San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum will celebrate Chinese couturier Guo Pei with a mid-career retrospective bowing in April.
Mounting “Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy” in the Bay Area, home to one of the largest Asian populations in the U.S., was intentional, said curator Jill D’Alessandro, speaking exclusively to WWD about her collaboration with the designer on the show.
“As an institution we’ve been looking at expanding the canon outside of the West, and she is a really important person for us to look at. And to be honest it’s a difficult time — California is leading the nation in Asian hate crimes. As [Guo Pei] says herself, ‘There is so much misconception about China. I want to show a different side of China.’ Both her studio and the museum believe art can be a form of healing.”
Spread across two floors and multiple galleries, the exhibition, slated for April 16 to Sept. 5, 2022, will feature 80 runway ensembles from collections shown both in Beijing and in Paris over the last two decades, all of them sourced from the designer’s archive.
“She approaches design like an artist, very unconventionally. She was trained to sew and draw but not really in pattern making…And she has a huge studio working for her that is really interested in craft, embroidery, basket making, carving, and everything is done in house,” said D’Alessandro, the curator in charge of Costume and Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
“The other thing really influential in her work is theater…Being raised during the Cultural Revolution, theater was one of the only art forms that still existed. Architecture also plays into her work. When everything else was halted, the buildings were still there,” said the curator, noting that the designer was the first generation to come of age in the 1980s after China’s Open Door Policy, which led her to draw inspiration from both Chinese and European traditions.
“She’s also said ‘I‘m a product of a changing China.’ She’s rooted in the identity of modern China but also has had this international lifestyle. She represents the 21st century in a lot of ways.”
Mixing a chronological and thematic approach, galleries will explore how Imperial China, botanical China, art and architecture and the after-life have influenced the designer’s work. Guo Pei’s creations will be displayed alongside the museum’s collection of European paintings and decorative arts to highlight cross-cultural exchange.
The “Phoenix” gown from the designer’s 2012 “Legend of the Dragon” collection will be presented in the gilded French reception room, the “Salon Doré, while her sculptural gold-embroidered “Dajing” (“Magnificent Gold”) ensemble from the 2006 “Samsara” (Lifecycle) collection will be set among works of French and Italian Baroque and Rococo art.
Gowns from the 2017 “Legends” collection, with gold metal fabric printed with images of the cathedral ceiling from the Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland, will be situated among saint icons and Madonna figures. Another gallery will juxtapose European chinoiserie with the designer’s “Porcelain” dress from the 2010 “One Thousand and Two Nights” collection.
Notably, however, the meme-generating ensemble she made for Rihanna to wear to the 2015 Met Gala celebrating the “China: Through the Looking Glass” exhibition will not be included. “We wanted people to recognize her for her work and not out of a celebrity moment,” said D’Alessandro, who organized the show via Zoom calls during the pandemic, using a translator to communicate with Guo Pei.
“In speaking with her, she says everything starts with a story and each piece is almost a character in that story…She layers meaning and imagery…That’s been interesting listening to her discuss.”
“Haute couture is not made for commercial gain, but more for a kind of inner quest, a satisfaction of our spiritual being,” the designer has said.
“She has built her business in this unique way where she does a lot of couture work, made-to-measure work, for clients, then for her runway she puts on a theatrical production. So for the most part these are those theatrical pieces, alongside a few more wearable pieces with more of a Western inflection to them that she showed in Paris,” said D’Alessandro.
After graduating from the Beijing Second Light Industry School in 1986, and spending a decade designing for different manufacturers, Guo Pei launched her label in 1997. Today she employs nearly 500 artisans who work on her creations, which can take up to two years to complete.
In 2015, she became the second native Chinese member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, allowing her to show on the Paris Haute Couture Week calendar. She made her Paris debut in 2016.
D’Alessandro hopes the designer will be able to travel to San Francisco for the opening, and to meet some of her American clients: “Our development team is discovering more and more of them.”