“Celebrities are the fashion trend-setters of today,” said Guo Pei, the Chinese couturier who ought to know. Rihanna wore what become an internet meme of a dress, the Yellow Queen gown, to the Met Ball in 2015 and suddenly Pei was thrust on to the world’s stage.
“Many young people look up to celebrities as their role models. I feel their strong social influence also comes with great responsibility, and it is a huge responsibility to shoulder. The image they project can have a positive effect on cultural development and influence social welfare,” warned Pei.
The designer was in London this month to celebrate the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Fashion in Motion series (a platform for both established and up-and-coming designers to show their collections to the public), which turns 20 this year.
The designer showcased her highly imaginative and fantastical creations – which are known to take some time to make a turn on the catwalk, such is their extravagance and architectural splendour.
“My work usually involves two aspects. One aspect is designing my couture collections which does not involve too many practical considerations on my part,” she acknowledged. “I am free to design and express my creativity as I wish. The other aspect is designing for my clients. The right design can accentuate their most beautiful side,” she explained.
When it came to the Rihanna dress, she said she didn’t set out to court the publicity that subsequently came with it. “I did not know of her nor her influence. But the exposure from the media brought my work a wider audience, understanding, and recognition.”
Something she said seems to chime more in the West than it does in her native China. “In the West, my audience comes from all nationalities and cultural backgrounds. Their understanding of my culture may not be as direct as the Chinese audience. My designs translate into a language that I use to communicate with them.”
China is obviously still very important to her. It is where she began her career and honed her skills. “I hope that people will not only pay attention to us, but also promote the development of couture alongside us.”
Which she does through her twice-yearly couture shows in Paris; for her, they are of the utmost importance. “It may not have brought me awards or approval of others in the past,” she said. But: “It is vital for a designer’s work to speak for itself. This is what I tend to focus on.” And Paris is the place for that.
While the Rihanna moment was undoubtedly beneficial, Pei is level-headed about it and is less inclined to consider herself a celebrity designer. “I think celebrity designers are defined by others. I care more about the value of my work which should withstand the test of time.”
Yet, she still considers herself very much a newcomer. “I have been a designer for 30 years, and established my brand for more than 20 years,” she told us. But she thinks that’s nothing “compared to the masters of couture like Pierre Cardin or Valentino.”
Showcasing at the Victoria & Albert Museum was something of a full-circle for Pei who used to visit exhibitions there as a child whenever she travelled to London. “I saw many that inspired and moved me. These memories have all shaped my design inspirations. Coming back this time as a designer and bringing my work to London is a wonderful feeling!”