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The Doyenne Is a Rose

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[Photo from HKTDC Fashion Show]Fabrics embellished with rich gold appliqués, then rolled into paper-like scallops, or folded into origami pyramids, or allowed to cascade softly, close to the body like an otherworldly second skin, characterize Guo Pei's walking art at HKTDC Fashion Week for Fall/Winter 2010

“I have been in the industry for 22 years,” Guo Pei tells me through her translator. I thought something was lost in translation.

Surely she was only in her early 30s; and even that, by a stretch. Is this the same Guo Pei who is regarded as the doyenne of Chinese haute couture? Or her daughter? Guo Pei, always with a ready smile, laughed.

After a bit of back-and-forth on when she was born (1967) and graduated from college (1986, from the Beijing Vocational College), I finally believed that before me stood China's fashion design icon.

A decade after Guo Pei finished college along with the very first group of fashion design graduates in China, she launched her own fashion house, Rose Studio. She had spent 10 years designing garments; now was her chance to fulfill her long cherished dream of designing high fashion. The year she launched Rose Studio was the very same year she was named one of China's Top 10 Fashion Designers.

The afternoon I met Guo Pei, someone mentioned that she was famous for being a perfectionist with a passion for excellence down to the smallest detail. By evening, everyone who, with bated breath, beheld her creations inch down the Winter Fashion Week catwalk, realized just how true to that reputation she was.

I was seated in the front row and—with the snail's pace it took the models in foot-high heels to navigate the stage—had all the time in the world to obsessively check out every detail. Not one flaw. And that was truly something given the lush abundance of ornamentation and material (fabric, glass, and everything in between!) that was undoubtedly far from easy to work with.

[Photo from HKTDC Fashion Show]1002nd Arabian Night

“Like a dream,” is how Guo Pei describes her collection showcased during Fashion Week. It was, of course, inspired by the classic One Thousand and One Nights. The tales in the compilation have become popular children's bedtime stories for over 200 years, spawning Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad cartoons, movies, and merchandise across generations.

Guo Pei takes the tale further with oriental aplomb. Fabrics are embellished with the richest gold appliqués and then rolled into paper-like scallops, or folded into little origami pyramids—or allowed to cascade softly, close to the body like a glittering, otherworldly, second skin.

Exotic birds and flowers are an obvious inspiration. So is blue and white china, particularly in the finale. Not only are china patterns seen on the dress, but the porcelain motif is unrelenting from the headpiece decorated with the shape of a porcelain jar to the shoes that are in the shape of a, well, porcelain jar!

“Blue and white porcelain turns into a dress,” says Guo Pei. The twists and turns of the delicate fabric echo the curves of an elegant woman's body, which the designer says “represents the journey of her creation.”

That explanation just about describes Guo Pei's blossoming career, which has made the Rose Studio virtually recession-proof. Devoted clients from the Chinese elite to Hollywood star Zhang Ziyi and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Team have kept Guo Pei's looms working through the economic crisis.

[Photo from HKTDC Fashion Show]Sky-high Couture

The Rose Studio's ethereal collection was accompanied down the Winter Fashion Week catwalk by soft music and nature sounds. The models, perched atop foot-high platform shoes, really had no choice but to carefully step to the very slow beat.

Guo Pei was influenced by the “30-inch-high heels that prevailed in southern Europe in the mid-16th century. And the 17th century, when shoe ties were specially designed as an ornament.”

None of the heels we saw were 30 inches high, but they still looked extremely intimidating. Pushing the outer limits of high fashion (quite literally given the toweringly high heels!), has always been Guo Pei's style.

Haute couture, she says, should be painstaking, “Strict, from the exclusive design to the six fittings, from the most luxurious material to being 90% handmade.” High fashion is “forged with time, effort, and craft,” says Guo Pei.

Swaying their bodies to show off the draping of each intricate gown and, maybe, to make walking slightly easier and more graceful, the models displayed one of the most unforgettable collections of any fashion week anywhere in the world.

The designer sums up her philosophy in a single word: beauty. Asked which Western design house she admires most, Guo Pei replies “Chanel, because of its beauty.”

The doyenne was indeed successful in carrying out her design philosophy with the uniquely beautiful collection that capped the Fashion Extravaganza of Fall/Winter 2010.

Print ed: 03/10


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