The fashion designer’s masterly creations are nothing short of majestic but it’s her polite and self-effacing demeanour that has us in love.
When Guo Pei received Time magazine’s invite to its 100 Most Influential People gala earlier this year, she thought: “Why did they invite me?” In fact, it took her good friend and film producer Murdoch Deng to convince her to make an appearance. It would be a great opportunity to represent China, Deng said.
Little did Guo anticipate that she would be named as one of the most influential people of 2016 that evening—among the likes of Hilary Clinton, Mark Zuckerberg and Pope Francis—much less be seated at the table next to Donald and Melania Trump.
Some say Guo began her career 30 years ago; she tells of a different tale. The Beijing-born fashion designer still remembers the bedtime tatler_tatler_stories told by her grandmother when she was little.
“Since she didn’t know of any fairy tales, she’ll recount her younger days to me. I fondly remember the dresses she spoke at length about. She has the ability to replicate whatever flowers she saw and turn them into floral patterns on her clothes,” she shares. “Through her storytelling, I visualised a beautiful dress which sparked an interest within me. Since then, I’ve dreamed of making the most beautiful dresses.”
Post-cultural revolution, she worked for an independent clothing company before leaving to set up her own label in 1997. From simple shop owner to respected coutourier, the 49-year-old reached the ultimate career high when one of her creations, a majestic yellow fur-lined gown, was worn by Rihanna at the 2015 Met Gala.
The intricate dress was made in 2010 and took all of 50,000 hours to make. Her other achievements include the display of two of her designs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (with other fashion wizards like Marc Jacobs, Jean Paul Gaultier and Tom Ford), a beauty collaboration with MAC Cosmetics, as well as being the first Asian member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
We meet up with Guo, (she was here to open this year’s Singapore Fashion Week with her spring/summer 2016 couture collection) who reveals her true feelings about her biggest achievement, international fame, and why quality is paramount.
Your career has seen numerous heights. What has been your proudest accomplishment thus far?
Guo Pei If I had to choose one, it’d be the time when I became the first Asian member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Showcasing my designs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s, China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition was unreal. I was happy to find that many visitors were mesmerised by my Magnificent Gold dress at the exhibition.
Despite the recognition and fame, I still get the most satisfaction whenever I see my customers wear my designs on the most important occasions of their lives. If I see a bride walking down the aisle in my gown, I am easily moved to tears because I’ve played a part in creating an unforgettable moment.
Before your international breakthrough, you used to present your collections once every two years. Now, you showcase your designs twice yearly. How has that been?
Guo It’s definitely become more hectic and a little nerve-wrecking for me. As a perfectionist, it’s also very costly to ensure that every show is presented perfectly but I can’t sacrifice quality over quantity. In the end, I always tell myself: there’s nothing to be afraid of. Haute couture is supposed to be the best of the best. If designers see haute couture as a lucrative business model, it’s definitely the wrong way to go. I still approach it with as much passion as I did before.
How do you feel about being one of China’s major fashion designers to gain international and critical acclaim?
Guo Besides the international recognition, I’ve had a lot of other firsts. In China, I am the first to design costumes for stage actors, hosts and singers. Prior to this, most of the clothes for stage performances were mainly sourced from the television station’s wardrobe department. I was also the first Chinese designer to create an outfit for the 2008 Olympics games in Beijing. I am incredibly happy, incredibly honoured.
What has been your biggest obstacle to date?
Guo There are always obstacles every day, before one becomes successful. While others may think of struggles as major setbacks, I see them as challenges. I’m fueled by them. I’m excited to overcome them. I can’t help but agree with the New York Times writer who called me a “warrior”. I never thought of myself as one, but whenever I’m faced with challenges, I fight back and brave through them—just like a warrior would.
What are some valuable lessons you’ve learned?
Guo To succeed, one must have perseverance and courage. My success is the fruit of my determination and passion. I am wildly in love with designing clothes and I don’t design solely for fame and recognition—it’s simply for my love in fashion.