Monday, August 26, 2013

SHANGHAI SOCIAL DIARY

On a Beijing runway, legendary American model Carmen Dell’Orefice strutted in an extraordinary gown by Guo Pei, China’s “Empress of Haute Couture,” which was so heavily embroidered that four men had to assist her.
SHANGHAI SOCIAL DIARY
by Jeanne Lawrence

GUO PEI, CHINA’S EMPRESS OF HAUTE COUTURE

BEIJING – Every day in China is an adventure for me, and one of the most fascinating was my visit to the Beijing studio of couturier Guo Pei, a singular talent yet to be introduced to many Westerners.

The gifted Beijing beauty produces some of the most sumptuous and exquisite fashions I have ever seen. Take a look at some works from her recent Beijing show: boldly colored, intricate designs and intriguing silhouettes, masterfully executed by needlework artisans.
THE EMPRESS OF FASHION

Now 45, and still looking like a college student, Guo Pei was born at the start of the Cultural Revolution, when the drab, functional “Mao” uniforms were obligatory wear. In 1982, at the age of 19, she enrolled at the Beijing Second Light Industry School to study fashion design, influenced by the extravagant costumes she saw in fashion design books.

In 1986, she became one of the first professional designers in China, first working on children’s clothing and then graduating to women’s wear. By 1997, she had done well enough to open her own Rose Studio (Mei Gui Fang).
China’s premier couturier, Guo Pei’s luxurious, lavishly embellished clothing is a hit among the country’s burgeoning wealthy set.

There was no haute couture in China when Rose Studio opened, but designing high fashion and gowns for entertainers was Guo Pei’s dream. The timing was perfect; she launched her career at the dawn of a new “Gilded Age of China.”

A new generation of super-rich was emerging, hungry for luxury products and not shy about flaunting their wealth and spending freely in Europe and at home.
Guo Pei’s creations are expensive—up to $40,000 for a jacket. But they’re not just clothes, they’re exquisite works of art. Some of her garments have taken as many as 7,400 hours to make and others have incorporated more than 465,000 pearls.
MODERN DESIGNS INFLUENCED BY THE PAST

Guo Pei’s work is strongly influenced by traditional court costume: the elaborately embroidered and ornamented, silk and fur-trimmed styles worn by Chinese royalty and their court throughout the various dynasties, especially the Ming and Qing eras (1369-1911).

Many Chinese consumers, who have also been influenced by these traditions, prefer opulent and colorful styles—so unlike what I see in New York, where women often choose sleeker silhouettes, mostly in basic black!
Guo Pei’s work is highly original, but brings to mind Valentino, who also loves   embroidery, color, and luxurious fabrics, and Alexander McQueen, whose designs are similarly extravagant and sculptural.
DRESSING THE STARS

Guo Pei’s Chinese Blue Porcelain Dress helped Miss China 2012 and Miss Universe 2012 finalist Ji Dan Xu take top prize in the national costume segment of the pageant.
Often created for the stage or red carpet, Guo Pei’s designs are bright and ornate—not for a shrinking violet. Her clients include singers, actresses, beauty pageant competitors, prominent performers, and anyone who wants to dress to be the center of attention.

They’ve even caught the eye of Lady Gaga, who was lent a selection of heavily crystal-beaded frocks; but at 40 pounds, they were too heavy for Ms. Gaga to sashay around onstage.

A SERENDIPITOUS MEETING

My friend Carmen Dell’Orefice was the first to mention Guo Pei’s name to me. When I admired a blouse she was wearing at a Museum of Arts and Design gala in New York, she told me the designer was Guo Pei, and I made a note to visit her on my next trip to China.

When I next headed to Beijing, I asked my travel agent to make an appointment with Guo Pei, which was not easy. Why didn’t I think to ask Carmen to make an introduction?

While in Beijing, I attended a reception at the Belgian Ambassador’s home when a glamorous, petite woman caught my eye, as she was so elegantly dressed. A friend introduced us and, coincidentally, I discovered the woman was Guo Pei herself. “I have an appointment with you at your studio tomorrow!” I exclaimed.
I noticed Guo Pei because she was wearing the most stunning shawl I’d ever seen: a royal blue, richly embroidered silk piece edged in fur.
AT GUO PEI’S ATELIER, ROSE STUDIO

The next morning, I arrived at Rose Studio, located between central Beijing and the airport. Guo Pei’s husband, Cao Bao (“Jack”) Jie, came out to greet me and graciously paid for the taxi.

