A look from Guo Pei's "Legend" collection backstage at Paris Haute Couture week in January 2017. Photo courtesy of Guo Pei.

The Unkindness of Chic: Guo Pei's Passion and Persistence

The Chinese couturier who dressed Rihanna for the Met Ball is now the subject of a documentary premiering at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

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Apr 23 2018, 7:20pm

A look from Guo Pei's "Legend" collection backstage at Paris Haute Couture week in January 2017. Photo courtesy of Guo Pei.

If one wanted to pinpoint the moment Rihanna became a queen of the realm, you could do worse than recalling her look for the Met Ball in 2015, when she stepped onto the plush red carpet awash in a sea of canary yellow embroidered fur. Fastened at her cleavage, the fifty-pound ensemble was a complex statement: Regal, yet clutched over little else; a lavishly intimidating visage, yet practically immobilizing—several men could be seen in gala coverage photos carrying the star’s train, in order that she might ascend. There’s a flimsily thin line between needing people, and retaining them.

“The more responsibility a woman takes on, the greater she is,” says the Chinese designer and apostle of greatness Guo Pei in filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly’s latest documentary Yellow is Forbidden, premiering this week as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Guo notes in the film that she made the gown Rihanna wore five years prior to its headline-making appearance in New York, and indeed, the slow burn process behind the making of an indelible moment or gesture, to say nothing of a brand or a battle line, is the subject at hand for Brettkelly’s glimpse into the Beijing-based auteur’s business, vision, and rattling at the gates of what is surely one of the few institutions left that nobody is likely to even attempt to democratize: haute couture. The designer holds court among her clients in China, insisting that when they leave their country, “we have to look sophisticated.” She invokes their shared history, and past standards of prestige, proudly declaring of her clothes that “even an emperor would be happy with this.” Guo impresses onto her patronesses what the stakes are as a Chinese designer working at her level of craftsmanship: “If I use the term haute couture I will be blacklisted.” By the French, that is.

The goal of bringing her creations to the West with all the zeal of a missionary is established at the outset of the film, which follows the designer through the planning and staging of a magnificent runway show at the Conciergerie in Paris. This is the venue where Marie Antoinette and other prisoners of the French Revolution were held before their execution and which has only once before allowed a fashion show to take place there, by Alexander McQueen, of course, but the moment one truly realizes this woman is essentially unstoppable is when she lets the cameras into the 400-strong teddy bear collection room of her house.

Guo has children—with her husband and initial investor Jack Tsao—but these bears are apparently not theirs; I can’t say for certain what caliber of person runs the chambre syndicale de la haute couture in Paris, but one hopes they would have considered such proof of devotion a plus in the course of her groundbreaking application to what can arguably be considered one of the highest decision making bodies in the fashion industry. She demands respect from the people who are in a position to confer it, and doggedly tailors her vision to a broad, numbers-based conception of grandeur (two years to make one piece, 50 kilogram garments, training 300 workers in embroidery) that would avoid triggering any flagrant controversy despite its sumptuous execution. As she dithers over whether to print Botticelli-like angels on the fabrics for her 2017 Paris debut, Guo anxiously queries a textile sales team: “Are angels ok? All religions are ok with angels, right?” The beauty of Guo Pei is extreme, but resolutely scalable. It is both classical and logical, executed in a manner appropriate to the accelerationist frenzy of globalism.

Guo Pei backstage with her daughter Daisy during the presentation of the "Legend" collection at the Conciergerie during Paris Haute Couture week, January 2017.

Correspondingly, then, her sensitivity would seem to extend only so far. When it comes to the human resources her standards require, she displays the temperament and bordering-on-ruthlessness mentality one pretty much waits for in any profile of a high achiever. We see workers exhausted at their stations, and Guo berating them for taking too long on her garments’ elaborate embroidery, claiming the local high street can produce and sell her designs faster than they are working, undercutting her business. Again, as Sir Hardy Amies might have put it, the unkindness of chic announces itself. One wonders what she pays them for their labors, what their homes, and lives, look like compared to hers as she wages war on the front lines of East versus West. Certainly in terms of representation, it is meaningful for a Chinese designer to enter a hallowed European institution firing on all cylinders, but her native land is also a global economic super power now with approximately 1.3 billion people. As the largest foreign holder of US debt as of 2014, shoehorning China into the role of perennial underdog seems like an odd fit. We, clearly, need and are going to be hearing from each other.

And Guo Pei needs to see and make exquisite things, perhaps to a dangerous extent. She’s keen on including a garment that weighs 50 kilograms for her show at the former prison, but unfortunately under French law workers can only carry up to 32 on a construction site, to say nothing of a model at a fashion presentation. “It has to be perfect,” she declares, which, if I may translate for lay people, means she has voluntarily created a vicious cycle of endless and elaborate problem solving for herself—this is the self-imposed pressure cooker mentality of a true tyrant, or a real artist, but likely both. The film ends, as fashion documentaries tend to, with the show, at last. Here is her accelerationism in all its resplendence, moving with excruciating grace down a catwalk. Mere life would never do for Guo Pei; her last statement before the credits speaks volumes: “I feel I am my own empress.” If you know what’s good for you, stay out of her way.