Now Showing | Guo Pei: Chinese Art & Couture at Asian Civilisations Museum

 

Skirt details of the Wedding Dress with Lotus and Goldfish Motifs by Guo Pei. Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum.

 
 

GUO PEI: CHINESE ART & COUTURE

June 15, 2019 - September 15, 2019

 
 

In a collaboration with world famous couturière Guo Pei, the Asian Civilisations Museum presents, for the first time, art through couture in a juxtaposition of masterpieces created centuries apart. The exquisite showcase examines the relevance and impact of Chinese art, and how Chinese aesthetics and traditions are being reimagined for the world today.

Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture opens the museum’s Season of Chinese Art, which will explore the best of the genre presented for a contemporary, international audience.

With 20 Chinese art masterpieces from the Museum’s collection and 29 dresses by Guo Pei, this blockbuster exhibition spans two galleries and is part of the Museum’s commitment to examine the diverse cultural heritage of Asia, interconnections within Asia, and Asian connections with the rest of the world.

 
 
 

Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum.

 
 
 

Mr. Kennie Ting, Director of Asian Civilisations Museum and Peranakan Museum, explains, “Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture is significant to our visitors for two reasons. It is our first special exhibition dedicated to fashion and is representative of our shift to the contemporary domain. Our aim is to make a point as to how heritage and tradition are very much relevant to the contemporary; that heritage and tradition can be remarkably sexy and alluring. Every masterpiece in the exhibition is a unique blend of contemporary and traditional design, material and craft. Second, the exhibition has been designed to give visitors a simple and visually arresting overview of Chinese art history – imperial art, export art, and folk art. We wanted a show that would introduce visitors to aspects of Chinese art – materials like silk and porcelain, the craft of embroidery, motifs like peonies and phoenixes – in a completely unexpected and, hopefully, very memorable fashion.”

 
 
 
 

The exhibition begins with a dramatic display of 黄皇后 (Yellow Queen), the iconic cape worn by Rihanna to the 2015 Met Gala. A symbol of Guo Pei’s breakthrough to an international market, the dress also represents a moment in time when the world encountered and engaged – through countless reactions, conversations, and memes – with a masterwork inspired by the imperial China.

The main exhibition space features three sections. In ‘Gold is the Colour of my Soul’, Guo Pei’s signature yellow and gold works reflect the historical significance of colour, techniques, and materials strongly associated with imperial China.

Through ‘China and the World’, Guo Pei’s hybrid designs parallel Chinese export art in blending Chinese imagery creatively with Western silhouettes and tailoring.

In ‘Treasured Heirlooms: Chinese Bridal Dress’, Guo Pei’s works continue and modernise traditional Chinese bridal style, with strong Peranakan connections; and they have found relevance with celebrity brides today, including Angelababy, Liu Shi Shi, and Tang Yan.

 

黄皇后 (Yellow Queen). Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum.

 
 

Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum.

 
 
 

Every sightline in the exhibition space emphasizes a visual dialogue between the historical and the contemporary through deliberate juxtapositions of Chinese art masterpieces and Guo Pei’s masterworks. Each pairing shows off the best of Chinese traditional craftsmanship as well as modern couture techniques in the expression of creativity and storytelling. Just as how in the past Chinese export art garnered demand around the world, its reinvention and modern interpretations continue to fascinate the world today and provoke visitors to consider how the past continues to inspire the future.

One dialogue can be found in the ‘Gold is the Colour of My Soul’ section of the exhibition, through a pairing that explores prevalent Buddhist symbols in Chinese art, which Guo Pei has delicately incorporated into her 大金 (Magnificent Gold). The dress has been hailed by the China National Silk Museum as “the birth of haute couture in China” for its technical mastery and incorporates elaborate embroideries, similar to the kind used to produce thangkas (paintings or embroideries on scrolls) depicting Buddhist deities and scenes. Guo Pei’s team of artisans study the embroidery on historical thangkas like this to refine their techniques.

In another dialogue, in the section ‘China and the World’, we see classic Chinese patterns of flowers, crests, and clouds, not just on the precious blue-and-white porcelain, but also incorporated, using the same method of brush painting blue pigment, on Guo Pei’s sculptural masterpiece 青花瓷 (Blue-and-White Porcelain).

 
 
 

Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum.

 
 
 

The continuation of Chinese artistic traditions and culture by the Chinese diaspora is evident in the many cross-cultural masterpieces in this exhibition. Guo Pei’s bridal collection, which has been embraced by Chinese celebrities and other wealthy clients, was inspired by historical bridal ensembles made in China, but imported to Southeast Asia worn by Peranakan Chinese brides here. One of her creations, shown in the ‘Treasured Heirlooms’ section, was the genesis for this collaboration between ACM and Guo Pei. The couturière saw a bridal ensemble in the Peranakan Museum’s travelling exhibition on Peranakan Chinese art in Paris back in 2010. Her interpretation of that Peranakan bridal ensemble, worn by Angelababy for her wedding, was seen by exhibition curator Jackie Yoong. She made the connection to the Peranakan Museum’s historical bridal ensemble and then began to conceptualise this exhibition.

