By Cintra Wilson
Special to The Examiner
The Legion of Honor is hosting a lavish retrospective of the couture designer Guo Pei — more than 75 pieces selected from the runways of Paris and Beijing over the past two decades. The work is otherworldly and dazzling — each piece represents literally thousands of hours of painstaking, expert sartorial artistry.
If you’ve ever had doubts about whether fashion could be considered art, this is the show that will convince you it can. The treasures are also featured in the surprisingly ideal setting of the Legion of Honor’s neoclassical architecture and its various art-filled rooms.
Pei is perhaps best known for dressing Rihanna for the 2015 Met Gala in a canary yellow gown with a train that required three people to maneuver (a dress that took two years and 50,000 hours to construct).
In 2016, she became the second Chinese-born-and-educated designer to be inducted into the French fashion industry’s Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture; that year, she also was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.
Pei, 55, hails from Beijing, where she spent her early childhood under the restrictions of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Taught to sew by her mother, she rebelled against the required “Mao suit” clothing restrictions and dared to wear oversize dresses.
Her grandmother was a repository of memory from China’s opulent, imperial past and told young Pei of fabulous silken gowns, lavishly decorated with traditional embroidery.
When Mao died and Deng Xiaoping took over as paramount leader of China in 1978, Pei was given the opportunity to apply to university and was accepted into a government fashion program.
After graduating with a degree in fashion, she worked for one of China’s first branded clothing manufacturers. She was successful there, but left to start her own design house and atelier, named Rose Studio, hiring 25 employees. Part of her plan was to revive the traditional dressmaking skills lost during the Cultural Revolution.
As Pei told Jill D’Alessandro, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s curator in charge of costume and textile arts: “I wanted my collection to describe reincarnation of not only human life, from life to death, but also of my culture. … During the Cultural Revolution, they destroyed their own culture, but my generation found it again.”
Her Rose Studio now employs nearly 500 people, capable of the kind of traditional needlework and other forms of tailoring wizardry and expertise usually reserved for the papacy or royal weddings.
Pei’s vision evolved after frequent trips to Europe, where she was exposed to Western art, architecture and high fashion. The work featured in this exhibition is an outrageous and sublime fusion of her Chinese heritage combined with the elaborate fashions of the French court, and even religious vestments — creations ideal for a Eurasian incarnation of the goddess Quan Yin, if she were off to Vanity Fair’s Oscar party, or Lady Gaga, if she were also the infallible Word of God.
“Faith, dreams, devotion and love” are what Pei claims are her motivators, according to a recorded video message from the artist to the museum. (Pei herself was unfortunately unable to travel to The City due to COVID restrictions.) She is also explicitly inspired by Imperial China, European court life, theater, Chinese export art and the world of botany. The Catholic Church and its regalia has obviously made quite an impression on her as well, as seen by an enormous golden gown replete with orphreys that would look right at home on the Infant of Prague.
To walk through her couture collections is to gasp at impossibly opulent, magnificent feats of time and expert detail work; there are miles of brocade and golden thread splashed over collars and neckpieces, bodices and giant trains — veritable, wearable Faberge eggs. Well, theoretically wearable: “I use the weight of the clothes, the height of the shoes, and the unwieldiness of the dress to represent the inner strength and confidence of a woman,” reads a Pei quote on one of the museum walls. One conjoined pair of gowns is actually made to be worn by two women at once (symbolizing the coexistence of two worlds in one place).
There is also a playfulness and humor at work in Pei’s creations that is both coquettish and sexy. There are gowns that on top resemble what Marie Antoinette might wear to go bullfighting, but with tiered and layered silk miniskirts that give off a kind of flapper/1960s go-go dancer silhouette.
While learning from costume makers how to structure hoop skirts, Pei discovered a love for bamboo and basketry, which is employed in several pieces that make short dresses look like the kind of golden lampshades you’d find at the sultan of Brunei’s residence.
In the L’Architecture collection — from Pei’s fall/winter 2018 runway collection at the Cité de l’Architecture in Paris — there are midi-length gowns encrusted with beadwork detailing Gothic churches, and dresses built from translucent panels, embroidered with street scenes.
Another room contains pieces from East Palace, Pei’s spring/summer 2019 collection, which was inspired by contemporary takes on what Pei imagined women wearing in the Forbidden City during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Fabrics incorporating mother of pearl were developed for her; recognizably Chinese silhouettes are given bold new cutaways and ridiculously involved beadwork.
In addition to its own dedicated gallery, Pei’s creations are also studded throughout the main floor of the museum, creating excellent juxtapositions between her designs and artworks from Italy and France created in the 17th and 18th centuries and religious pieces from the Renaissance.
This show is a must-see experience for fashionistas and non-fashionistas alike. Pei is a couture mastermind, and her work is China’s declaration that it, too, has earned a vital place on the world’s fashion runways.
IF YOU GO:
“Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy”
Where: Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave., S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m., Tuesdays-Sundays, through Sept. 5
Tickets: $15 youth, $21 student, $27 senior, $30 adult
Contact: (415) 750-3600, legionofhonor.famsf.org