The Brilliance of Guo Pei
American Purpose , May 01, 2023
On the first Monday in May 2015, Rihanna arrived at the annual gala hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in an outfit that created a global sensation. Even for the Met ball, it was extraordinary: a yellow silk cape embroidered in silver and gold, with a lavish collar of fox fur dyed to match. The train stretched sixteen feet and required three attendants to arrange it for photos. Dubbed the “Yellow Empress” by its designer Guo Pei and “the omelette dress” by internet memes, the cape weighed fifty-five pounds. Unlike the model who had shakily walked Guo’s creation down a Chinese runway, Rihanna pulled it off with apparent ease. “Only women who have the confidence of a queen could wear it,” says the designer.
The image of Rihanna in Guo’s creation now seems like a relic from the twilight of a lost time: a sloe-eyed beauty with café au lait skin wearing robes in the color once reserved for Chinese emperors—robes designed by a modern woman steeped in Chinese culture and eager to learn from the world. The increasing estrangement between China and the West, the turning inward of countries including the United States, and tribalist taboos against appropriation make such moments rarer now. But for a time, cultural synthesis seemed like the future. Walls had tumbled and empires receded. Global communication, travel, and exchange were merging the world’s most fertile minds into the first world civilization. High and low, art and science, culture and commerce, East and West—all, it seemed, could flourish in a common human enterprise. Anyone’s heritage could be a font of creativity, every culture honored and shared. No one had a monopoly on excellence or its benefits.
That was the world that gave us Guo Pei, China’s most acclaimed couturier.
Guo developed her art without formal training beyond the basics of making everyday apparel. She studied high-end design from books and later from museums. She thus avoided the ideological assumptions that Western students pick up in design schools. She also came of age when China was opening to the world. With the backing of her husband and business partner Cao Bao Jie, a Taiwanese textile importer who goes by Jack, she built her business before the political tightening under Xi Jinping, affording her artistic freedom. She was free to pursue her personal ideals of beauty and strength, constrained only by the need to find paying customers.
The cultural confidence of Guo’s outsider perspective represents something greater than a single woman’s work. She forces Western audiences to reconsider supposedly enlightened assumptions from the outside. Her art challenges three convictions that increasingly shape—and cripple—fashion, art, and culture in the West.
The first is that comfort, whether physical or psychological, is paramount. As Rihanna’s cape demonstrates, Guo rejects this idea. “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,” she says. Her runway clothes aren’t designed for daily wear, of course, but their spirit is. In Guo’s art, the most powerful individuals are those who meet challenges with apparent ease. They don’t cower, wobble, or complain. Her opulent luxury is anti-decadent.
The second notion is that adopting motifs from other cultures, particularly religious symbolism taken out of context, constitutes an insult or an outright crime. Among Western gatekeepers, “cultural appropriation” is a sure ticket to controversy and possible cancellation. By looking at Western motifs through foreign eyes, Guo shows how essential such appropriation is to artistic advancement and demonstrates the way an artist can honor the beauty of cultural artifacts without adopting their traditional meanings.
Finally, there is the belief that the crimes of the past negate its accomplishments. To overcome historical evils, zealots condemn the perpetrators’ achievements along with their sins. Guo grew up in a China that had taken this path, and she has emphatically turned against it, valuing excellence from imperial culture without wanting to return to it.
Recently, two California museums have given the public a closer look at Guo’s work. Since November, the Bowers Museum of cultural arts in Orange County has featured about forty works, including bridal ensembles and the blood-red gown worn by then-eighty-five-year-old model Carmen Dell’Orefice at the climax of Guo’s second haute couture show in Paris.
Last year, the Legion of Honor in San Francisco hosted a once-in-a-lifetime extravaganza of Guo’s collections. Like the Met’s blockbuster show of Alexander McQueen’s work in 2011, the San Francisco exhibition helped lay to rest the question of whether fashion belongs in art museums. It included works that were both exquisitely crafted and, especially in recent collections, conceptually intriguing. They were unquestionably art.
Supplementing spaces dedicated to the couturier, curators brought some of Guo’s creations into the museum’s permanent galleries, where they interacted with the surrounding artworks. Miniskirts with vertical pleats resembling book pages flanked the Rubens portraits of an Antwerp silk merchant and his wife wearing similarly pleated ruffs. Deep-blue dresses with elaborate gold embroidery posed among the gilded, blue-brocaded chairs of the neoclassical Salon Doré. A white dress with a three-dimensional surface of embroidery and synthetic gems stood beneath a 15th-century carved and gilded ceiling, its mandorla-like hood recalling devotional portraits of the Virgin Mary.