“In this exhibition, fashion and history come full circle. We see how the past inspires the present, we see how traditions are revived and rejuvenated, and we see how export objects and foreign ideas influence the local. I encourage visitors to take a close look at the incredible detail in Guo Pei’s fantastical works – to fully experience the devotion and dedication behind the thousands of hours of stitches required to make them”, said Ms Jackie Yoong.

 
 
 
 
 

Exhibition Preview

 

GOLD IS THE COLOUR OF MY SOUL

 

Couture: The Spirit of Dedication and Devotion

Thangka of Shakyamuni Buddha. China, 15th century. Silk satin (embroidered); brocade border and veil. Collection of Chris Hall. Image courtesy of Asian Civilizations Museum.

大金 (Magnificent gold gown)
Guo Pei, Samsara Collection
China, Beijing, 2006
Silk, wire, gold thread, silver-spun thread, Swarovski-sequin accessories, 180 x 340 x 410 cm 50,000 hours
Collection of Guo Pei
Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum

 

As part of their training, the embroiderers at Rose Studio improve their skills by studying and reimagining embroideries of old – like the thangka depicting the Buddha on a lotus. Thangkas are embroidered textiles or paintings depicting Buddhist deities or scenes. The Buddha is depicted here in fine satin and stem stiches. Symbolizing his enlightenment, he stands serenely on a lotus, rising above the turgid waters below. The laborious process required to produce such silk textiles produces merit for the makers, and those who donate money to make these for monasteries and temples.

Requiring 50,000 worker-hours to complete, Guo Pei regards this iconic masterpiece as a personal milestone. It symbolizes her dedication and her desire to create the most beautiful dress possible without commercial considerations. Because of its technical mastery, it has been hailed as “the birth of haute couture in China, ...a symbol of its time” by the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou.

The stunning dress, made up of long, slim panels richly embroidered with designs of lotus and floral scrolls, radiates like the sun, corresponding to the theme of her first couture collection, Samsara (a concept of life cycles in some Asian religions). A key visual symbol of Buddhism in art, the lotus is associated with qualities like purity and harmony.

 
 

Reinventing Imperial Tradition

Dragon robe. China, early 18th century (Qing dynasty) Brocaded silk satin, gold-wrapped threads, 137.8 x 204 cm. Asian Civilisations Museum. Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum.

In Qing China, dress was governed by sumptuary laws that gave visual hierarchy and order to society. This style of robe is known as jifu (auspicious attire) and was reserved only for use by the emperor during ritual ceremonies and festive occasions like New Year’s Day.

Symbols of absolute authority decorate the garment: the emperor is represented by nine dragons – considered supreme of all beasts – rising above and controlling the universe indicated by the swirling blue clouds, waves, and mountains at the hem. Yellow is associated with earth, life, nourishment, and wearing this particularly bright shade (minghuang) was a privilege of the emperor, empress, and empress dowager.

Every Guo Pei collection since 2006 has featured striking yellow and gold creations. Her fondness for resplendent yellow, elaborate embroidery, and lavish silk reflects a love for designs, materials, and techniques associated with Chinese imperial art and style.

Guo Pei’s splendid creations like this show her personal, joyous take on Qing Chinese imperial style. The sombre dragon robe has been reconceived into an informal, fun and frilly mini-dress with a long train. The dragons – key emblems of power – are replaced by the Chinese characters for happiness and good fortune. But strong parallels remain in its design: the choice of bright yellow; the symmetrical composition; the placement of key motifs on the front and shoulders; auspicious symbols rising above a geometric hem-border; and the naturalistic depiction of motifs.

来自「龙的故事」系列
Guo Pei, Legend of the Dragon Collection China, Beijing, 2012
Silk fabric, Swarovski crystals, gold thread, silk thread, metal wire, 130 x 100 x 100 cm
3,000 hours
Collection of Guo Pei
Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum.

 

CHINA AND THE WORLD

 

Sculpting Couture from Tradition

青花瓷 (Blue-and-white porcelain)
Guo Pei, One Thousand and Two Nights Collection
China, Beijing, 2010
Silk, Swarovski crystals, 190 x 90 x 90 cm
8,000 hours Collection of Guo Pei
Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum

Dish. China, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty (Yongle period, 1403–24). Porcelain, 7.5 x 40 cm
Asian Civilisations Museum; Gift of Mr Saiman Ernawan. Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum.

