The story begins with color. How easy to forget this essential truth in the presence of the kaleidoscopic couture created by the greatest fashion designer in the history of China: Guo Pei. A new monograph, “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond,” produced at SCAD and published by Rizzoli, tells this story in all its prismatic wonder.
Pei’s garments enchant and enthrall the viewer: the exacting pointillism of her embroidery, the hand-sewn precision of the seams, the iconography of Phoenix and dragon, the marriage of ancient and postmodern architecture in the structure of each gown. Pei’s creations present the eye with striking visual magic, and yet for all their manifold delights, the story of each garment can be viewed through the elemental lens of color. For color, according to Pei, conveys the emotion of a gown, allowing us to move beyond the grandeur and into the intangible. Into memory, history, story.
Color is fundamental to her own story as a designer, too. For her thesis project in college — while her classmates created streetwear looks — the ambitious Pei designed “a bouffant white wedding dress with tiers of ruffles,” reported Judith Thurman in The New Yorker. (Not even the instructors knew how the young student had done it.) The color was an especially unorthodox choice for the young Beijing student, as Chinese wedding gowns were usually red, symbolizing good fortune. The white was prescient, too, foreshadowing Pei’s global bridging of East and West.
“Only she had the nerve to dream,” one of her former classmates told Thurman.
This passion to dream, to weave a daring gestalt of cultural references and design boldly with color, remains central to her aesthetic, as evidenced in the pages of “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond.” We start with saffron and gold, the yellow hues of Pei’s most recognizable gown in the West, “The Great Queen,” worn by Rihanna to the 2015 Met Gala, placed Pei in a limelight that has only grown more brilliant in the years since.
Most admirers remarked on the grandeur of this ensemble, its length and sheer mass, cascading down the cardinal staircase, all 25 kilograms, or 55 pounds, of it. Pei recounts how, even minutes before the gala, Rihanna wasn’t sure she could manage the stairs, given the weight. But she did, and international haute couture stepped into the future.
Most remarkable is Pei’s choice of gold for this royal gown, as gold was traditionally reserved only for the emperor, the male head of China. “[An ancient] decree forbade anyone other than the emperor from wearing bright yellow,” writes Joann Eckstut in “Secret Language of Color.” “Other shades of yellow were reserved for his sons. The emperors were literally surrounded by yellow: The shade graced their garments and adorned their walls and roofs.”
Even though Pei did not design the gown specifically for Rihanna, the ensemble proved a highly symbolic choice — its radiant brilliance speaking volumes about the performer’s regal power, in her career and in her personal life. Nobody rules her, but her. The same could be said of Pei herself, who announced to the world, through this gown, that she honored history, but was not bound to it.
For Pei, color is power: past and future. Observe the designer’s use of red, one of the oldest pigments in human civilization, the color of iron and earth, of our precious lifeblood. Red is traditionally associated with the Chinese empress and connubial joy. Pei employs a prismatic array of connubial reds to gallant effect, particularly in the silk jacquard robe from her Legend of the Dragon collection, a courtly wedding dress embroidered with 24-karat gold-spun thread and embellished with Swarovski crystals and a surging cataract of silk royal court flowers.
Finally, consider how Pei uses blue, which she wields to archetypal, almost Jungian effect in “Blue and Porcelain” — also known as the “Ming vase gown” — from her One Thousand and Two Nights collection. Every viewer who stood before this gown at SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film instantly recognized the inimitable pigment of cobalt oxide in countless China cabinets from Savannah to Beijing.
Blue, Pei says, is the color of the universe, the soul, of immortality. These colors — blue and white, so deeply associated with Chinese porcelain and the influence of Chinese culture around the world — also represent the Chinese people. According to Pei, this gown helped show her homeland that fashion is about more than utility. Design can communicate the soul, can conjure a people.
Howl Collective, the photographers who created the otherworldly images in “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond” — including SCAD photography alumni Jim Lind, Patrick O’Brien and Elliot Ross, along with Forest Woodward — take their cues from Pei herself, choosing the scenery for its saturation of color: the saffron of the sand quarry, the reds of sunset and brick, the blue of sky and water.
It is my hope that in partnering with the designer on this historic monograph, SCAD will continue to educate generations of artists and designers on holding cultural heritage in the highest regard, while also pushing the boundaries of form — in Pei’s case by wielding the universal, personal and elemental power of color.
Paula Wallace is president and founder of SCAD.