Just four years ago, pop-singer Rihanna stunned the world as she took Guo Pei’s golden yellow cape, lined with thick fur and silver embroidery, up the Met Gala red carpet. In those few minutes, the China-based designer was catapulted into global consciousness, recognised as the person behind one of the most magnificent and breathtaking moments in modern fashion history.

The cape, dubbed Yellow Queen, is just one out of 29 dresses displayed in the Asian Civilisation Museum’s latest exhibition on the China-based designer’s couture. Guo Pei: Chinese Art & Couture is the headliner of the Museum’s series of shows on Chinese art which seeks to re-examine the cultural history of Asia and its interconnections with the rest of the world in a contemporary light.

Since Rihanna’s stunning Met Gala moment, the China-based couturier has become synonymous with grandiose Chinese couture. Elaborate gowns in gold thread, pearls and heavy silk breathed new life in traditional motifs of peonies, dragons and phoenixes once thought to be too gaudy for modern ages. In the exhibition, artefacts from ACM are juxtaposed with her couture to underline influences from history and its modern connections.

Beyond that, much of her work find references from global influences such as adopting Western silhouettes and Peranakan aesthetics. Over at Guo’s Rose Studio showroom, artisans work to weave up the intricate embroideries of old and revive crafts lost over time.

Here’s what to look out for at Guo Pei: Chinese Art & Couture.

Golden Resurrection

Chinese imperial dynasties are closely associated with a palette of brilliant yellows, representing gold, wealth and power. The colour was once strictly reserved for Chinese emperors and empresses, serving as a striking demarcation of nobility and commoners of the time.

Today, Guo heavily incorporates this royal hue in her contemporary creations. Its once sombre and powerful presence is recontextualised in informal, light-hearted dresses. Imperial motifs of teeth-baring dragons and phoenixes that once accompanied these yellow royal attires now come up as symbols of good fortune and joy in her works. This is perhaps best noted in her iconic Yellow Queen cape, made in 2010.

A touch of history

Guo’s Rose Studio also makes painstaking efforts to reimagine historical works in modern creations. Artisans study and try to recreate ancient embroideries such as thangka (Tibetan needlework depicting Buddhist deities) for mesmerising dresses. Guo’s first haute couture piece, Magnificent Gold, exemplifies such detailed work. Over 50,000 hours went into the construction of the dress, made up of panels richly embroidered with lotus and other floral designs in gold and silver thread.

Ceramic works from China have heavily influenced designers all over the world for centuries. Guo is no exception. In a 2010 collection, One Thousand and Two Nights, Guo pays tribute to this craftsmanship with her Blue-and-White Porcelain dress. The designs on the gown details traditional porcelain decorations of waves and flowers, carefully hand-painted and embroidered with Swarovski crystals. Silk folds, alike ceramic shards, emulates the porcelain sheen.

Peranakan Bridal Inspirations

Besides Chinese traditions, Guo also found ideas across borders. The designer took notes for her famous bridal ensembles after visiting the Peranakan Museum’s 2010 travelling exhibition held in Paris.

A Chinese bridal gown from the collection, once worn by the Peranakan Chinese, was the direct inspiration for Guo’s Lotus and Goldfish creation. The modern interpretation sees a tighter silhouette and a larger skirt for embroidery work. Placements of goldfish and lotus motifs of the original piece are also faithfully produced in Guo’s creation. Chinese actress Angelababy famously wore the lavish piece on her wedding day in 2015.

Guo Pei: Chinese Art & Couture opens 15 June 2019 at the Asian Civilisations Museum.

Jasmine Tay
Senior Writer
Jasmine Tay is the dining, culture and jewellery writer. She makes fine silver jewellery and causes mini-explosions in the kitchen when she can't afford fancy dinners. Sometimes she tells people what she thinks about art, and binges on the music of Danzig when they don’t agree.