Known for her decadent opulence and intricate designs, Guo Pei is one of China’s most celebrated designers and couturiers. Gaining recognition in the western world after Rihanna donned an ornate canary yellow gown by the designer at the 2015 Met Gala, Pei became the second born-and-raised Asian designer to be invited to become a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (the French governing body of what can be deemed haute couture or not), after Lebanese designer Elie Saab. In 2016, she was listed by Time Magazine as one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People.
Regularly showing at Haute Couture Fashion Week in Paris as a guest member of the Fédération de la Haute Couture de la Mode, last week the Chinese couturier brought her exquisite craftsmanship to the V&A’s Raphael gallery. In honour of the twentieth anniversary of the Fashion in Motion programme, the V&A presented Guo Pei’s first ever show in the UK, showcasing her Autumn/Winter 2019 collection ‘Alternate Universe Couture’ in three separate viewings. Said Pei of the occasion: 'I am very pleased to be the featured designer of V&A’s Fashion in Motion 20th anniversary show. This will also be my first-ever show in the United Kingdom. The V&A is a historic platform, preserving and celebrating art and design in many forms, from many cultures and very often spanning many centuries’.
Debuting in Paris in June earlier this year, the ‘Alternate Universe Couture’ collection holds myths, fables, and religious texts as inspiration - evident through Pei's beautiful embellishments - and the collection concept revolves around the idea of light and dark co-existing in this ‘alternate universe’. Opening with two models in a Rococo-esque conjoined panniered skirt decorated with circus animals and mythical creatures using her signature three dimensional embroidery techniques, the show presented sustainable textiles and traditional techniques using a muted but angelic colour palette. The black crow emblem was prevalent throughout, and as an omen of death, it makes for an interesting contradiction to the intrinsically ethereal dresses shown in this collection.
Pei’s otherworldly creations were presented in the breathtaking space that is the V&A’s Raphael Gallery. With a triple-height domed ceiling, the space houses the seven Raphael Cartoons, and features a gilded Spanish altarpiece in an alcove that lent a striking backdrop to the show. Pei's collection exhibited both traditional techniques and tropes from ecclesiastical robes, Elizabethan ruffs, and Renaissance-esque dresses.
Some stand out looks include: a kimono-style dress with a large obi-esque corset cinching at the waist. Although the kimono is traditionally associated with Japanese dress, Asian dress scholars point to the kimono's development from the traditional Chinese hanfu.
A fantastical moment in hair saw a Rapunzel plait snaking down towards the floor, with the model in a pleated skirt with a sculpted embroidered body and sheer strap detailing.
Embellished in total with pearls was this fluted creamy cocktail dress, with a feathered trim that brought a Twenties flapper elegance to the runway, complete with matching feathered earrings and shoes.
This 17th-century-esque crinoline adorned with miniature dolls dazzled with glistening gold embellishments.
A fifties frock bodice shape was transformed with heavy embroidery and embellishments, with matching horn-like headpiece and shoes.
A flowing, translucent dress trailed out behind the model with branches that twisted and wound out of her body from a blood red centre piece.
The final look from the collection had viewers holding their breath as they watched the model shuffle (as elegantly as possible) in a horticultural shroud-like cocoon, holding a collection signature - the black crow.