The Dressmaker

Interview by Charlene Chan
Photographs courtesy of Singapore Fashion Week & Guo Pei

What is it that propels a piece of clothing beyond the boundaries of fashion to become regarded as a work of art? Is it flamboyance, technique, or an element of timelessness? In a way, the gowns designed by Guo Pei speak to every one of those. Even in pictures, the staggering amount of detail in her work is apparent, with embroidery and embellishments almost a given in all her designs. Trailing gowns in shades of gold and canary yellow hark back to imperial China, suggesting the opulence of royalty. It’s not hard to see why many have been quick to label her work as being more than mere fashion statements.

But perhaps the one factor that has contributed to the attention surrounding Guo Pei’s creations is how divisive they can be. Applauded and parodied in equal measure, her designs have sparked discussions that are as much an indication of the bluntness of online commentators, as they are a telling reflection of how the fashion industry has become increasingly democratic. Before delving into her next project, she takes us back to the very foundations of her work, and shares the experiences and influences that have shaped her brand’s visual identity.

Guo Pei

Hi Guo Pei, it’s great to have you here in Singapore. Can you tell us more about how your interest in dressmaking began?

It started when I was a very young child. Before going to kindergarten, I grew up under the care of my grandmother, who was born during the Qing Dynasty. I remember her telling me about the clothes she used to wear when she was younger, and imagined her dressed in clothes that had been embroidered with flowers. That image felt so tangible, and I remember thinking then that I had to make beautiful clothes in the future.

As a child, I loved drawing, and was already altering my own clothes by the time I was in Primary Five or Six. Once, I even made myself a shirt out of some leftover fabric my Mum used to make her clothes.

Having started out in the fashion industry—specifically in couture—in the 80’s, what was that experience like? Asia wasn’t particularly known for high fashion at that point in time, was it?

I started studying fashion design in 1982, and became part of China’s first generation of designers in 1986. This was in the early years of the Chinese economic reform. At the time, I was designing for another brand, where I eventually stayed for 10 years. Our clothes were selling exceptionally well. We could sell up to 50,000 pieces of each design, and everyone was wearing the same styles.

guo pei chinese designer

Back then, you could go up to anyone on the street who you thought was dressed beautifully, ask about their clothes, and then buy the same outfit. During that period in China, style was quite dull—there were trends, but not style. Style was something that only emerged later, just over 20 years ago.

You took 10 years to make and present your debut collection. Has that period of deliberation and creation shaped your later work and ideas about couture?

I established my own studio, Rose Studio, in 1997. In 2006, I presented my first couture collection called The Circle of Life (轮回). This was the first time in almost 10 years I had showcased any of my work. This 10-year period definitely had a great influence on my subsequent designs and work. It helped me lay down a very solid foundation, and it was through this process that I accumulated the expertise I now have.

Read more in The U Press N˚14 (Singapore edition).