Guo Pei’s magnificent artworks and historical Chinese export art share similarities in method of decoration, and also often feature hybrid designs. In particular, blue-and-white porcelain that were customized for different markets, was so popular that it developed into a visual symbol for all Chinese trade objects. For example, large dishes like this with rims of swirling, crested waves and intertwined flowers were exported to the Middle East for elite Islamic clients in the 15th century.

Blue-and-white porcelain has also deeply resonated with fashion designers in China and beyond.

One of Guo Pei’s most renowned sculptural masterpieces, this blue-and-white gown was inspired by Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, in both design and technique. Like porcelain, the designs were hand-drawn and hand-painted. Skilfully draped to fan out, the fabric achieves a ceramic shard-like effect.

Similar to the museum dish in decoration, this gown depicts large single blooms of the lotus, surrounded by five borders of decoration that include crests, cloud and thunder (yunwen and leiwen) patterns (known as “key-fret” in the West), waves, lingzhi fungus, and flowers, 10,780 Swarovski crystals embellishments give a sparkling, finishing touch.

 

Fantastic Beasts and Auspicious Flowers

Kamcheng. Guangxu period (1875-1908), Qing dynasty Ceramic, H: 22.0 x D: 30.4
Asian Civilisations Museum; Gift of Mrs Khoo Soo Beow in memory of her husband. Image courtesy of the Asian Civilisations Museum.

Singapore reminds Guo Pei of the mythical phoenix, with multicolored feathers representing the different cultures of the country. The phoenix and peony were popular designs on porcelain made in China for the Peranakan Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia (called nyonyaware). Together, they complementarily connote royalty, wealth, rank, and honor.

Among the largest of nyonyaware, this kamcheng (covered jar) was used to serve festive food at celebrations.

Guo Pei’s theatrical designs often blend Chinese imagery with Western silhouettes and three-dimensional tailoring. This billowy gown features elaborately embroidered phoenix tails, large peony blossoms, and grand waves dramatically swirling at the base of the cape.

Significantly, this dramatic creation represents Guo Pei’s pursuit of the revival of traditional craft. Touched by silk peony accessories that she salvaged from the countryside, she directed her studio to craft and paint similar ones to adorn the billowy, full bodice of this dress.

宫花 (Palace flower)
Guo Pei, Legend of the Dragon Collection China, Beijing, 2012
Silk, jacquard, silver-spun thread, gold-spun- thread, beads, Swarovski crystals, fur, silk peonies, 190 x 240 x 260 cm
10,000 hours
Collection of Guo Pei
Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum

 

TREASURED HEIRLOOMS:
CHINESE BRIDAL DRESS

 

Empress for a Day

凤求凰 (Courting phoenix bridal ensemble)
Guo Pei, Chinese Bride Collection
China, Beijing, 2012
Silk fabric with gold patterning in gold-spun thread, silk thread, beads 180 x 100 x 100 cm 5,000 hours
Collection of Guo Pei
Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum

Cloud collar. Early - mid 20th century. Silk, metallic thread, 36 x 62 cm Asian Civilisations Museum. Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum.

A cloud collar (yunjian), consisting of layers of segments resembling lingzhi fungus, lotus flower petals, and ornamental sceptres, was a striking feature of Chinese bridal ensembles worn by Peranakans. This remarkable version features five layers of dense decoration that includes flowers, Buddhist symbols, and figures. Peranakans sometimes refer to these as a “phoenix collar”, drawing parallels with the neck feathers of the mythical bird. Cloud collars were also thought to be symbolic, separating the realm of the material, the body, from the spiritual, the head.

Guo Pei’s golden creation shows influences from two bridal ensembles in the museum’s Peranakan collection: a cloud collar and a vest. She expanded the traditional vest (xiapei 霞帔) into an elaborate jacket, open at the front, revealing a pair of large, multicoloured courting phoenixes on the inner robe. A cloud collar, and loose banded sleeves – including the swastika, a Buddhist symbol for good fortune – was incorporated to complete the look. In general, Guo Pei’s elegant bridal dresses show an appreciation of Chinese forms, techniques, and imagery.

 

Peranakan Connections

Bridal top and skirts. China, 1930s. Silk, metallic thread, rabbit fur, (top) 101 x 181.5 cm; (skirts) each 95.5–101 x 108.5 cm. Asian Civilisations Museum. Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum.

While visiting the Peranakan Museum’s traveling exhibition on Peranakan Chinese art in Paris in 2010, Guo Pei was so captivated by ACM’s bridal jacket and skirt that she resolved to reinterpret it for a contemporary Chinese bride. Her version changes the tailoring, with a tighter silhouette and tapered sleeves, and combines the two skirts into one.

