China’s most famous fashion designer, Guo Pei, is known for her dramatic dresses. The couturiere’s ornate creations have appeared not only on runways, but on red carpets, big-budget Chinese movies and major museum exhibitions.
Guo first rose to fame in 2008, when 300 of her designs were worn by performers at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. She then attracted global headlines when Rihanna attended the 2015 Met Gala dressed in the designer’s 55-pound canary yellow fur-trimmed cape, which reportedly took a team of seamstresses more than two years to complete.
But as a child growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution, Guo’s first encounters with fashion were far from colorful. In a new book, “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond,” she says that the idea of bright silk fabrics was almost unimaginable at a time when her clothes consisted of drab outfits made of coarse cotton.
An image from the new book “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond,” which explores the designers best-known creations. Credit: Howl Collective
She was nonetheless enthralled by her grandmother’s tales — memories of imperial gowns, and dresses adorned with real butterflies or peonies during the last years of the Qing dynasty.
“My grandmother taught me about elegance,” Guo is quoted as saying in the book. “Every night when I was 4 or 5, she described the dresses that women wore in the old days, and I pictured them before I fell asleep. She told me about how she used a thread to embroider flowers onto her clothes. Back then, there weren’t photos, but my imagination could run freely.”
That imagination has spawned a glittering career in fashion. It has also inspired New York-based photography group, Howl Collective, to produce 13 theatrical images for the forthcoming book.
The fantastical pictures — which explore themes of East and West, past and future, dream and reality — were shot in the US states of Georgia and South Carolina, where Guo’s designs were being stored for an accompanying exhibition at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
An image from Howl Collective’s new photo collection of Guo Pei’s best-known designs. Credit: © Howl Collective.
Howl Collective’s creative director, Jim Lind, said that Guo was looking for a “Western interpretation” of her garments, and that she gave the photographers complete creative freedom.
“We took Guo Pei’s designs out into the wilderness to find fantastical effects in the natural world,” he said in a phone interview. “Shooting them on location gives that extra realism to the images.”
Lind and his team built a fairytale-inspired storyboard based on the motifs, ornate patterns and stitching techniques used by Guo. They also looked to outside cultural references, including the work of British photographer Tim Walker and even the TV series “Game of Thrones.”
One of the book’s images is a direct reference to “Alice in Wonderland.” Credit: Howl Collective
In one photo, a model in a mushroom-like gold sequin dress gazes into a tunnel — a direct reference to the rabbit hole in “Alice in Wonderland,” Lind said.
Guo’s designs also inspired the photographers’ choice of location. Her “porcelain” dress, with its kinetic shape and blue and white coloring, led to a photo shoot in front of a lighthouse, complete with a backdrop of crashing waves.
Chinese master couturier Guo Pei
A delicate craft
Capturing Guo’s delicate works was a challenge, said Lind, revealing that an exhibition team was brought on set to care for the garments.
“They were museum pieces that are very delicate and fragile,” he added.
Many of Guo’s designs incorporate ancient yet familiar Chinese symbols. Among her most commonly used motifs are lotuses, representing purity of mind and spirit, as well as mountains and waves, which were frequently used on the hems of royal court robes.
Howl Collective took Guo’s delicate creations to a number of ourdoor locations. Credit: Howl Collective
Elsewhere, the “meander,” or “cloud and thunder” pattern, represents rain and abundance. Guo also regularly uses dragons — a nod to the stone statues she encountered in Beijing parks when she was young.
“I think that fashion shouldn’t just be about the present, and I care more about the meaning behind the details,” Guo is quoted as saying. “As such, the embroidery and motifs you see on my clothing have stories behind them.”