At the center of another gallery shone Guo’s masterwork, Da Jin (Magnificent Gold), a gold dress that took fifty thousand hours to make. Its bell skirt is constructed of twenty-four vertical panels embroidered with lotus pods and trailing plants, which are Chinese symbols of everlasting exuberance and purity of mind. With its golden color and a panel for each hour of the day, says Guo, “Da Jin represents the sun.” It also symbolizes the rebirth of Chinese culture after Mao’s campaign to obliterate it. “I see this as a kind of reincarnation,” she says, “like the sun rising out of the darkness.”
Born in 1967, Guo grew up in a land where fashion was forbidden. The people’s clothes came in a few politically approved styles and three colors: blue drab, gray drab, and olive drab. Adornment invited persecution. To stay safe from the Cultural Revolution’s Red Guards, Guo’s grandmother threw her jewelry into the river and burned her precious dresses. They represented the ostracized Four Olds: “old ideas, old customs, old habits, old culture.” All she kept was a string of silk flowers she’d worn at her wedding. She couldn’t bear to part with them.
“When I was little, I didn’t know what fashion was,” says Guo. “The word didn’t exist.” At night, her grandmother told her tales of life in the waning days of the Qing dynasty, describing the glorious garments she’d seen and worn. As the little girl drifted off to sleep, she imagined dresses made of the smoothest silk satin, embroidered with brilliantly colored butterflies and flowers. “Although I’d never seen these clothes,” she recalls, “they were, in my mind, the most beautiful things that had ever existed.”
By Guo’s teenage years, China was liberalizing under Deng Xiaoping. At fifteen, Guo entered a trade school, joining the country’s first class of fashion students. After a stint at a state-owned garment maker, she spent a decade churning out thousands of designs for one of China’s new private apparel companies. In 1997, she opened her Rose Studio, selling bespoke garments to Chinese celebrities and the country’s wealthy elite. Her first couture show was in 2006.
“Fashion,” argues the French historian Gilles Lipovetsky, “attests to the human capacity to change, the ability of men and women to invent new modes of appearance. Fashion is one of the faces of modern artifice, of the effort of human beings to make themselves masters of the conditions of their own existence.” Like scientific, technological, and economic innovation, fashion is dynamic and open-ended. It, too, emerges spontaneously from imagination, experimentation, and competition.
But fashion is distinct from progress. Whether in clothing, music, art, or children’s names, fashion pursues novelty for its own sake. Its innovators challenge habituation rather than addressing discontent. The problems they solve are aesthetic and expressive. Fashion doesn’t improve. It renews.
Despite their differences, fashion and progress thrive in similar environments. We rarely find one without the other. Both do best in commercial societies where no one has a monopoly on deciding what works. Both require tolerance for unpredictability and change. Both prosper where ideas flow freely and individuals can follow their own curiosity. Both suffer when knowledge is lost or forbidden.
The violent rupture of the Cultural Revolution meant that to pursue her fashion ambitions, Guo had to become a Renaissance woman. Like a Florentine sculptor or humanist, she had to recover a lost heritage. The knowledge she sought wasn’t written down. It was the tacit understanding of skilled artisans. Although fashion itself doesn’t make progress, it depends on techniques that can improve—or be forgotten.
Guo began with embroidery, scouring Hebei, the province that rings Beijing, for living practitioners. In a rural village, she spotted an embroidered door curtain and asked the woman within whether she had done the work. Did she have more embroidery? The woman brought out pillows and shoes she’d decorated.
“But the embroidery was very rough,” Guo recalls. She was looking for finer work. She pointed to a little green leaf on a pillow. About a centimeter long, it was made up of fifteen stitches. Could the woman do the same thing but with fifty stitches? With finer thread, she said she could. Given the right supplies, she decorated a qipao with the kind of intricate embroidery Guo imagined. “It became the first dress from which I learned embroidery but also a standard I would apply in the future,” says Guo, who hired the embroiderer to teach others. She now employs a team of three hundred, most of them trained at Rose Studio.
