How Guo Pei Created a Couture Business in China Against All Odds

Rihanna took the world by storm when she wore Pei's 55-pound golden gown to the Met Gala in 2015, and since then the designer's international profile continues to rise.
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Chantal Fernandez
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Rihanna took the world by storm when she wore Pei's 55-pound golden gown to the Met Gala in 2015, and since then the designer's international profile continues to rise.
Designer Guo Pei at the Waterfall Mansion and Gallery with the dress famously worn by Rihanna in 2015. Photo: Julienne Schaer for China Institute

Designer Guo Pei at the Waterfall Mansion and Gallery with the dress famously worn by Rihanna in 2015. Photo: Julienne Schaer for China Institute

"A lot of Chinese think that if you're acknowledged in the West, then you are somebody; but what I want to do is become a bridge, to do something that is meaningful to the nation and to the people," said Guo Pei in New York City on Monday. Indeed, international acknowledgment of the top Chinese designer's lavish couture designs have only increased since Rihanna wore her 55-pound golden gown to the Met Gala in 2015, which celebrated the museum's "China: Through the Looking Glass" exhibit. The dress famously took 100 workers 50,000 hours to create, became a legendary red carpet moment overnight and launched Pei onto the global stage. Last fall, The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture invited her to show on the Paris couture calendar, marking the first time a designer born and raised in Asia has been granted the honor. 

Pei is in New York this week upon invitation from the China Institute, a New York-based facility that hosts programs and exhibitions meant to promote deeper understanding of China in the U.S. In addition to honoring her at its 90th Anniversary Gala Tuesday, the Institute hosted her and her memorable Met Gala design for a moderated Q&A at the Waterfall Mansion and Gallery on Monday. Pei spoke with television host and producer Yue-Sai Kan through a translator (the designer does not speak English) and the conversation ranged from Pei's childhood to her take on the couture business inside and outside China.

The runway at Guo Pei's spring 2016 Paris couture show. Photo: Imaxtree

The runway at Guo Pei's spring 2016 Paris couture show. Photo: Imaxtree

"In Europe, haute couture is actually catered to people with social status, who are wealthy, but in China it is a little bit different; in China there's also a factor of the contemplation of beauty. There's a lot of people who don't have money but want to have a piece of my design," said Pei, citing an example of a woman who offered a lifetime deposit of 50,000 yuan (about $7,500) for a wedding dress. That hasn't always been the case, however. 

"Thirty years ago, there was no fashion, no such word in China," explained Pei, speaking of post-Cultural Revolution China. "And 20 years ago there was no so-called 'fashion design' in China, but during these 30 years, the understanding of beauty has evolved so much for Chinese people and they are now seeking the spirit of their nationality and their individual spirit," she said. 

Because she grew up in a uniform-dominated environment that didn't value handcrafts such as embroidery, Pei had to teach herself most of the skills she is known for today. In 1982, at age 15, she was part of the first class accepted to a four-year design program at the Beijing School of Industrial Design for technical training in drawing, sketching and pattern-making. When she asked her teacher to help her design the kind of voluminous gown Pei had seen in the movies or heard about in stories from her grandmother, the teacher sent her to a costume shop. "Why don't you make something that can sell?" Pei remembered the teacher asking. She was accused of being bourgeois. 

Chinese actress Li Bingbing often wears Guo Pei on the red carpet, as seen here at the 2010 Venice Film Festival. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Chinese actress Li Bingbing often wears Guo Pei on the red carpet, as seen here at the 2010 Venice Film Festival. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Pei's desire to create prohibitively expensive, unwearable but awe-inspiring gowns has always been her heart's passion, as she called it, but few understood it in the beginning of her career. In 1997, she took a risk and quit her "iron rice bowl" job (meaning one with lifelong security) to open Rose Studio in Beijing. But it wasn't until a few years later, when she met her husband and partner Cao Bao Jie — known to everyone as Jack — that she realized she wasn't just a tailor: she was an haute couturière. Jack was a textile dealer who introduced her to European fabrics and embroideries. 

Just as Pei struggled to find anyone to teach her how to make the kind of clothing she dreamed of, she also had trouble finding skilled craftsmen to work with her at Rose Studio. "It was impossible to find any embroiderers because during the Cultural Revolution, that was considered a really bad skill to have, so no one was learning and no one was teaching — this kind of skill was lost," said Pei. She heard that some embroiderers who had worked for the Royal Family were still in the Hubei province in the countryside, so Pei traveled there and started literally knocking on the doors of houses with embroidered curtains in the windows. Now she has more than 300 embroiderers at Rose Studio, many of whom she trained herself. 

When asked why she favors couture over ready-to-wear, Pei said she prefers one-on-one connections with customers, and to help them understand how to wear her designs. "For the first 10 years, I was designing ready-to-wear and I was very successful...  but as time went on I noticed someone on the street wearing my design and because of the lack of good sense, they didn't know how to wear it. I have to say it's pretty ugly for my standards," said Pei. She wanted to educate the shopper because "at that time in China, a lot of Chinese didn't know what beauty was." 

A look from Guo Pei's fall 2016 Paris couture runway show. Photo: Imaxtree

A look from Guo Pei's fall 2016 Paris couture runway show. Photo: Imaxtree

Pei struggled to convince clients to spend the same kind of money they would on Gucci and Prada on a local designer. "I explained why I was charging this much for almost 10 years; but after 10 years, no one asks me any more." But when someone recently offered her 5 million yuan (about $750,000) for the golden gown worn by Rihanna, Pei ultimately decided to keep it as a symbol of "legend of her design" — and a moment that radically changed her business. 

"The fame from overseas helped Rose Studio in China," Pei told Fashionista after the Q&A, adding that clients in Europe, the U.S. and China have their differences but all ultimately want the same thing: her high-quality craftsmanship. She opened a second atelier in Paris in early 2015, which was necessary to qualify for an invitation to show during Paris Couture Week. For her first two shows, Pei played it safe and showed more "practical" designs, but said she wants to show more "dramatic gowns" this coming January. Balancing her artistic passions and the commercial needs of a couture business has been a career-long challenge. 

"There are actually two sectors in my design: one is myself, my mind, my dream, my pursuit, and the other part is the commercial side; I have to sell to make money to feed my team, feed their family," she said. Pei was reminded of a recent conversation with Apple CEO Tim Cook. Apple sponsored the exhibit and Met Gala that marked Pei's international breakthrough moment, and Cook visited her in Beijing in August to see how she and her team use the iPad Pro in the design process.

"He pointed to a dress and said, 'What is that for?' because that dress is actually not wearable; And I thought about how to answer his question and said, 'Do you see those dresses over there? Those are the dresses I design to sell for money, and I'll use that money to make this dress that is not wearable.'" Wearable or not, Pei's designs clearly have the world's attention — inside and beyond the fashion industry.

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