By Noma Faingold
China’s premier fashion designer Guo Pei knew her structural, intricately embroidered couture gowns belonged in a museum. So did the people in charge of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, who have staged the largest presentation of her 40-year career titled, “Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy.”
Not only does the exhibition, which opened on April 16 and runs through Sept. 5, showcases 82 of her eye-popping designs in several galleries on the lower level of the Legion of Honor, but the gowns were also painstakingly placed among the permanent collection of European paintings and antique decorative arts. They fit right in with masterworks by Auguste Rodin and Peter Paul Rubens because they look like they will stand the test of time, including the massive gold gown from the Elysium Collection of spring/summer 2018 that is about the size of a small car. The skirt, made of bamboo, gold foil, silk, metallic lace and embellished with Swarovski rhinestones, resin beads and resin sequins, is woven using basketry techniques. It took 10,000 hours to complete.
“She belongs to a small group of fashion designers who have a similar approach,” said Jill D’Alessandro, who curated the show, working closely with Pei for three years to mount the retrospective. “What’s unique about Guo Pei is that she’s more far-reaching, more global in her approach. She’s taking influences from China, history, the Middle East, Europe, and she’s not afraid to combine them all into one collection.”
While Pei has presented numerous collections in China and 10 in Paris, she is not part of the ready-to-wear cycle of introducing up to five collections each year. She and the artisans at her couture salon take two to three years to create a collection. She has her private couture clients but each collection is “pure artistic expression.”
D’Alessandro and Pei began working together on the exhibition in the fall of 2019, shortly before COVID hit. Plans to visit Pei’s design house in Beijing were derailed, as was Pei coming to the Couture Fantasy opening.
“This project formed through long Zoom meetings and PowerPoint presentations shared across continents,” said D’Alessandro. “Guo Pei was incredibly generous with her time in a series of interviews that informed the exhibition. Those conversations were so illuminating.”
What comes through in surveying the conceptual collections, which emphasize Pei’s more mature work of the last 20 years, such as “Himalaya” (spring/summer 2020) and “Alternate Universe” (fall/winter 2019-20) is that her influences run the gamut – her pre-Cultural Revolution childhood (including stories her grandmother told her), architecture, sculpture, theater, nature (especially flowers), history, Elizabethan fashion and costumes from “Gone with the Wind.”
In “Alternate Universe,” Pei “envisioned an afterlife in which animals presided over humanity,” D’Alessandro said. “In this world, the monkey is king.”
One fantasy-like gown from this playful collection is made for two models who walked the runway side-by-side, connected by a wide skirt. The mind-blowing embroidery in the front depicts a detailed scene of an in-charge monkey holding a hoop with a human jumping through it.
At age 15, Pei was in the first class of students accepted into the Beijing Second Light Industry School (as part of Deng Xiaoping’s reform policies). After graduating in 1986, she designed children’s wear and later, women’s sportswear.
Pei opened her own fashion house, Rose Studio, in 1997 with 25 artisans, many of whom are still with her today. While opulent, innovative embrºoidery is the signature of her brand, she registered on the viral pop culture map when Rihanna wore Pei’s 55-pound, 14-foot gold cape dress to the 2015 Met Gala. That gown is not part of the Legion of Honor exhibition.
“We intentionally didn’t put it in. We were afraid that Pei’s career was being defined by that one moment,” D’Alessandro said. “It’s just one of many exquisite works of art that she has created. We wanted to go beyond that moment.”
“Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy” continues through Sept. 5, 2022, at the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave. Film Screenings: A Look at Guo Pei’s Career, including “Yellow is Forbidden” and the premiere of the museum’s own, “Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy” exhibition film, May 14, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Gunn Theater. For more information, go to legionofhonor.org.