I was expecting a small boutique, but what I found overwhelmed me: a showroom and workshops beyond expectation—a kaleidoscope of colorful fabrics and hand-embroidered, museum-worthy pieces of imaginative design.
To my delight, when I arrived at her atelier in the early morning, Guo Pei had already begun sketching a couple of dresses that she excitedly showed me.
Although Guo Pei’s many assistants are fluent in English, she prefers that her husband Jack translate for her.
The showroom was light, bright, and airy with her collection on view.
A golden staircase, adorned with a dragon and vines design, added an opulent touch to the winding staircase to the second floor, where the VIP fitting rooms were located.
At the top of the stairs was a wall of photos of Carmen Dell’Orefice, who had modeled Guo Pei’s clothes for an audience of 3,000 at Beijing’s National Stadium in 2009.
Carmen compares Guo Pei’s flamboyant fashion shows to Italian film director and opera designer Franco Zeffirelli’s grandiose productions.
GUO PEI DESIGNS FOR ME
I had told Guo Pei that I had trouble finding unique fashion in China. I was looking for cocktail and evening dresses with a touch of Chinese detailing to reflect my time living in China.
I like classic styles, and I didn’t want to look as if I were wearing a costume or bought something at a tourist shop.
Guo Pei first showed me an elegant, draped black dress with a special touch of embroidered panels inspired by a Chinese painting. Just what I wanted! For the Asian touch, she suggested embroidering this Chinese design of birds and flowers onto the sleeves of my dress to add an elegant touch.
Her inspiration for the design came from this traditional Chinese painting of birds and flowers.
THE BLOUSE
Since I had asked for a top like Carmen’s, Guo Pei pulled an archival sketch of the original embroidered organza blouse.
Guo Pei knew just how to scale down the design, originally meant for model-tall Carmen, so it would suit my proportions.
She also sketched pants with a high waistband (to elongate the legs) that was adjustable (very practical, especially with all the banqueting I do in China!). The fitter (who my interpreter said was the best in the shop) came in to measure every part of my body.
Knowing I travel constantly, for my slacks she choose a top-quality, wrinkle-free synthetic fabric from a factory in Spain where the “Royal Family” shops.
For the frothy piece, Guo Pei ran her fingers along swatches of fabrics and selected a special blue to match the color of my eyes.
CHOOSING FABRICS
Since her husband Jack’s family is in the textile business in Taiwan, he is knowledgeable in this area. The couple source and buy fabrics directly from Europe’s best factories, mostly in France and Italy.
They even buy her silk abroad; though the Chinese invented silk, Guo Pei explained that local silk is manufactured for export, and to keep prices low it’s not always top quality.
I asked to browse Guo Pei’s look books, one of which contained Western-style evening gowns, many in red (a “lucky” color in Chinese culture), to see what else I might like to buy.
Another book showed more traditional Chinese designs, richly colored and featuring Guo Pei’s special embroidery.
MY GOLDEN JACKET

When you find fashion this perfect, you buy it—who knows when you’ll be back? So I added one last item: an exquisitely detailed evening jacket. The hand beading took two women two months to complete.
I ordered this in a light bronze shade I thought was perfect for a blonde.
I wore my specially fitted couture piece to a New York Philharmonic Chinese New Year concert and dinner at Avery Fisher Hall.
THE STUDIO SHOWROOM

In her Beijing showroom, Guo Pei’s stunning works transport you to another time and place.
This richly patterned, jewel-encrusted gold “tour de force,” is fit for an empress. It took thousands of man-hours to embroider.
Guo Pei is known for her exquisite embroidery and sumptuous materials.
This evening gown is made entirely of golden panels, upon which craftsmen meticulously embroidered dragon motifs, using real gold thread. Though the embroidery patterns are inspired by traditional imagery, such as this dragon design, the garments are meant for modern times.
This regal robe was inspired by British royal costumes of the past.
The painstakingly executed, detailed embellishment is proof of the needle workers’ skill. These haute couture works of art are influenced by both Western and Asian fashion sensibilities.
Some garments include such precious additions as pearls, jade, gold, and gems.
Many of Guo Pei’s creations incorporate age-old Chinese motifs such as dragons, phoenixes, and clouds.
THE WORKROOMS

