Guo Pei’s designs emanate glory. While the famed couturier is known best in the United States for fashioning Rihanna’s gold 2015 Met Gala gown, Guo’s work has stitched together illusory whimsy and lavish elegance for decades. At the Legion of Honor through Sept. 5, more than 80 of Guo’s works weave together a vision of grace and extravagance.
The exhibit “Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy” functions as both a spectacle and a reverie, awing as much as it mesmerizes. Behind a matte dressing room screen, dramatic gown silhouettes foreshadow the exhibit’s splendor; turning the corner revealed several pieces from the 2007 collection “An Amazing Journey in a Childhood Dream.” Starring youthful colors such as pastel yellow and light lilac, the collection shimmers with aesthetic convolutions of resin cabochons, jacquard-woven silk and Swarovski crystals. The jewelry stuns subtly, denoting Guo’s organic themes with dangly jellyfishlike earrings and barnaclelike groupings.
Escaping the sea, Guo found roots in idiosyncratic garden dreamworlds, whisking viewers away to botanical paradises in collections “Garden of Soul” and “Elysium.” Using natural fibers such as raffia and bamboo, Guo laces together themes of growth and immortality. Beaded blossoms sprout from skirts rounded like eggs, and embroidered irises hungrily crawl up corsets. Downy hats with spindly metal leaves crown silvery wigs, and vines climb up clear platform shoes that ground the ironic down-to-earth fantasy.
On the other hand, the exhibit also flaunts collections ready to take flight. Crows adorn several pieces from her fall/winter 2019-2020 “Alternate Universe” collection, complete with piña cloth, pearls, goose feathers and ramie rosettes. Ruffly goose feathers reappear in her outlandish “Himalaya” collection, with dropped waistlines, dramatic sleeves, chunky boots, white fishnets and woolly textures. Both collections underscore the allure of nature and the soulful ways it converges with humanity.
Elsewhere, inspired by Romanesque, Gothic and neoclassical architecture, Guo’s L’Architecture fall/winter 2018-19 collection explores the intersection of space and self. Thick black outlines, structured bodices of steel wire and pronounced geometric shapes balance muted colors and intricate architectural embroidery.
Often created through thoughtful historical and cultural lenses, many of Guo’s designs reflect on her Chinese heritage. Her studio employs Chinese embroidery techniques as well as stitches from Indian, European and Russian styles. Including a single dress worth 8,000 hours of work, her breathtaking 1002 Nights collection pays homage to China’s classic white-and-blue ceramics with its exquisite hand-painted, embroidered silk.
With her golden touch, Guo also explores her country’s imperial past in collections such as Legend of the Dragon, East Palace and Inheritance. From the former, standout Lanfeng (Blue Phoenix) radiates grandeur as gold feathers split through oceanic blue in ruffled, frenzied elegance. In another room, as a nod to the Qing dynasty, gilded dresses astound attendees with their thick furs, Swarovski crystals and faux pearls. Satin stitches of silk floss and metallic threads form rolling Lishui waves and foliate scrolls, and symbolic phoenixes, butterflies and bats flutter across fabrics.
Beyond these signs of prosperity and promise, Guo’s work emphasizes rebirth. Perhaps most memorable is her breakthrough ballgown Da Jin (Magnificent Gold) from her 2006 collection, Samsara (Life Cycle). Lotus pods and trailing plants grace the golden, floor-length gown, embroidered with a gold couching technique. Guo views the dress as a “reincarnation,” a representation of the sun. Its regal, optimistic beauty glitters with sanctity along with the rest of the exhibit.
From her gilded corset bodices to gleaming silver sleeves, Guo materializes divine daydreams of opulence and art in the most spellbinding way. The renowned fashion couturier pulls threads from the depths of her lucid imagination, and “Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy” shows that even the wildest daydreams can become tangible.