Ever since starting her fashion career in the 1990s, the Chinese designer Guo Pei has sought to evoke the meeting of East and West through her fanciful, otherworldly couture pieces. But her watershed moment came on May 4, 2015, when Rihanna wore Pei’s dramatic, bright yellow cape gown on the Met Gala red carpet. For many, it was the first time seeing a Guo Pei design—despite the fact that Pei is widely considered China’s first couturier and has dressed many celebrities, not to mention designed clothing for the athletes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It was the ultimate illustration of two cultures being bridged, she recalls. “The attention she attracted was totally unexpected for me,” Pei says over e-mail through a translator. “I was there, and I remember being surprised when she walked out from backstage to great cheers. When this gown was first shown in China, the model had difficulty walking on the stage because it was too heavy for her, so I regretted it was not perfectly presented in front of the public. Rihanna gave the gown a second life. After this event, many people have been trying to find out more about my designs, even today.”
Now, those who want to learn more about Pei need to look no further than the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, where a major exhibition titled “Couture Fantasy” chronicles Pei’s expansive career. Running April 16 through September 5, the exhibition features installations of Pei’s most impactful and unforgettable creations, in addition to behind-the-scenes photographs from past runway shows. There’s also a particular emphasis on preserving traditional Chinese design techniques, some of which were lost in the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. In addition to Guo Pei’s East-meets-West brand codes, keeping these techniques alive are baked into her design approach—embroidery, she says, is one example. “There was hardly any embroidery on clothes when I was a kid, and it was almost impossible to find embroiderers,” Pei recalls. “The other technique is the cheongsam pattern. I have kept looking for the most traditional way of tailoring cheongsams for 20 years.”
Still, Western styles greatly influence Chinese fashion, and many of the clothes made in China are Western-cut these days. Pei recognizes this modern phenomenon as the moment—but still aims to maintain the rich history of Chinese fashion, which is woven into every single one of her wares. “The Western aesthetic attracted me deeply, and had a significant influence on my creation, as they were new to me and evoked my infinite curiosity,” she says. “They inspired me to create; however, my presentation usually used the Chinese elements and design language that I am most familiar with and love. We feel the energy generated by the collision of cultures.” Get a sneak peek at Pei’s Legion of Honor show below.