Guo Pei: Pop star Rihanna’s fashion designer of choice

For those in the know, China’s Guo Pei had already long been compared to some of the late fashion industry greats, such as Alexander McQueen and Coco Chanel.

But Chinese fashion design has only recently come of age and, until now, none of its home grown stars had made the leap to becoming an international household name.

Now the combination of Rihanna in a huge yellow dress, and the subsequent press and social media reaction, have done just that for 48-year-old Ms Guo.

The Bajan singer had got in touch with Ms Guo to ask if she could wear the dress to one of the biggest nights in the fashion calendar – New York’s Met Gala. The event is organised to raise funds for the city’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art’s Costume Institute.

The designer was happy to say “yes”, but was initially unsure if Rihanna could cope with its substantial weight.

“When Rihanna first saw the dress, she said ‘it’s so beautiful’, but I wasn’t so sure that she could handle it,” says Ms Guo.

“It was only after she appeared on the red carpet that she sent an email asking how heavy it was. I told her – 25 kg (55lb). I couldn’t tell her before because I was afraid she’d say she couldn’t wear it.”

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The dress worn by Rihanna took 50,000 man-hours to make
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Thankfully the singer was able to bear the weight of the dress – a canary yellow cape creation, trimmed with egg yolk coloured fur, and embroidered with flowers – without a hitch. Although it did take a team of three assistants following behind to carry the garment’s giant train.

While fashion commentators and aficionados were agog – Vogue magazine put a photo of Rihanna in the dress on the front cover of its Met Gala special edition – the wider public had a bit of fun.

With the dress being compared with a giant omelette, social media memes, amusingly doctored photos of the dress, spread thick and fast on the internet.

Ms Guo says: “A friend of mine sent me one of the pictures, and said she thought the dress looked like an omelette.

“She said she hoped I didn’t mind the comment and I said, yes I agree, it does look like an omelette.”

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Other food-based comparisons saw photo editing software deployed to imaginative effect, such as taking the dress for a pizza base and adorning it with olives and onions.

Marketing teams even got in on the act, with UK bakers Greggs turning the dress into a meat-filled pasty.

While many other designers with more delicate temperaments may have taken objection to such mockery of something that took a team of people 50,000 hours between them over two years to make by hand, Guo Pei says she didn’t mind.

“Actually when me and my husband saw some of the photos they gave us an appetite!” she chuckles.

“I felt that if the dress could stimulate people’s imagination and make them laugh then it has made entertainment as a result.”

Communist grey

Guo Pei was born in Beijing in 1967 and it is here, perhaps, that we can find the inspiration for the love of colour, extravagance and elegance woven into that yellow dress.

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“The Beijing of my childhood memory is very different from today,” she says.

“It was basically grey. The clothes people wore were mostly grey, there are not many colours.

“I remember clearly that I wanted to wear a yellow dress when I was a child, but my grandmother told me that normal people are not allowed to wear yellow.”

The Communist drabness of those days, it seems, fostered in Guo Pei a desire for beauty.

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She says: “I loved painting when I was young, I liked to paint people and clothes, but my parents never supported this desire because my father felt it had no potential and no future.”

Ms Guo’s father was a senior Communist Party official, and her mother was a kindergarten teacher. She describes a loving, but strict, home environment.

“I remember my father tearing up one of my paintings because I hadn’t finished my homework.

“He said: ‘Can you live on painting? Can it support your life?’.”

But in this rather austere atmosphere another passion was being nurtured, born of necessity.

Ms Guo says: “My mum’s eyesight wasn’t very good.

“The coats we wore in the winter, and our blankets, were sewn by her but because of her eyesight, she couldn’t thread a needle.”

“I remember I helped her, even from the age of two and slowly, it became one of my hobbies.”

‘New desires’

In 1982, Guo Pei chose to study clothing design and became one of the first such students in a by now rapidly changing China.

“When I graduated in 1986, she says, the period of reform and opening up had just begun.

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“China had become a very different place and you could feel that people had new desires.

“They were looking for beautiful things and they were accepting of change. It was a great time to be a designer.”

Ms Guo became the chief designer of one of China’s first independent clothing companies, and through her work she set about painting in all the missing colours from her childhood.

“There was one year I remember everyone was wearing red skirts,” she says. “They liked to ask what was the popular colour, and then everyone would wear it.

“On the way home from work on the bus, everyday, there are at least ten people I could see wearing my designs.”

By 1997 Ms Guo had set up her own haute couture (high fashion) business in Beijing, a move that coincided with the growing affluence in China. She would spend many hours making single dresses for the country’s rich, famous and politically well-connected.

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Today, she has a team of 500 employees – designers, embroiderers, pattern-makers and sewers, and a list of clients that include A-list stars from around the world.

While Ms Guo’s most prestigious dresses may take months or even years to make, they are profitable because they command prices as high as $800,000 (£500,000) per item.

Yet not everything she makes is so expensive. Ms Guo also designs traditional Chinese wedding dresses, which cost about $8,000, and are very much in demand.

It is talking about the wedding dresses that makes her emotional.

“One day a mother came to me with her savings [$8,000], and asked me to make a wedding dress for her daughter,” she says.

“I told her that she could [instead] give that money to her daughter, it was not a small amount.

“But she said that if she did, it would be nothing more than $8,000, but if she spent the money on the wedding dress it would enlarge her love as a mother, it would carry her blessings, and her love for her daughter.”

By now Gou Pei is fighting back the tears. She adds: “I will never forget customers like her.”

The designer is now working on a more affordable, much faster to manufacture, “ready-to-wear” collection, which is likely to see dresses retail for between $800 and $1,500.

Ms Guo says: “Many people ask me about my experience designing for celebrities, but they don’t know about my real customers. They’re the people who really touch me.”