By Karina Espinosa
When Rihanna arrived at the 2015 Met Gala dressed in a flowing, silken, fur-lined cape, her outfit was the most talked about moment of the night. The 16-foot canary yellow train became the target of several memes, even earning comparisons to Big Bird’s feather plume. But the elaborate gown did more than set off a social media firestorm. It introduced the world to the brilliant couturière behind the creation: Guo Pei. A year later, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture invited Pei to present at Paris Fashion Week – the first Chinese designer bestowed the honour.
Rihanna’s star power certainly helped, but Pei soon garnered worldwide acclaim for her exquisite designs and steadfast commitment to her craft (the gown weighed over 50 pounds and took 50,000 hours to make). Inspired by both traditional Chinese garments and modern elements, her over-the-top designs transcend ornate and push the limits of contemporary fashion.
On October 13, an exhibition entitled Guo Pei: Couture Beyond will make its Canadian debut at the Vancouver Art Gallery. It is the first time that the gallery will be curating a collection devoted to fashion, and viewers will get the chance to appreciate the depth, detail, and sheer scale of Pei’s artistry in person. The exhibition will showcase 43 haute couture pieces from the Beijing-based designer, including the voluminous, gilded gown worn by Rihanna. For Diana Freundl, the gallery’s associate curator of Asian art, to view Pei’s work as mere articles of clothing is to overlook the history that each piece represents.
“The Vancouver Art Gallery has always been committed to representing a diverse history of visual culture. Fashion is an important area of study because it combines aspects of visual art, popular culture, and design,” Freundl notes. “For this exhibition, it really is a comprehensive overview of [Pei’s] work and her evolution as a designer. There are pieces from 2002 all the way to 2017, and each of those pieces has its own distinct story.”
Guo Pei: Couture Beyond is a chance for Canadian audiences to familiarize themselves with Chinese history, culture, and tradition through fashion. The handcrafted process, especially involving the imperial embroidery techniques, revives a traditional Chinese art that was suppressed during China’s Cultural Revolution.
“Her designs are about reclaiming the aesthetic and the craftsmanship that have been in danger of being forgotten,” says Freundl of Pei.
From a technical standpoint, Pei’s designs are architectural marvels. Her dresses and skirts often take years to complete by a team of more than 100 artisans. Elaborate layers of cascading fabrics, intricate embroideries, and iridescent, bejeweled hems are some of the elements that come together in elegant formation.
The scope of the exhibit will appeal to museumgoers of all levels of interest, from fashion obsessives to art enthusiasts. According to Freundl, what makes the exhibit so accessible is its universal appeal: “It’s not just for those that are interested in fashion, but also those that are interested in traditional Chinese decorative crafts and aesthetics and contemporary design.”
Art and fashion coalesce, and the cultural exchanges between the East and the West come to light. The result is a diverse collection presented in a visually stunning format.
“Guo Pei’s work speaks to China’s cultural history, in particular the Qing dynasty, but it also speaks to contemporary design and more avant-garde silhouettes,” Freundl says. “I think it’s the perfect first fashion exhibition for the Vancouver Art Gallery. In many ways, Guo is a global artist.”
Guo Pei: Couture Beyond runs from October 13, 2018 – January 20, 2019 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Ahead of the exhibit’s debut, Guo Pei and Bronwyn Cosgrave in Conversation will take place on October 9.couture, fashion, guo pei, Vancouver Art Gallery