Chinese master couturier Guo Pei
Beijing, China, The 2015 Met Gala was a breakout fashion moment for China.
Most notably, it marked the opening of the Costume Institute’s “China: Through the Looking Glass” exhibition, which went on to become the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fifth most-visited show of all time.
But it was also the moment Rihanna wore an elaborately embroidered, fur-trimmed creation designed by couturier Guo Pei on the red carpet, introducing the Chinese designer to a global audience.
The cape and gown — in a glorious golden yellow, a color once reserved for the emperor — took Guo and her team nearly two years to make. Capturing headlines around the world, the dress became one of the event’s most unforgettable outfits.
“I was very touched the first time Rihanna wore that dress,” Guo told CNN at her Beijing atelier. “I think dresses are meant to be worn and that’s why designers need very good models. I think Rihanna and that piece of work have merged together, and she has given the dress a new life.”
In the exhibition, one of Guo’s works, titled Dajin (“Magnificent Gold”), was even more labor intensive — representing approximately 50,000 hours of work.
“I designed it nearly a decade ago. Dajin was part of a collection inspired by the concept of rebirth and clothes worn during the Napoleonic Wars,” said Guo, who employs some 500 artisans to bring her intricate visions to life.
“I think there has been a lot of talk about haute couture dying out, but I believe in rebirth and the cycle of life.”
Although only recently recognized in the West, Guo has been working for almost 30 years, and shows no signs of slowing down. Last year, she made her debut at Paris Couture Week, and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.
Lucy Liu, a client of two years and a close friend, believes its Guo’s love for her work, delicate embroidery and whimsical themes (many of her pieces are inspired by legends and fairy tales) that set her apart from her contemporaries.
“I think Guo Pei has a wild imagination compared to haute couture designers from the West,” she said of the designer in an interview with CNN. “I think her life experiences are infused into her design, especially her emotions and her passion towards design.”
As she shows CNN a box of heavy threads spun from real gold, purchased from a vintage shop in Paris, it’s clear that, while modern, her designs are rooted in traditional craftsmanship.
“I do feel like old glamor doesn’t exist anymore,” Guo lamented, holding one of the spools.
“If you think about it, these handmade materials should be the core of haute couture. If we don’t have raw materials as pure as this gold thread, how can we compare modern craftsmanship to what it was? Despite society’s advancements, we are losing what is very special.”