Himalaya, Ensemble, Spring/Summer 2020 includes a radiating golden crown reminiscent of a halo surrounding a saintly head in an early modern painting, along with a gown contoured to suggest a vestment of the Catholic Church known as a chasuble. The passementerie edging in the form of pom-poms further suggests a European tradition. However, the viewer is transported away from Western signifiers by a veritable universe of Chinese embroidery techniques and Buddhistic imagery. “The West pays more attention to visual effects, while the East pursues delicacy,” Guo Pei observed. In this work, she balances both worlds, reimagining the silk shading stitch, eponymously named after the strands of fine silk floss traditionally used to create intricate floral and animal motifs. This technique appears on imperial Chinese robes, including pieces from the Liao Dynasty (916–1125 CE), and is a beloved and much-utilized stitch in historical Peranakan embroideries. Instead of silk strands, Guo Pei utilizes gold and silver metallic threads to create the delicate floral imagery and halos for the Buddhist deities (mirrored by the halo of the fashion ensemble). This daring reinterpretation of a traditional technique creates a shimmering surface that appears to emanate light, enhancing the religious symbolism of the embroidered imagery.
Gold and silver threads are part of the lineage of Chinese and world embroidery techniques. Embroidery with metal threads was historically made by couching wire, very thin metal strips, or wire or metal strip-wrapped fiber cores to a fabric. As the process was refined, economical artisans applied extremely fine gold leaf to organic substrates such as paper (in the East) and animal skin or gut (in the West), which were then wrapped around fiber cores and used as metal threads. Due to the inherent delicacy of these threads and the costliness of the gold and silver metal, it was most common to attach the metal threads to fabric with couching stitches. This technique held the threads in place with minimal manipulation, while allowing the maximum amount of precious material to remain on the surface of the garment. If traditional metal threads were overworked, an artisan was in danger of damaging and wasting costly materials.
The practice of utilizing couching stitches to attach contemporary metallic and metalized threads, which are more resilient than their traditional counterparts, is also seen in Guo Pei’s couture. However, by using metal threads for silk shading embroidery (among other methods), she has re-envisioned how materials and embroidery stitches can be combined, innovating a technique that has equal footing in the past and present.