If Chinese designers are ready to take the French fashion world by storm, it isn’t Guo Pei. Although she captured the imagination of global fashion with that yellow coat last year, paraded on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was mostly derision that got her worldwide exposure. That, as well as Rihanna’s IG account.
Still, you can’t say that is not commendable when the massive coat was only worn in the time the singer was gliding and posing on the red carpet. Once inside, she changed into Stella McCartney for dinner, Maison Margiela by John Galliano for her performance, and Maison Margiela again when she hosted the after-party. That hors d’oeuvre (or was it breakfast?) of a Guo Pei coat served one purpose: to make an entrance. It could not do more, such as allowing the wearer to sit and have a meal, or do what she needed to in the course of the night.
Despite its brief appearance (which is far much shorter than anything an actress wears to the Academy Awards), the coat shot Guo Pei into the stratosphere. Prior to that, a fortunate few in Singapore saw it during the Asian Couture segment of the now defunct Fidé Fashion Weeks (2013). No one could have guessed that an outerwear that looked like floor covering from the chambers of the empresses of imperial China would one day make it to the steps of USA’s most renowned museum.
From Beijing, the world became Guo Pei’s oyster. Shortly after that exposure on American soil—that included two gowns in the exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass, which Rihanna attended in the yellow show-stopper—Paris came a-calling. At the end of last year, she was asked by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, together with Iris Van Herpen and Yacine Aouadi, to show as “invited members” at the couture week for spring/summer 2016. Last week, Ms Guo returned with her second couture collection in Paris. Both appearances make her only the second Chinese woman after Yin Yiqing (who is currently an official member) and the third Asian after Japan’s Hanae Mori to participate in the couture calendar in the French capital.
Her first showing six months ago could be considered sussing out what might work in the home city of haute couture or what might stand out in the company of the masters. The second did not seem to suggest that she has absorbed anything from the earlier experience, but a continuation at playing up, even more strongly, her own idealised world of high fashion—mainly informed by a culture still enamoured with post-Mao era’s idea of what was Western fashion, which was essentially of another age. Ms Pei began her career two decades ago, before China consumed fashion the way it does now. Her company Rose Studio (the name itself harks back to a past when femininity could be neatly represented by a hua or flower, but would now be considered tu or unsophisticated) emerged at a time when Western fashion was beyond the reach of most, even their ken.
China has changed, but the output of Rose Studio has not represented this transformation. Among discerning fashion consumers in her native Beijing, Ms Guo’s designs are considered egregious to what is truly desired and worn. The young, rather than consider her the Chinese equivalent of, say, Vivienne Westwood (who, too, is often inspired by her own nation’s past), deem her out of touch. Although she claims to make real clothes, Ms Guo caters mainly to wives of the political and business elite, encouraging the talk that her work has more to do with wealth than taste.
At her Paris debut in January, Ms Guo told the Chinese media that she “wanted everyone to feel the depths of her emotions” (“我要大家能感受到我那些深处的情感”). Sure, that’s in keeping with what Paul Cezanne said: “A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.” Hers were, however, not clothes borne out in emotions, but fantasy. For autumn winter 2016, she showed dresses and gowns for Barbie playing Disney princess (there was a ball gown Belle will surely want to wear to dance with the Beast), outfits that common folks might equate with what a consort of a head of state would wear (first lady Peng Liyuan’s designer of choice, interestingly, is Chinese label Exception de Mixmind’s Ma Ke), a Chinese-aesthetic-affirming bedazzled dragon, and a bizarre pouf skirt that looked like a collapsed curtain. If a Chanel woman is a French archetype of unattainable chic, the Guo Pei woman is an Oriental example of avoidable clichés.
Before Paris, Ms Guo’s so-called couture collections—wholeheartedly lauded and endorsed by the Fidé Fashion Weeks-linked Asian Couture Federation—presented a hyperbolic view of what Chinese interpretation of Western fashion could be: sentient of showiness piled on with gaudy applied arts. Now, she’s toned down the exaggeration, in both silhouette and embellishment, showing what she, perhaps, thought a Westerner may wish to (or able to) wear. The target customers are now less likely to attend official dinners in banquet rooms of head-spinning red lacquer and blinding chandeliers. Even if they do, they would still need a dress that has more usefulness than an entrance maker.
It may not be the case, but let’s postulate: Guo Pei—a self-proclaimed patriot—participated in Couture Week to bolster China’s attempt at peddling and pushing its soft power across the world. Although not a global brand, Guo Pei has ambassadorial clout. The Met exhibition gave her that. Her gowns—many bearing a long back that reflects her strange obsession with trains—sweeping through the Bourse du Commerce may not reinforce the image of Chinese fashion, but they could increase China’s cultural footprint overseas. Could this be duwai xuanchuan (external propaganda), just more glamourous? Take too lightly, perhaps we shouldn’t, a phoenix with a mission.