The exhibit is the first fashion-forward display to feature at the gallery, and Guo Pei’s first appearance in Canada
Christine Beyleveldt, Editor-in-Chief
The Vancouver Art Gallery is showing its first couture exhibit by acclaimed Chinese couturier, Guo Pei, in collaboration with the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion and Film until Jan. 20, 2019.
“Why fashion? Why Guo Pei? Why now?” asked the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Associate Curator, Diana Freundl. Pei has always aimed to capture the splendour of China’s last ruling dynasty. She was born in Beijing in 1967, during a time when most of the country adopted some form of the Mao suit. However, that didn’t stop the budding artist. Clothing is her medium instead of canvas, and in 2016 she made history as the first Chinese couturier invited to join Paris’ Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
“For us it’s a first on many fronts… It’s not the first time we’ve shown fashion in the gallery but it’s the first time we’ve done an entire exhibition dedicated entirely to a fashion designer,” said Freundl. “What you see in the exhibition is not representative of what she [Pei] makes for her clients to wear, this is really couture… it’s made for presentations on the runway.”
The exhibit is modeled after one of the same name – Guo Pei: Couture Beyond – which was presented by SCAD in Atlanta last year. Despite sharing a name and credit with SCAD, the curated collection on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery is unique in showing Pei’s evolution as a designer, with styles dating back to her 2006 debut collection, Samsara, to present day.
Included in the exhibit are a selection of gowns from Pei’s 2009 collection, 1002 Nights, which was inspired by the Arabic folktale and modeled at China Fashion Week. Each gown is an incredibly detailed display of beadwork. Many of the garments feature Swarovski crystals, and one silk mesh gown is even dripping with pearls. Her 2015 collection, Garden of the Soul, is a standout attraction in the gallery’s atrium for the bold colours, outrageous platform shoes and layers upon layers of visible silk petticoats giving the garments their cutting-edge silhouettes. Pei’s most recent collection located at the far end of the gallery, Legend, was unveiled in 2017. Legend is a departure from the bright colours of Garden of the Soul and a shift towards mossy greens and light fabric printed with the art of a Swiss cathedral in St. Gallen. Legend was walked down the runway at the Conciergerie in Paris, where the last queen of France, Marie Antoinette, was once imprisoned.
“One of the things she wanted to include in this exhibition was the China bride gowns,” said Freundl. In China, red is a symbol of joy, and is a traditional wedding colour, while white is a symbol of mourning.
“A lot of people, not only in this city but in North America, are not familiar with Pei. They might be familiar with the dress Rihanna wore at the Met Gala, but they might not be familiar with her work or her name,” said Freundl. Pei was commissioned to make fabulous articles for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, which made her an international sensation, but it wasn’t until Rihanna wore a fur-trimmed canary yellow robe weighing over 55 pounds to the New York Met Gala in 2015 that she garnered a name in North America. The garment, which represents over 50,000 hours of labour, is one of extreme opulence. Pei used 24 karat gold thread to embroider the silk robe’s five-metre train – in a colour traditionally reserved for the Chinese imperial family – by hand. Now, the exhibit is a first, not just for the gallery but for Pei, who has never been featured anywhere in Canada before.