When Rihanna showed up to the 2015 Met Gala in a plush, fur-trimmed yellow satin gown by Beijing-born designer Guo Pei, it set off a firestorm of memes. Twitter likened the ornately embroidered imperial cape to Big Bird, cheesy pizza pies and omelettes. But Riri's splashy entrance did more than sizzle in a photoshopped frying pan; it brought our attention to a brilliant couturier who's produced cherishable, one-of-a-kind garments in China for over 30 years.
In the new film, "Yellow Is Forbidden," veteran documentarian Pietra Brettkelly captures Pei's fierce artistic vision and drive, from the designer's prosaic childhood to her remarkable Spring 2017 Couture show in Paris. Along the way, Brettkelly highlights the many opposing forces that conflict with Pei's dream of being selected into the exclusive world of haute couture: Chinese tradition versus Western modernity, acceptance versus prejudice, and maintaining a healthy, lucrative business versus pursuing more expensive and rare techniques. Nevertheless, we watch Pei persevere to become an extraordinary champion for her art and become the first Chinese designer invited into the official Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the French governing body for couture.
Kenzo Takada and Hamish Bowles make cameos; we see them witnessing Pei's work and interacting with her as eager exhibit-goers who are examining the detail and sheer exquisiteness of a piece of art for the first time, rather than experts talking about a designer's decadent and storied reign in fashion. Brettkelly follows Pei in a refreshingly organic way. Perhaps the filter-less approach is made possible by her humbleness: Despite having been worn by Rihanna and been named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential people in 2016, Pei is a loving daughter, wife and mother who collects hundreds of teddy bears and is still moved to tears when she sees her work come to life.
During the hour and a half portrait of Pei, Brettkelly reveals the intimate and special moments between Pei and her husband, as he translates for her and acts as her biggest supporter. We also see Pei visit her aging parents — two Communist party members — in their small apartment, thus painting a better picture of what her modest upbringing looked like. We also watch the couturier interact with her VIP clients, who drop $750,000 for her designs, and we see Pei work with her atelier to ensure that each handcrafted collection — which takes two and a half years to create — meets her standards. Through it all, we see how strong Pei really is.
Brettkelly depicts her strength and unparalleled artistry by giving us a behind-the-scenes look into the making and showing of Pei's Spring 2017 collection, which takes place at La Conciegerie where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned immediately prior to her execution. Pei followed in the footsteps of Alexander McQueen to become the second designer in history to erect a runway at the former prison. What comes down that couture catwalk is over-the-top, to say the least: Models are perched on gold platforms shoes and balance crowns and crystal-like orbs on their heads. The gowns themselves are inspired by an 18th-century cathedral and feature bejeweled crosses, radiant woven gilded fabrics and archival Church murals printed onto the finest silks. Prior to the show, we're treated to up-close snapshots of her skilled technicians individually beading, hand-stitching and using intricate goldwork to create the 19 ornate couture pieces.
Unlike Pei's runway shows, the true story of Pei as portrayed in Brettkelly's documentary isn't a fairytale. But it is sprinkled with magic thanks to her charming personality and her innate creative capabilities. And while "Yellow Is Forbidden" will most likely draw in the masses because Pei is linked to Rihanna and anything she touches turns to gold, the singer-turned-beauty mogul is only one very small piece of Pei's puzzle. At the heart of this film is a timely examination of what it takes for an outsider to earn critical acclaim from one of the world's most elite institutions.
"Yellow Is Forbidden" premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Apr. 21 and will be released in New Zealand in July.
Homepage photo: Courtesy of Guo Pei