Steampunk fashion is seen as modern interpretation of fantastical ideas based on history. This trend of multicultural influence and inspiration seen in steampunk fashion is also reflective in fashion trends today. The rise of Chinese designer Guo Pei is one example of this; she has been well-known in Chinese fashion circles for many years, but her recent collections created buzz throughout the runways of the world, in particular her 1002nd Arabian Night collection.
Her work represents an inspirational blend–not only derived from the famous Arabian tales, but also influences from classical Chinese fairy tales and classics from the West as well. In these designs, delicate blue and white designs reminiscent of Ming vases mingle with rich, plumed imagery of birds and Persian motifs and decadent Rocco and baroque styles. Combined with Pei’s striking geometric vision, her couture collection is a blend of classic fantasy and modern avant-garde.
Guo Pei became one of the first professional fashion designers in China, starting out as the Chinese government policy began to open up toward Western trade in luxury goods. According to her profile in the New York Times, the circumstances that had lead to her success is linked to China’s sociopolitical changes and combined with Pei’s personal dedication and imaginative ideals:
The daughter of an army platoon leader who later held a high-ranking position in the state housing authority, Guo Pei was born in Beijing in 1967, at the start of the Cultural Revolution. Her family remained in the capital, and in 1982 she enrolled in fashion studies at Beijing Second Light Industry School. Guo Pei says her teachers had no knowledge of what was going on in Europe in the mid-’80s, which was the heyday of Azzedine Alaïa and the beginning of John Galliano. But the lack of worldly information wasn’t the obstacle it might seem. After secretly watching a movie that featured a wedding scene, she asked a teacher how to make a huge skirt. ‘‘He said, ‘I don’t know, but maybe you can find a solution in costumes for opera,’ ’’ Guo Pei recalled. ‘‘At that moment, I fell in love with big things.’’
After graduating in 1986, she took a job designing children’s clothing. There was no question that she would find work. ‘‘The government assigned you a job,’’ said Guo Pei, who made 65 renminbi a month, the equivalent today of about $10. A year or so later she moved to a women’s clothing company, Tianma, where she tentatively asserted her ideas. Tianma was among the first generation of privately owned companies, and as the Communist government was loosening controls and the dark Mao uniform was gradually vanishing in a sea of pastels and prints, Guo Pei decided to ask the owner for 3 percent of every garment sold. She was that sure, she says, that women would buy her designs. Eventually sales reached 100 million renminbi (about $15 million), but long before that, she says with a look of satisfaction, the owner pressed her to renegotiate their deal.
In 1997, with money that she had saved, Guo Pei opened Rose Studio. Now married to Jack, whose family owns a textile company in Taiwan, she decided to pursue her dream of custom dresses.
Of course, her ability to produce such elaborate costuming is also connected to the cheaper labor force in China compared to European houses– and the growing demand for these luxury items by wives of Communist leaders and, now, a growing international clientele. According to the New York Times, she had trained a crew of 300 employers to specialize specifically in making her dresses; one, covered entirely in golden panels, took 50,000 hours to embroider. Another dress, which had contained 200,000 Swarovski crystals, was worn by actress and singer Song Zuying during the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Olympics and was finished in two weeks by a team of embroiderers who worked in shifts. Even Lady Gaga had been one of her customers, but the dresses had been too heavy and elaborate for her to wear during her stage shows.
The rise of Guo Pei, then, is just one story about the the current changes of international fashion–and how the impact of fashion, creativity and design is also tied in to changes in consumerism today.
Mei Gui Fang — The Rose Studio – Guo Pei’s Design Studio
Year of the Couturière – New York Times Magazine Feature
Guo Pei on TrendHunter.com – Featuring tons of photos from her work
Guo Pei, China’s First Class Fashion Designer on CRIEnglish.com
Guo Pei on Life Magazine’s website.