#55 International Influences: The Rise of Fashion Designer Guo Pei

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.

From 1002nd Arabian Night collection. Image courtesy of Tom & Lorenzo blog. Click for link.

From the 1002nd Arabian Night Collection. Image courtesy of Tom & Lorenzo blog. Click for link.

From the 1002nd Arabian Night collection. Image courtesy of Tom & Lorenzo blog. Click for link.

From 1002nd Arabian Night collection. Image courtesy of Tom & Lorenzo Blog. Click for link.

From the 1002nd Arabian Night collection. Image courtesy of the Tom & Lorenzo blog. Click for link.

From the 1002n Arabian Night collection. Image courtesy of Tom & Lorenzo blog. Click for link.

From the 1002nd Arabian Night collection. Image courtesy of Life magazine website

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.

Song Zuying singing at the 2008 Olympics. Image courtesy of CRIEnglish.com. Click for link.

A male opera performer (Front) acting in a female role walks the runway during the Rose Studio Guo Pei Kun Opera Fashion Show at D-Park Plaza on April 26, 2010 in Beijing, China. Famous Chinese designer Guo Pei has designed all the costumes for the Kun Opera ‘Cherishing a Fragrant Companion’. Image and description courtesy of Life Magazine website.

Gup Pei’s incredible platform shoes; these designs are famous throughout the fashion industry (and a feat for any model to walk in!). This pair was inspired by Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Image courtesy of Trendhunter.

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.

From Guo Pei’s latest collection. Image courtesy of Rose Studio.

From Guo Pei’s latest collection. Image courtesy of Rose Studio.

Additional Information
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.


Filed under Essays

13 responses to “#55 International Influences: The Rise of Fashion Designer Guo Pei

  1. Jha

    Such beautiful costumes, but I don’t think I shall ever forgive her those shoes. Even in the video, I feel the beauty of the dresses are hampered by the models’ tentative walking, when they should be gliding, making grandiose sweeping motions!

    • Joy Ryder

      Those shoes are supposed to add height and imposing grandure, the idea is to reflect royal court couture and opulence not performance and ballet with gliding and sweeping motions, certainly not comfort. Think bound feet in hobble shoes, heavy garmnets, digging heavy metal crowns and constrictive corsets but also how they made people like Queen Elizabeth I, Empress Dowager or Marie Antoinette look.

  2. Jen

    I was looking at these a while back and though steampunk as well. Thank you for this post. I agree with Jha, though, the shoes are ridiculous. Having footwear that by design impedes movement is problematic on several levels.

  3. Very pretty; gorgeous fabrics, fanciful, creative designs come together for some great costumes. But is it fashion? If Lady Gaga can’t even comfortably wear the clothes for her shows, who can?

    • I think it’s unwearable in a practical sense, but most couture falls under that. When I look at Pei’s work, the word “sculpture” comes to mind equally as fashion, especially with the sense of theatricality her works hold.

      Guo Pei also does more wearable clothes too, as you can see on her studio site.

  4. Ruby

    The shoes are insane, and the models look halting walking in them, but they remind me of the platform shoes Chinese ladies wore 200 years ago. Those had one platform in the center and thus required a lot of balance and care to walk in.

  5. KaT Adams

    While I’m not a fan of all those pieces, I certainly like the collection as a whole! And I say the shoes are fine. Hell, I’ve seen damn-near crippling footwear from across time, including today. I wouldn’t wear it, but I’m still working on the whole “heels” thing.

  6. mary atkinson

    I love Guo Pei’s work. I’ve never seen anything like it and I’ll be 50 yrs old in a week’s time. I was brought up in S-E Asia and in general I like the designers but Guo Pei is unique. The blue/white dragon etc. print dress designed like a huge fan with the superb manchu headdress is my favourite. What remarkable ideas and imagination she has and what remarkably skilled seamstresses backing her up, unsung – she couldn’t bring her work to fruition without them. The footwear was fantastical but true: once upon a time the respectable woman tottered along and it was as if the past came to life. Guo Pei seems to have intuitive visions of China, Russia, Europe. I’d like to see what she would make of Indian, Central Asian, Turkish and African influences: despite the title, I did not pick up Arabian tradition in the dresses, it was more to suggest a fairytale element in the collection. What would she make from Malay or Indonesian patterns and fashions? Could she stretch her mind to fit in the Pacific? I think she could and still be surprising although she may, of course, take a different course away from the mixed cultural and historical themes.

  7. Pingback: Inspiration: The Fashion of Guo Pei | flights of fancy

  8. Pingback: Photos: Barbie comes to Hong Kong for Christmas, dressed by Guo Pei « Shanghai Shiok!

  9. Pingback: Guo Pei: China’s First Cutting-edge Fashion Designer « Leadership Intellect

  10. Pingback: 2012 in Review | Beyond Victoriana

  11. This article about the work of Guo Pei is really well written! Regarding the comments, this is haute couture, and of course she is creating dresses for ceremonies that are fully “wearable”, during the fashion shows, she only showcase her Know-How which is huge !