Imagine this. Entire collections completely hand-sewn. Some pieces taking a phenomenal 50,000 hours to create. Celebrity fans by the name of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. This is not just a fashion business for Chinese couturier Guo Pei, but a way of life. And earlier this year, the Beijing-based designer was listed by Time magazine as one of the World's 100 Most Influential People. Now taking the West by storm armed with silk and Chinese imperial court embroidery, we caught up with Guo in the post-Rihanna Met Gala era of her brand, ahead of her show at Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW).
When did you know you wanted to be a designer?
I wanted to be a designer from a very young age, and I knew how to thread a needle since I was two years old. Once I learnt how to draw, my interest in fashion design started developing and I felt that it was the right path for me.
That's amazing. What has been the biggest influence on your collections and where do you draw your inspirations from?
I don't go looking for inspiration intentionally, but it comes from where I was brought up and where I lived. My favourite motif is the dragon. Growing up in Beijing, I'd see such monuments and statues even on a leisurely stroll after dinner. I feel that it represents a very important aspect and period of Chinese culture. For example, the two coins on my shirt symbolise wealth, prosperity, and the sentiment of sharing such happiness with people around me. I think that fashion shouldn't just be about the present and I care more about the meaning behind the details. As such, the embroidery and motifs you see on my clothing have stories behind them.
I can see that it goes beyond symbolism — your designs have a narrative. As some of your dresses have taken years to produce, is it hard to then hand them over to the customers?
Yes. The way I see it, my creations are my children. I still care even after passing them on. I always tell my customers to come back to me anytime should there be a problem. Even if it's 50 to a 100 years later, as long as my label is around, it's a promise I make that we'll always care for what I've designed. My team and I invest so much effort in what we do.
That's a lifetime guarantee.
Yes! I actually can't bear to sell my clothing.
You're like the mother of the dresses forever... With so much effort and attention to detail that goes into everything you make, will fast fashion ever have a place in your world?
I don't see myself going into fast fashion per se as I do not want to sacrifice quality, but at the same time, I do hope that more people will experience my creations one day. I've been thinking about this and I need to come up with my own approach to it. I don't think fast fashion is the way for me but perhaps, designing pieces at a lower price point without scrimping on quality. That way, more people can own them.
Tell me about the fabrics you prefer and why.
I like silk the most. My grandmother used to wear silk when she was younger, and she'd describe the smoothness of the fabric to me when I was a child. That's something I'll always remember. During my generation in China, we wore cotton a lot and did not have the luxury to wear silk often. Because of that, this specific fabric has always been something I yearned for — it was almost like a dream. Since then, I've always been drawn to silk.
What was your reaction when Rihanna reached out to you to wear one of your dresses to the 2015 Met Gala?
At that point in time, there were other artists — such as Lady Gaga — that had expressed interest in wearing my designs. As a lot of my clothing are large and extremely heavy, I remember thinking that she'd change her mind once she actually saw them. On the day of the Met Gala itself, I was there on the red carpet as Rihanna was due to make her entrance. I wanted to hide myself because because I was afraid she'd say, "Who was it that designed this outfit?!" (laughs). But then I heard the response from the audience and the media and I realised that Rihanna actually did it. She wore the dress. Many have mentioned to me that her outfit left a very deep impression, and through that, they have gotten to know designers from China. I am very thankful to Rihanna for wearing it — and amazingly at that. Because she did, a lot of people now know my brand, what I do, and more about the Chinese culture. I feel like Rihanna really gave the dress a new lease of life.
Completely. She wore it like a queen. The dress was on the cover of the Vogue Met Gala special, but also on Internet memes where it was famously likened to an omelette. Were you offended, or did you find that funny?
Honestly, my husband was the first to laugh at it. I heard him laughing in the hotel room and I asked him why. He showed it to me and I couldn't help but laugh too. I found it so interesting and in fact, I think whoever who came up with it is way more imaginative than I am! I also think it's great as people who don't really care about fashion knew about the dress as a result.
That's so true and such a good way to see it for sure. Like the saying goes, no publicity is bad publicity.
Yes. I feel that the world is changing. Everyone seems to be a professional fashion critic, but as long as it brings harmless humour for them, I'm happy.
Has it been a new chapter for you post-Rihanna?
Definitely. The publicity is so different. You get a good number of people who know Rihanna and the dress, but not who I am. When I get introduced, people do connect the dots and they'll always bring up Rihanna.
I think regardless where the dress was publicised — on the Internet or in magazines — it was such a powerful outfit and defining moment that no matter what, people would still talk about it. Speaking of power, another trend is to use celebrity models on the runway like Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid. Would you ever do that?
I have actually had celebrities on my runways before, like Fan Bingbing who was part of my 2010 show. I don't think of celebrities as models though, and I dress them in designs that really suit who they are even if they're walking for me. That's because I see celebrities and models as two completely different roles. When it comes to the latter, I have very strict guidelines — down to the centimetre in terms of height. Their face shape, hair colour and skin tone for example, really affects how they look in my clothes. With celebrities, you can't really change their image completely. That's not their role.
Is that because of the way they carry the clothes, or because you're a perfectionist?
It's both. In Paris, I took three days to pick 20 models from a pool of 400. I need to make sure I find the right fit and settle on exactly what I'm looking for.
Wow! So every girl has to really suit each outfit.
Yes, as mentioned earlier, it's because my designs are like children to me. I think it shows my spirit and the way in which I approach my work.
You made quite a splash at Digital Fashion Week back in 2012 with Andre Pejic, who at that time was a male model whom you dressed up as a Chinese bride. What can we expect this year?
Andre Pejic was widely known for being able to model both menswear and womenswear. That said, I think it was a big risk and a daring move at that time given that it was bridalwear. For my show tonight, the creations are the main focus. I brought pieces that suit Singapore a lot in my opinion. They feature phoenixes, a creature that I liken this country to.
Has the reception to your collection in the West been very different to that from an Eastern audience?
Every region has a very different response to my designs. America for example, is very receptive. In Europe, they're surprised by it more than anything else. And in China, people don't know how to react and question if these are even clothes. In Singapore, it's different because Eastern and Western cultures are prevalent here. In general, Singapore's a special market to me that's very accepting of what I do.
What was it like showing in Paris earlier this year?
It exceeded my expectations. I didn't think my first season would garner much positive feedback in Europe. I feel like you have to take time to earn your stripes in Paris, but in this case, the reaction from the media was positive for the most part of it. Showing in Paris for me was not just about giving my brand the exposure, but also bringing the Chinese culture to a different audience.
For sure. I do think you're somewhat of a national treasure.
(Laughs). I've noticed that the Chinese tend to look at the responses from the Western world first before they're more willing to affirm what you're doing. I think that's because we look at fashion as what we can wear day in and 0ut.
This is your second time showing at Digital Fashion Week/SGFW. Why did you want to come back?
I really like Singapore and its culture. After receiving the invitation — and actually this goes for most invitations from Singapore — I really wanted to take it up.