The central skirt panel is enlarged to feature more luxurious embroidery, and there are no skirt pleats or fur trimmings. Yet a strong resemblance remains in the colour palette of orange and green, use of elaborate gold embroidery, and respect for the core motifs of lotus and goldfishes and their auspicious meanings.

Celebrity actress Angelababy (Yang Yin) wore this elegant creation during her marriage ceremony to Huang Xiaoming, an event described as the “Chinese wedding of the Year” in 2015. Guo Pei felt the dress suited her warm personality. The direction of cultural influence is seldom linear – in this example, an early 20th-century Chinese bridal style exported to the overseas Chinese is given new life back in China by that country’s leading couturier of today.

It is estimated that 75 per cent of overseas Chinese reside in Southeast Asia. Many selectively continued Chinese traditions as they adopted and adapted local traditions to develop their own distinct preferences.

This bridal ensemble , possibly exported from China, is of the type favoured by the Peranakan Chinese in Penang. A jacket with side opening paired with two pleated skirts was also popular in China in the early 20th century. The ensemble is decorated with auspicious Chinese symbols, primarily the lotus, signifying purity and peace, and goldfishes, referring to abundance.

Rabbit fur trimmings, symbolising the wish for the couple to be fertile, decorate the scalloped edges. The striking bright orange is affectionately called “Pinang orange” by Peranakan Chinese in Penang, referencing the colour of areca nut (pinang) used in betel chewing. Enjoying betel was a popular form of socializing and hospitality for the Peranakan Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia up till the 1940s.

莲生贵子褂、鱼水和谐裙 (Lotus and goldfish bridal top and skirt)
Guo Pei, Chinese Bride Collection China, Beijing, 2012
Silk, gold thread, 180 x 100 x 100 cm 4,500 hours
Collection of Guo Pei
Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum

 
 
 

Introducing Guo Pei

Guo Pei. | © Russel Wong

 
 
 

Guo Pei is China’s most renowned couturier. For over 20 years, she has been dressing celebrities, distinguished ladies, royalty and political elite who turn to her for show-stopping, magnificent creations when they want to look beautiful and stand out from the crowd.

A modern messenger of her cultural heritage, Guo Pei has breathed new life into embroidery and painting traditions that date back thousands of years. Showcasing the finest of traditional Chinese craftsmanship while incorporating contemporary innovation and Western style, Guo Pei is a passionate artisan who wants to evoke people’s emotions and inspire people through her art.

In the world of Guo Pei, fabric, shape and texture resonate with meaning. Inspired by fairy tales, legends and even military history, every creation tells a story and is a canvas for artistic expression, bringing beauty, romance and the designer’s imagination to life. They tell the stories which paintings and embroidery have conveyed throughout the centuries.

 
 

© Rose Studio Beijing

© Rose Studio Beijing

 
 
 

Origins of a Couturier

Guo Pei’s lifelong passion for couture is deeply rooted in her childhood dream: an aspiration to perfection, born from the contemplation of beauty. Born in 1967, she started sewing when she was two years old, and quickly developed a passion for dressmaking. In 1986, she graduated at the top of her class from the Beijing School of Industrial Fashion Design, and spent the next 10 years designing for major manufacturers.

In 1997 she launched her own label and atelier, Rose Studio, where she has been passing on her savoir-faire to a new generation of embroiderers. Today, she employs nearly 500 skilled artisans dedicated to producing her stunning creations, some of which can take thousands of hours and up to two years to complete. 

As Guo Pei’s reputation for high-quality, bespoke designs has grown, so has her influence. From daywear for successful businesswomen, to elegant gowns for the red carpet, to elaborate wedding gowns, or costumes for films, the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the annual CCTV New Year’s gala, Guo Pei is one of China’s most prolific designers.

© Rose Studio Beijing

 
 

© Rose Studio Beijing

© Rose Studio Beijing

 
 

© Rose Studio Beijing

 

From Beijing to Paris

2015 marked a major turning point for Guo Pei, when the pop singer Rihanna chose to wear one of her designs to the Met Gala, inaugurating the museum’s "China: Through the Looking Glass” exhibition, in which Guo’s works were shown. In July 2015, she held her first solo exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris; she followed that with a sold-out collaborative makeup collection with MAC. Later that year, Guo was honored to become an invited member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the chief governing body of the high-fashion industry, allowing her to show on the Paris Haute Couture Week calendar.

Guo made her Paris Haute Couture debut in January 2016, unveiling her “Courtyard” collection to wide critical acclaim. In the same year, she was also named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and one of the Business of Fashion's 500 most influential people shaping the global fashion industry.

With a new studio on the prestigious Rue Saint Honoré in Paris, and the launch of an eponymous brand, Guo Pei, the future holds exciting possibilities.

 
 

Special thank you to Kennie Ting, Jackie Yoong, Asian Civilisations Museum, and Tate Anzur.