When Guo Pei offered to take me on a tour of her workshops, I was astonished at what I saw. She has a fashion empire all under one roof, with the workrooms organized by divisions, such as pattern-makers, embroiderers, and jewelers, allowing her to ensure quality by controlling the entire production process.
I was flabbergasted to learn she employs 450 craftsmen, some at her atelier and others elsewhere. That includes 150 designers, pattern makers, and sewing technicians, plus 300 embroiderers.
On several floors of her atelier, her tailors cut, sew, and add the finishing touches to clothing. Others work on shoes and jewelry.
In the light, spacious workrooms, the workers concentrate on completing the extremely detailed work.
EMBROIDERY

Guo Pei had to train craftspeople to produce her designs, keeping alive the ancient art and craft of embroidering that had become a lost art during the Cultural Revolution. She hopes to make Chinese people proud of their heritage and inspire a greater appreciation for traditional crafts so they will be preserved.

Carmen told me that because it’s costly, craftsmanship of this quality has all but disappeared even in French haute couture.
Hundreds of accomplished craftspeople create detailed and elaborate embroidery.
It’s the impeccable embroidery that distinguishes Guo Pei’s work.
OTHER FASHION ACCESSORIES

Guo Pei couldn’t find bold jewelry designs to complement her clothing, so she began to make her own. I noticed that her artisans take great pride in their work.
In her workshops, Guo Pei even produces “frogs,” the braided, decorative button-and-loop fasteners that predate buttons and zippers.
She draws inspiration from objects, such as these antique hair ornaments. Some use iridescent blue feathers of the rare kingfisher bird as inlay material.
I also saw many forms for platform shoes. In China, as in Japan and Holland, they were meant to keep the wearers out of the mud. Throughout history, Chinese aristocrats also wore ornately decorated silk embroidered slippers.
Guo Pei’s studio also designs for the Chinese opera and other stage productions, such as ballet and the classical Chinese “Monkey King” epic.
MY BILL

I’ll never tell you the price (I’m too embarrassed), but I will say that I’m happy they took an American Express card, which has no limit. And there was an 8 in the final figure, which (I was reminded) is a lucky number.

On this day, I expected to visit only an hour, but the experience was so exciting and eye-opening that I stayed half the day. It was so gracious of Guo Pei to spend so much time with me.

THE FITTING

As I was returning to Shanghai in two days, Guo Pei’s workshop rushed to produce the fitting patterns. I stopped at the atelier on the way to the airport and they took me directly to the VIP fitting rooms.
Guo Pei wasn’t there when I slipped into the muslin mock-up for fitting the pattern (pink here, though elsewhere muslin is beige). I started to panic: It was too overpowering, the sleeves too big.
Then Guo Pei arrived and began editing the blouse right on my body, using her scissors to snip here and there while looking at her sketch.
She and her assistants quickly made adjustments to the design and fit of the garment. Men and women worked as a team seamlessly and with great skill, quietly, with barely a word spoken, as they knew their skills so well.
My jacket would feature inset panels of Chinese knots adorned with Swarovski crystals, nipped in to whittle my waist and made of a lightweight, festive yet subtle metallic fabric.
The finished jacket, which I wore to host a Chinese New Year dinner in honor of my friend Yue-Sai Kan (from Shanghai and New York) at the private Doubles Club in New York.
END OF THE ADVENTURE

Despite everyone’s attempts to get me to the plane on time, I missed my flight by five minutes. Still, I was able to book another in time to get to a very elaborate dinner party that night at the home of gallerist Pearl Lam. My only regret was not having one of my new acquisitions in my suitcase to wear that very evening!
I waved good-bye to Guo Pei as I headed to a flight back to Shanghai.
GUO PEI DEBUTS IN NEW YORK CITY ON SEPTEMBER 6, 2013

If you’re in New York City on September 6, you too can experience Guo Pei’s fashion firsthand at “China Fashion Night,” the inaugural benefit for the China Beauty Charity Fund (CBCF), founded by my friend Yue-Sai Kan.

Fashion designer Vivienne Tam is the honoree, and the event at the Pierre Hotel will benefit the scholarship program at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Guo Pei’s client base is mostly in China. On the benefit night, she will present her dramatic fashion show for the first time in the U.S. Although she’s still relatively unknown here, I predict that soon you’ll see Guo Pei’s name everywhere in the fashion community, and someday you’ll see her frocks in a museum.
The invitation to the September 6, 2013 “China Fashion Night” at the Pierre Hotel in New York City.
For more information or to buy your ticket, go to www.friendsofchinabeauty.org or email cbcfnyoffice@gmail.com.
Photos by Jeanne Lawrence and Rose Studio, Beijing.

*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.