts and creativity.”
This exhortation, more than anything else, is perhaps one of the defining reason behind Chinese couturier Guo Pei’s exquisite creations, many of which are currently being exhibited at the Asian Civilisations Museum.
Guo Pei is a singularly unique designer. She has been in business for over three decades, but truly burst on the international fashion scene when a certain world-famous musician donned her stunning yellow gown at the 2015 Met Gala. (By the way, that gown, however gorgeous, is by no means the most laborious of her creations. You’ll see what we mean.)
She is to date one of the few Asian designers who has ever been invited to show in Paris by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the official governing body of couture. Without their stamp of approval, you cannot call your work haute couture.
Despite her fame and renown, however, Guo Pei the woman remains incredibly humble and low-key. She often wears simple black dresses when she appears in public, eschewing the bright embroidery that characterises her designs. Plus, Guo Pei’s calm and gentle mannerisms belie the creative fire that exists inside her.
We had the chance to sit down with Guo Pei to discuss the beginnings of her couture house Rose Studio, her sources of inspiration, and why, out of all of her creations, wedding dresses bring her the most joy.
Tell us about how you got into fashion design.
As a child, I loved to draw people and their clothes—as many young girls do. But I was lucky. In 1982, when I was 16, I wanted to study art. It was then that I came across a course to study fashion design, and I thought, “yes, this is what I really want!”
But in those days, China had only just started to open up after the cultural revolution, and very few people knew what fashion design was. Even my mother didn’t know! She thought I was going to school to become a seamstress. But I was adamant that I wanted to do it, so she gave me an ultimatum—no matter what I chose, I couldn’t change my mind. It was her way of asking me to think about it seriously. I told her I would never change my mind. And so I became China’s first generation of fashion designers.
Did you start Rose Studio right after you left?
No, I didn’t. In the 1980s, there was very little news coming into China from the outside world. I remember there being only one fashion magazine. It was very slim, and there was only ever one issue. So that was the world I emerged into as a budding fashion designer. I was not nearly as skilled as today’s fashion graduates, but our consumers were also less demanding.
In the first 10 years of my career, I was a designer at another brand. And I was good at what I did, even if I say so myself. Whatever I made sold well—even up to 50,000 pieces of the same design. I could see people wearing my designs on the street every day. And I would count them! I would only be satisfied if I could spot at least 10 people wearing my clothes. I also became one of the designers in China whose clothes were never in stock.
But despite that success, I soon became very dissatisfied with creating this kind of product. I thought they were all imperfect. I especially wanted to create a giant ballgown. I even told my boss—if I make you money, you have to let me make my ballgown. Just one. But even after I helped the company make over RMB 1 billion—and remember, this was over 20 years ago, when most people in China make less than RMB 500—he refused to let me make that gown. He wanted me to design clothes that would sell. So I left.
Is that when you started Rose Studio?
Yes. I thought I would do my brand for two years, and go back to working for someone else. I just wanted the freedom to create things that I wanted. Unfortunately, the RMB 600k that I had set aside at that time ran out in half a year, far shorter than the two years that I had expected. I was so immature at the time; a company is like your baby—you can’t abandon it when it suits you. You need to be responsible. I realised the importance of money only then, when I needed to pay my employees and keep the company afloat. The irony is that, in seeking freedom, I became even less free.
In that time, I kept doing commercial clothing jobs and that gown I wanted to make never materialised. I didn’t dare to make it.
It was only in 2002, when the company was more stable, that the desire to create that gown came back. And then, it was stronger than ever. So that was when I created that first dress, Da Jin. It is so intricate and took 50,000 hours to make because I had wanted it and waited for it for so long, had repressed my desire for it for so long that it all exploded. I regard that dress as my first real couture creation, five years after I started Rose Studio.
Where d0 you get your inspiration from today?
Many people asked me this question. To put it simply, it comes from life, and the passion and love that you have for life.
A lot of my ideas also come from museums. The first dress, Da Jin, was part of a collection themed reincarnation. I was inspired by a war museum in Paris, when I saw one of Napoleon’s old suits of armour. The saddle, the hilt of the sword, the embroidery on his clothes—it was all so amazing to me. At the time, no photos were allowed, so I used my eyes as the camera to try and memorise every single detail. I had never seen the gold embroidery before.
I later went back to try and recreate that embroidery with my seamstresses, repeatedly trying to recreate it with gold and silver thread. So inspiration really comes from our daily lives. We just have to open our hearts to absorb it.
