Chinese designer Guo Pei had been creating couture for more than 30 years when Rihanna stepped on to the red carpet in an extraordinary yellow cape two years ago. Dubbed the omelette dress for its striking resemblance to brunch, it went viral and made the world notice Guo’s work.
The dress wasn’t designed for Rihanna. In fact, it had been sitting in Guo’s studio for three years when the singer’s team came across it after making inquiries into Chinese couture during the run up to the 2015 Met Gala, the theme of which was China: Through the Looking Glass.
Beijing-born Guo, who turned 50 recently, cut her teeth in fashion design following the Cultural Revolution. As Cathy Horyn explained in the New York Times, her career as a designer “began when there was no fashion in her country”. For the past 20 years, Guo has focused on high fashion, specialising in technical work that is grand in dimension and scale and as intricate as that of any Paris couture house. It’s no wonder that she has appeared at Paris couture week, last year becoming the first Chinese national to do so.
The now-famous Yellow Empress cape weighs 25kg, has a 16ft train, features over 50,000 hour’s worth of hand embroidery and took two years to make.FThe sheer weight of the dress meant that, when it was first shown, at a 2012 show in China, the model made it only halfway down the catwalk before the lights had to be turned off and the show stopped so that she could remove the cape and return backstage.
Rihanna managed to pull it off, though, literally and figuratively. “Rihanna wearing my design had a great impact – and the international fashion industry gained a new understanding of me,” says Guo, who is in Atlanta, Georgia, to promote the first solo exhibition of her work in the US at the city’s SCAD FASH Museum. For most people, it presents a chance to see the Yellow Empress cape up close.
Guo says finding fame through a single dress was “completely unexpected” – particularly the way it was popularised online via omelette memes. Speaking through a translator, she explains why the weight, shape and size of the dress matter. “When I had this design in mind, I [was thinking of] a woman that can carry weight on her arms. It’s a dress she has to lift, like she can lift the whole world. I always have a woman like that in mind.”
Guo is the subject of a new book and a documentary, Yellow Is Forbidden, by New Zealand film-maker Pietra Brettkelly, but it’s through her couture work showcased in this exhibition – about 45 gowns from the past decade, including pieces from her couture show in Paris, are on display here – that you really get a sense of Pei’s craftsmanship.
You can’t just view a Guo dress from one direction. On one dress, waves and clouds are stitched in synchronicity to symbolise wisdom and luck. For her dress inspired by a Ming vase, for 2012’s Miss China, she cracked porcelain and hand-painted silk. Her dresses cost around £500,000 and are usually sold to China’s elite, who prefer to wear “local” designers.
The Chinese influence on Guo’s work is clear. Allusions to auspicious dragons are embroidered in pearls, while silk flowers, abandoned in a factory abandoned during the Cultural Revolution, were restored and applied to the fabric, as if to reference her childhood. She has resurrected methods of tailoring, popular during Chinese dynasties, that were purged in the cultural destruction of the 60s and 70s. She is said sometimes to use strands of her own hair as thread, so she is as much a part of the dresses as they are a part of her.had been lost from her childhood.
“To me, it’s just something that comes out naturally,” she says about her focus on Chinese design. “I think my culture is my language and my blood and I can’t separate that from my work.” She adds: “I actually feel that today’s haute couture is not doing so great, but I am optimistic. I feel that, if one person does it and is persistent about it, it will inspire others.”