Guo also wanted to recover the art of fashioning silk flowers like the ones her grandmother had cherished. Known as “palace flowers,” they were made from extremely fine layers of raw silk, rolled by hand into petals and colored with a smudging technique. Guo sought out artisans who might know anyone who could still create them. “No one makes them anymore,” she was told. “It’s a lost art.” Those who might remember it were too old to teach it.
But a man who’d once run a silk flower factory told her where she might be able to find a forgotten inventory. Following his instructions, she located a tiny warehouse stacked with paper boxes. They contained thousands of flowers. Unfortunately, after decades of storage and neglect the forgotten treasures were in bad shape, flattened and deformed. Guo was crestfallen.
Don’t worry, counseled the old factory manager. Just get a pot of boiling water and steam them. “The instant the flowers came into contact with the steam,” Guo recalls, “they bloomed and came alive. At that moment, it felt as if they are living things. It is because culture is life. It is the life of mankind.” For a 2012 collection titled “Legend of the Dragon,” Guo covered a dress with the rescued blossoms. On display in San Francisco, they burst like a spring field from under a robe embroidered with rivers of silver and gold. The skill of making palace flowers has vanished, but the evidence of it endures.
Guo is both proudly Chinese and a cultural magpie. Wherever she finds beauty and inspiration, she claims it as her own. Her husband remembers once remarking that something she was working on was very Western. “She said to me, ‘No Jack, it’s not. It’s Chinese.’ Because for her, it’s not two separate worlds. It’s one world.”
For all its Chinese resonance, the skirt of Da Jin harks back to the costumes the teenage Guo loved in Gone with the Wind and Sissi. She credits Napoleon’s uniform, which she saw on an early trip to Paris, with inspiring Da Jin’s embroidery. “When I stood in front of his uniform, embroidered with metallic threads, I was especially moved,” she recalls. She didn’t think of Napoleon the way a European would, as a fraught historical figure. She saw universal humanity. “I realized that when a person was facing death, they could still dress in such a fastidious and exquisite way,” she says. “It was a kind of dignity in human life.”
In her 2020 Himalaya collection, Guo used the reverse sides of Japanese obi, the sashes used to tie kimonos. She cut up hundreds of antique obi and recombined them to create abstract patterns with the loose threads behind their embroidery. “Sewing together the various fabrics symbolizes the convergence of different civilizations and cultures,” she says, “weaving into each other like history through the centuries.” Her atelier doesn’t simply resurrect Chinese embroidery techniques. It combines them with those of Europe and India. “Rose Studio’s techniques are from all over the world,” she says.
Guo even engages in, and mostly gets away with, that most forbidden form of cultural appropriation: repurposing religious imagery. The Himalaya collection incorporates embroidered versions of the Tibetan Buddhist paintings known as Thangkas. It sparked a brief social media protest but was featured in the San Francisco exhibit. Guo’s intentions were too poetic and spiritual to sustain ongoing protest. The Himalayas, she says, “are like a gloriously divine image for me. For thousands of years, the place has symbolized the road to truth, the residence of the gods, the temple of the soul. I like the sense of stillness and purity.”
Two of her Paris collections reference the arches, spires, rose windows, and crosses of European churches. In the 2018 documentary Yellow Is Forbidden, we see her asking the European printers whether anyone might be offended by fabrics with images from the frescoes of a Baroque cathedral. “Are angels okay?” she asks. “All religions are okay with angels, right?”
Guo’s church-inspired creations are more uplifting than the self-referential jeweled crosses that Christian LaCroix put on clothes in 1988, which Anna Wintour featured on her first cover of Vogue. But they’re divorced from Christian belief. “I was inspired by Western religion and churches, but I don’t really understand this religion,” she admits. “I was deeply moved by its beauty.”
Such sincere appreciation dissolves the claims that appropriation is an act of aggression. One need not understand a culture from the inside to find its artifacts valuable and moving, or to share them with the world. “Any country or culture is the wealth and treasure of mankind,” Guo maintains.
In her Beijing home, the designer collects kaleidoscopes, calling them “my happy place.” Invented by the 19th-century Scottish physicist David Brewster, kaleidoscopes generate ever-renewing beauty by reflecting and remixing colors and shapes. Guo’s work demonstrates what humanity can gain by ignoring demands for cultural purity, breaking our isolation, and seeing ourselves in others. Both art and progress depend on the freedom to experiment with new combinations. In the beauty of a kaleidoscope, no new arrangement is off-limits.