With her exquisite exhibition on now at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, we talk to renowned couturier Guo Pei about culture, craft and an incredible career

When global superstar Rihanna stepped out on the 2015 Met Gala red carpet in a spectacular dress that came to be known (in pop-culture parlance and about a thousand memes) as ‘the omelette’, it was an iconic moment. But beyond cementing the singer as one of the most exciting and progressive figures in fashion (a title she has continued to build on throughout her career), it propelled the designer of the dress onto the world stage in a major way, and all of a sudden, Guo Pei, the most recognised and sought-after couturier in China, became one of the most recognised and sought-after couturiers in the world. 

Now, almost a decade after that viral moment, Guo Pei has brought her breathtaking, otherworldly fashion to New Zealand in an exclusive exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Guo Pei: Fashion, Art, Fantasy, offers an exquisite look inside the mind of this globally-renowned designer via a meticulously-curated selection of more than 60 of her most iconic pieces. From billowing dresses adorned with impossibly intricate embroidery, to pieces that evoke mythical creatures in their unique, one-off textiles, to those that shimmer with iridescent gold thread or head-turning colours, Guo Pei’s creations are like something that has emerged from a dream. Seen together, they weave a fantastical narrative that speaks to impeccable craftsmanship, the opulence of Imperial China, the transcendence of classical European art and the unpredictable beauty of the botanical world. Even the aforementioned dress worn by Rihanna in 2015 is included in the line-up, a true ode to a designer who has worked tirelessly to redefine the landscape of fashion and couture in her own country, and has made waves around the world as a result. 

“When I was little, my grandmother often talked about the garments of her time,” Guo Pei tells me, “the way florets were appliquéd and the lustre and smoothness of the fabric, I was captivated.” We are speaking ahead of her exhibition’s opening, with the renowned couturier offering insight into both her upbringing and her unique, creative process. Before starting her brand in 1997, Guo Pei had been in the fashion industry in China for a decade, where she found her creativity hampered by the restrictions of ready-to-wear. Craving an outlet where she could bring her sartorial visions to life, the designer established her own couture house, Rose Studio, and set about finding and training embroiderers from the villages surrounding Beijing, who would eventually help her to bring to life the sartorial creations for which she is now so beloved. 

“The first step was the hardest,” Guo Pei admits, “I gathered all the embroiderers I could and taught them advanced embroidery techniques, one step at a time, based on works I had seen in museums and skills I had learned from reading books.” She continues, “it was a journey of learning and discovery and now, I am proud to say that Rose Studio has grown to be a formidable couture atelier, with more than 200 skilled artisans.” 

Indeed, Guo Pei’s lauded couture house is one of the most significant in the world, each of its pieces painstakingly handcrafted in such a way as to speak both to the individual beauty of the client, and to Guo Pei’s own, very distinctive vision. As the designer explains, “every woman possesses a form of beauty exclusive to her, and I hope my designs can bring out that uniqueness,” she goes on, “the magic is in incorporating something special in my design for every client, and I feel fortunate that when I am designing I have the freedom to express myself without constraint… that is the greatest level of creativity.” 

When Rihanna’s team called Guo Pei for a gown for the 2015 Met Gala, China: Through the Looking Glass, the designer admits she didn’t know who the singer was, and certainly wasn’t expecting the wave of admiration and recognition that came from her red carpet moment. “I still recall my utter surprise as the presence of Rihanna was met with thunderous applause,” she tells me, “when the dress was first shown in China, it was too heavy for the model to walk properly in it, but worn by Rihanna, it had new life.” The dress was a spectacular yellow creation, embroidered with golden thread that encapsulated the designer’s mandate of revitalising China’s traditional craftsmanship. Guo Pei has long harboured a passion for the intricate beauty of imperial fashion and art that had been all but lost to the cultural revolution (an era of homogenous and decidedly unimaginative dressing). In this dress and many, many others, the designer is bringing the artistry and history of the imperial era back — it’s part of what makes her creations feel so significant.

As Guo Pei tells me, one of the biggest triumphs of her career was the completion of her first couture Da Jing (magnificent gold) garment nearly 20 years ago. Driven by a desire to create something “as gloriously radiant as the sun”, Guo Pei embarked on a journey of learning to embroider with thin and brittle gold thread. Despite injuries to her fingers and needles that wouldn’t work as the embroidery became too thick, the couturier remained steadfast in her vision and, after 50,000 hours of work, created the first of her spectacular golden threaded gowns that eventually would become a signature of her house. 

From her incredible story to the way she has made an indelible mark on the global landscape of couture, Guo Pei is a significant figure in global fashion, and her upcoming New Zealand exhibition is set to be an unmissable celebration of her craft and creativity. “Visitors can witness moments in my life and travels when inspiration sparked,” she says, “they can follow my process, and understand my tireless pursuit for both beauty and the art of couture… I hope my works will introduce viewers to the astounding wonder of the world, the profuse beauty of life and show them the dedication required to achieve such a level of craftsmanship.”

Open now and running until the 5th of May, 2024, Guo Pei: Fashion, Art, Fantasy will transport you to another dimension and immerse you in the historic work of one of the most visionary couturiers in the world. 

Guo Pei: Fashion, Art, Fantasy is on now until the 5th May 2024. See here for tickets to the exhibition and more information.

www.aucklandartgalllery.com

Coveted

Fresh from London Fashion Week — the best looks from the Fall 2024 runways so far
Jaimie Webster Haines’ eponymous label is popping up on Faraday Street this weekend — and you don’t want to miss it
Timeless not trendy, monochrome is chic in every situation — shop our edit of black & white pieces now