Exhibit Visit -- Guo Pei: Couture Beyond at SCADFash
My eldest daughter and I visited Atlanta's SCADFash to see Guo Pei: Couture Beyond. Beyond, indeed! I think the kids call it "extra." And in the very best way. The short story is that I've never seen more exquisite garments, more beautifully made. That's saying something.
This "mushroom dress" (my name), the very first we encountered, showcases Pei's innovative design, exquisite fabrics and craftsmanship, and her incorporation of traditional Chinese styles and themes. Most ensembles included matching shoes and jewelry:
Extreme self-control was required and exercised: I didn't touch (or eat) the luscious layers of silk.
For me, Pei's level of innovation compares only with that of Iris Van Herpen, whose fabulous and fanciful work tricks the eye, making natural materials look man-made and 3D-printed synthetic materials appear organic.
The difference was the unapologetic beauty of Pei's work: the cut of the garments, the lush, richly colored fabrics, the intricate embellishments and hand painting, and most of all, the breathtaking hand embroidery.
SCADFash did a marvelous job mounting this exhibit. The cold, industrial space was transformed into a romantic, candle-lit ballroom. The charming student-docents told us they'd tried their best to replicate the look and feel of Pei's atelier.
The garments were displayed to be seen. No silly eyeball peepholes or view-thwarting cases. Several of the mannequins were set on slowly rotating platforms, and nearly every garment had 360-degree views. Mirrors along the walls enhanced the ambience and our ability to see the clothes from every angle.
I thank the folks at SCADFash for keeping the garments so visually accessible, which required trusting us exhibit-goers to resist the urge to touch and, in my case, eat the clothes. No small challenge.
This "flower hoop dress" (my name) is richly hand-embroidered with genuine gold and silver thread:
SCAD's thoughtful display enabled easy, 360-degree viewing. Bravo!
Born in Beijing in 1967, Pei is the first Chinese national couturier, meaning she was invited to join France's Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
Pei's early childhood was defined by China's Cultural Revolution, which strove to eliminate all capitalist and traditional influence in the pursuit of pure Communist ideals. Today, her work stands in direct defiance of those values, incorporating traditional Chinese silhouettes, symbolism, and techniques forbidden, but not forgotten, during that bleak period.
Docents explained that this garment's hundreds of lush peonies -- the national
flower of China -- were found in a decommissioned factory and lovingly restored.
This "bubble dress and embroidered trousers" (my name) set was a personal favorite. A charming combination of sophistication and whimsy. It looks a bit vintage, thoroughly modern, and retains traditional Chinese design elements in both cut and embellishment.
As you'd expect of haute couture, many of the designs are over-the-top, experimental, and would look odd anywhere but on the reddest of carpets.
Rihanna appropriately wore Pei's luxurious golden yellow coat to the 2015 Met Gala, themed "China: Through the Looking Glass," to rave reviews:
You know I love dressing up. But I can't imagine arriving as my ordinary self at any party, however grand, in this "Queen Ensemble" (my name):
And while Lady Gaga could pull off this "umbrella dress" (my name), I don't think I could (or would, it's not a favorite):
But many of the garments, while fanciful, were quite wearable. Here are views of two I really liked:
Even this exceptional, pearl-encrusted ensemble -- according to the student-docents the most valuable in the exhibit -- does not necessarily defy wearability:
Note the dragon motifs in the hand-beaded pearls. The student-docents said
the pearls were genuine, but I'm skeptical.
I'd also argue that this "Ming Vase" dress (my name) could be worn by a fashion-forward "regular" person to a very formal event (if we still had those, sigh), although perhaps without the porcelain headpiece:
This highly-embroidered yellow dress with dramatic sleeves reminded another visitor of the one Nicole Kidman wore to the 1997 Academy Awards. I knew the dress she meant and remembered liking it at the time. But when I did a search and compared that Christian Dior by John Galliano design and Pei's dress side-by-side? In my opinion, there's no comparison. One is a beautiful dress, the other is a work of art:
Pei's other forays into real-world design include the opening ceremony costumes for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing:
This "Dragon and Phoenix" dress (my name, but I think it's the correct one) was an exhibit highlight. The student-docent explained that Pei used the two ancient Chinese mythological beasts to represent contrasts, such as masculine and feminine. Once again, China's national flower, the peony, makes an appearance. This time in the most gorgeous shades of periwinkle blue.
This "short dress lineup," as I call it, features several of Pei's signature touches. Look at how many layers of tissue-thin silk she used to create the thick but weightless blue skirt. So hard not to touch:
You can see a host of references to historic styles in Pei's work, well beyond traditional Chinese elements. From the hoop skirt of the golden dress, to the leg o' mutton sleeves of the whimsical dress above, to the 1920s styling of the sleek "cocoon coat" (my name), below:
Most obvious (although only to me, apparently) was the similarity between Pei's shoes and the chopines of the 15th-17th centuries:
Originally worn as over shoes to keep dainty silk slippers out of the mud, high-rise chopines enjoyed so much popularity, they eventually became shoes in their own right. Here are a few renaissance examples for comparison. No, platforms weren't a 1970s, or even a 1940s, innovation:
I'll admit I'm not a fan of clunky shoes, whether antique, vintage, or modern. I prefer more delicate footwear. But as it's unlikely I will ever own or wear one of Pei's masterpieces, I won't spend too much time fretting about it.
As long as we're discussing things I don't like, I have to say I was perplexed by this gown. It's from Pei's Spring 2017 Couture collection, but it's a dead ringer for my old boss Monica's wedding dress from the mid-1980s:
I thought the headpiece was pretty.
Last, but not least, I'll leave you with a few of my favorite designs. I especially liked the pants set, which reminds me of late 18th century menswear:
Here's a closer view of the matching accessories. I even kind of liked the chunky shoes, of clear material and decorated with more of the layered silk. So lovely:
At each mannequin I gasped anew and then laughed as this line from a favorite movie played in my head. I texted a photo of one of Pei's magnificent creations, along with the movie line, to my bff. She understood.