“Clothes happen to be the body’s architecture,” Guo Pei‘s quote is on a wall of Legion of Honor in San Francisco, where 80 of her dresses are on display until November. That “Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy” exhibition unfolds like poetry; just a quick perusal will grip viewers with her artistry. Describing Pei simply as a fashion designer fails to capture the grandeur and technical prowess of her work. Borrow freely from a multitude of sources—be it China’s Imperial past or the natural world or European architecture – Pei creates exquisitely crafted garments that cross fashion, performance art and sculpture.And some of her pieces – like the Da Jin dress seen in the exhibition – take tens of thousands of hours to complete.
“Clothes happen to be the body’s architecture.”
“I’m very lucky that I’m destined to make clothes,” she tells POPSUGAR. Pei’s journey to become the second Chinese designer invited as a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (the French authority on couture) has been remarkable. Born in Beijing, she developed an early passion for embroidered clothing through her grandmother, who told stories of her upbringing during China’s last imperial era. She spoke of richly embroidered Chinese court dresses, which contrasted with what Pei saw when embroidered clothing was banned during the Cultural Revolution. “At that time there was no color in the clothes, everything was plain,” says Pei. Her fascination with beautiful clothes deepened when she began sewing with her mother, whose glaucoma made it impossible for her to continue making clothes for the family.
Pei later enrolled in China’s first-ever fashion program and spent a decade working at name-brand companies. Still, she yearned to create embroidered clothing, so she eventually set out to revive the art on her own. When it was no longer taught to girls in the 1930s, she traveled to different villages to recruit artisans and eventually launched her own practice, Rose Studio, in 1997. Today, it employs 450 artisans, 300 of whom are embroiderers.
Many know her as the creator of Rihanna’s gold embroidered dress at the 2015 Met Gala, but Pei was an acclaimed designer long before that moment. The couture designer has successfully parlayed a love of fantasy, architecture and spirituality into an illustrious career marked by her technical innovation and global perspective.
“Inspiration, I believe, is an accumulation of love for life.”
Pei’s well of inspiration has still not run dry. The legendary designer talks to POPSUGAR about her childhood, the evolution of fashion in China and her hopes for the future of the industry. Read on for the full interview, lightly edited for clarity.