Some labels are just hard to shake off. For years, China has been known for cheap production of goods, from electronic gadgets to knockoff luxury goods, which contributed a lot to the country’s economic prosperity as of late. However, cutting costs and corners comes with a price, so to speak: international human rights entities probe into the working conditions in Chinese factories and anything “Made in China” is charged with negative connotations regarding quality.
It’s easy to empathize when Beijing-based couturier Guo Pei talks about struggling with making it as a Chinese designer. While her contemporaries embrace more Western influences and aesthetic language, Pei unpacks design cues from her own heritage: various reinterpretations of the cheongsam, Chinese porcelain patterns, and an incessant use of silk in all its variants. Parallel to this, she is also inspired by history of different countries. Her Spring 2017 couture collection titled “Court” is a couture play on Renaissance courtesan costumes. There is an underlying fiber connecting her collections though: an impeccable and unrelenting attention to detail.
Pei’s fur-trimmed, hand-embroidered Yellow Empress gown weighs 40 kg and took 2 years to make, which says everything about her work ethic and what kind of designer she wants to be. When the dress landed on Rihanna’s back during the 2015 Met Gala, Pei attracted the world’s attention and finally had the well-deserved platform to show her craft. Her masterful creations are a product of long hours of work: a coming together of dreamy luxe materials, a clear design vision, and an unforgiving technical prowess. The polar opposite of what people think of “Made in China” goods.
The first Chinese national to ever be invited to show during Paris Couture Fashion Week, Pei continues redefining what it means for something to be China-made. Her latest collection featured her usual tricks: pretty dresses heavy with embellishments, a playful mishmash of fur, lace, feathers, and silk, as well as her amazing ability of making structured pieces with the softest of fabrics. While her understanding of couture could be updated in a way that’s contemporary, one almost forgives her for shoving models into 12-inch crystal platforms and similar theatricalities. After all, she is single-handedly changing the world’s perspective on her country that, while dogged with connotations of subpar merchandise, is also rich in literary and artistic history.