Your designs have many Asian motifs. Do you deliberately include them in your clothes?
No, I don’t include Asian cultural motifs deliberately. I find cultures from all over the world very attractive and inspiring. One of the most memorable was an exhibition I saw in 2011 in Paris about Asian weddings. I was so shocked when I walked into the exhibition because it was all about Chinese weddings, from the furnishings to the clothes, to the motifs and drawings. I was surprised to learn that it was actually a joint exhibition that the ACM had done with the Museé du Quai Branly in Paris!
What is important to me isn’t where the inspiration come from, but my love for them. I seldom create clothes that represent China or Chinese culture that I want to express to the world. I’ve never intended that. I’ve just put all my love and soul into my creations. My creations are what help me to express what I want to say to the world. I find that they are more rich in meaning and enable me to say more than I can express in words.
Your embroidery is incredible. How do you experiment with techniques at Rose Studio?
Among the different types of fashion designers, I am someone who really loves to research sewing techniques. Because I feel that design is not simply about drawing your ideas on paper. My drawings are always very detailed; I’ve loved drawing since I was a kid. I can illustrate a piece of clothing very realistically on paper, but that is still just a drawing, it is still just an empty thought. I feel that it needs to be created.
So designing something [on paper] is not a complete process. What matters is whether or not you can create it and present it to the world, and create a real piece of clothing.
I’ve also always loved handicraft in designing. Today, I have been a designer for 33 years, but I still think that my techniques limit my thoughts and creativity. That is to say; I am still making breakthroughs every year.
The 7th of July is my 8th couture show in Paris. In it, I used new embroidery techniques to sew a completely three-dimensional monkey. When I saw it come alive, I loved it so much, and I was so thrilled, because I thought I was improving.
The invention of new techniques is a way of expressing mankind’s intelligence; it is limitless. We are often surprised by the techniques used by ancient cultures, and we say that these techniques have been lost, but no, that is not it. It’s just that you didn’t try to do it.
Plus, [because I was one of China’s earliest fashion designers after the cultural revolution] there was nobody to ever teach me these techniques. But my team now is amazing. We have been able to create all sorts of new embroidery techniques.
Can you give us an example?
I once saw a beautiful gold thread being used in Japan that was used to weave kimonos, and I thought that the thread could be used for embroidery. But the head of the factory at the time said it was impossible, although he did not say why. I asked if he could let me try it anyway.
I brought it back to my seamstresses and they, too, told me that it was almost impossible to work with because it kept breaking. I told them to just keep rethreading it more often. They did, and I was very pleased at how beautiful their creations were.
About two years later, I was at the studio with the embroiderers one day and saw out of the corner of my eye that one of the seamstresses just kept threading needles. I never saw her actually sewing. So I was a little unhappy and went over and asked what was going on.
It turns out that this thread was the one that broke especially easily—it would never last beyond seven stitches because it was just so fragile. I did the maths. It takes one minute for that thread to be re-threaded through a needle, tied and cut, so even a good seamstress will do that about 300 times a day.
I was very moved at how dedicated my team is to creating my clothes. I don’t think there are many people who would be willing to thread a needle 300 times. I am so proud of them.
I spent 50,000 hours on the Da Jin, which everyone thinks is impossible. It’s because people always think about what they get in return for those 50,000 hours. My team and I have never expected anything in return. Never expected any fame and fortune. As humans, we have to be willing to give without expecting anything in return.
What creations make you the most happy?
Wedding gowns are my favourite. I feel very fortunate whenever anybody asks me to make them a wedding dress. Even though people might have seen more beautiful dresses, I cannot express how privileged I feel whenever I make one.
I feel like this is why I became a fashion designer, why I invented those techniques, why I created things that nobody understands. Ultimately, it’s because I want to create a beautiful wedding gown. I want them to be part of people’s lives.
No matter which country I go to, whether it’s France, Europe, or China, people despair at the loss of traditional techniques. But even if the government makes a lot of effort to preserve them, they will die out because these techniques do not touch the lives of ordinary people.
So I am very happy that my embroidery techniques can be preserved through their use in wedding dresses. I want to tell every Chinese girl that they have a mission to pass down our culture. So if there is one moment to ever emphasise that you are Chinese, it is at your wedding. This is so that our traditions and culture can continue through the generations.
Guo Pei: Chinese Art & Couture is currently on at the Asian Civilisations Museum until 15 September.