If mothers know best, then what they’ve been saying merits heeding: never compare apples to pears. Similarly, the work of Chinese designer Guo Pei cannot be weighed against, say, French couture or any collection shown during Fashion Week for what she did went beyond even the most exquisite dressmaking. Ms Guo is more than a fashion designer; she’s also a latent architect and engineer. It is nearly impossible to view her work in mere dressmaking terms as every one of her creations (and they are!) is a calculated mélange of embroidery, beading, gilding, mosaic work, weaving, pleating, origami and a staggering amount of Chinese craft, not to mention carpet making.
For so much to be worked into an outfit, she has to perceive the body in architectural terms, and for some of the garments to stand— literally, she needs to possess engineering finesse. Ms Guo’s clothes sometimes defy gravity, if not logic. They are part garment making, part set construction. The second last designer to show at the Asian couture segment of Fashion Week this evening, she sent out an asymmetric fluted cone enclosing the waist, a dress of fans swirling madly around the body, and a pannier so huge and rigid it could have been borrowed from the shipbuilding industry: an upturned hull.
The collection was called “1002 Night”, and should not to be confused with Paul Poiret’s costume party “1002nd Night” of 1911. If you were expecting homage to Scheherazade, the Persian Queen, there was no direct connection to the anthology Arabian Nights, yet it did show that Ms Guo likes telling stories: the more outrageous the better. This is even more astounding if you realise that the designer is a woman gentle of disposition and diminutive of physique.
But hers is not a quiescent mind, as she digs into her own culture and the fairy tales of other lands for ideas, re-imagining iconic styles as hyperbolic creations worthy of a place in the hall of fame of the Disneyland of fashion. That she is a fantasist like Mr Poiret is not an overstatement. Sure, most designers fantasize, but Ms Guo’s flights of the imagination could come alive with the aid of a team of 300 workers headquartered in her atelier Rose Studio, two hours away by car from Beijing. Her clothes, oftentimes weighing 50 kilos (as heavy as the models!), typically require four to six people to assist the wearer, a situation not always easy to arrange even by the most well-staffed show producers, yet they accommodate her even when, like at last year’s Fashion Week, she insisted on using her own sets because she gives them a good show, a blockbuster of a show.
It is clear that she designs her clothes to be staged, but they will be equally compelling on a YouTube video since they are such displays—quite a few are veritable human floats! While some of what she showed at last year’s Fashion Week could be considered wearable couture—blouses were blouses, pants were pants, none of what she presented this year seemed fit even for the red carpet. It was the awe factor that mattered, and the confections that thrilled, recalling costumes worn by Japanese singers during the annual kōhaku (also known as the Red and White Song Festival), or, in Ms Guo’s world, chunjie lianhuan wanhui, the CCTV New Year’s Gala, a variety show that attracts more than 700 million viewers, which makes them the world’s largest audience for an entertainment program.
Therefore, designing clothes to stand out and be remembered is understandable. This evening, after a two-hour delay, the first outfit that appeared seemed like a ceremonial gear for the royal family of Naboo, home of Padmé Amidala and Jar Jar Binks: a union-suit worn under a bolero with sleeves consisting of embroidered conical cylinders that also spanned the back, which together looked like the giant whistles of a pipe organ. After that opening number, the clothes got progressively unbelievable and increasingly indescribable even when some of the reference points were obvious. As you sat awestruck, you could not decide where to start looking. Ms Guo’s approach to design is 360 degrees: the front was as dazzling as the back—no side was left to afterthought.
The acres of silk used were mind-boggling, so were the amount of beads or sequins, and the length of thread that went into the embroidery. Nothing was of modest scale, even the footwear. The platform shoes were so towering, they challenged even the most sure-footed models, causing all of them to walk with a deliberately measured gait (resulting in a show that ran one-hour long!). Some of these were footwear that had a clear Chinese characteristic: the heel, unlike in the West, was positioned in the middle of the sole, a feature associated with the Qing dynasty (which also gave China the qipao). And as 17th Century Manchurian women (with bound feet) would tell you, walking in them requires the balancing ability of stilt walkers.
In the end, when, for example, trains of dresses and a pair of sleeves were really thick-pile carpets, one question begged to be asked: is this fashion? If fashion is a prevailing style of dress, then Guo Pei’s designs may not qualify since they do not run parallel to what is prevalent as so little of what she does is in response to current demand and preference. Yet fashion is a manifestation of the times, or, in Ms Guo’s case, the times in China. In this respect, she has achieved in creating fashion in a society that has only come to fashion as we know it in the last twenty years or so. China, while still importing a sizeable amount of what her citizens wish to wear, is now increasingly seeking home-grown talents to meet domestic demand even when fashionable appearance is not yet (and may not be) a specific feature of national character. Ms Guo could be using her out-of-this-world designs to draw interest to her more approachable products since she could not only be designing for staging, However, even when what she showed can be worn does not mean they are wearable. That they made a good show does not mean they are desirable. That they are amusing does not mean they’re alluring. Yet Ms Guo’s efforts should not be mistaken as frivolity for there is palpable passion and discernible skill in her output.
A visual tour de force with the lavishness of European court gowns and the intricacies of Chinese applied and decorative arts, Ms Guo’s seams make the scene. There’s nothing dark or subversive in her work; they mostly tell of memories, magic and moments that, together, represent unbridled indulgence, an excess that, in the context of her homeland, equals a fashionableness that begets admiration. As Ms Guo told Vogue China last year, “When a work of design brings its own emotions, culture, and story, it will then have value, as well as be better able to gain approval and respect”.
Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F from now through 19 October