Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy transforms the Legion of Honor
Guo Pei, Legend of the Dragon, Autumn/Winter 2012, Silk. Courtesy the artist.
Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy
Legion of Honor museum / April 16 – November 27, 2022
SAN FRANCISCO – Through exquisite craftsmanship, lavish embroidery, and unconventional dressmaking techniques, designer Guo Pei creates a couture fantasy that fuses the influences of China’s imperial past with export art, the grandeur of European court life, architecture, and the botanical world. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (the “Museums”) are pleased to celebrate Guo Pei’s extraordinary designs with Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy, the first comprehensive exhibition of her groundbreaking work. The exhibition includes more than 80 ensembles from the past two decades, highlighting the designer’s most important fashion collections, shown on Beijing and Paris runways, including many designs that have never before been shown to the public. Couture Fantasy is exclusively presented at the Legion of Honor.
“Drawing inspiration from European and Chinese artistic traditions, Guo Pei’s creations blur the boundaries between art and fashion. Displayed in a neoclassical architectural context at the Legion Honor, amidst our collection of European art, Pei’s designs encourage our visitors to consider the rich historical ties between China and the West,” states Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: “San Francisco, with our position on the Pacific Rim and our significant Chinese heritage, is a natural location to premiere the first major museum exhibition on Guo Pei’s work and we are delighted to present her exquisite designs to US audiences.”
In the early twenty-first century, China emerged as a leader in the fashion world. The exhibition explores the career of Guo Pei—hailed as China’s first couturier—within this context. Couture Fantasy is presented as part of the Museums’ Costume and Textile arts global exhibition program, which highlights extraordinary artists and movements that have changed the course of fashion history. Recent exhibitions include Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love and Contemporary Muslim Fashions.
Artist and designer Guo Pei says: “As a creator and artist, there is no greater honor or privilege than to share my creativity with a wider audience. I am therefore honored and humbled that the prestigious Legion of Honor Museum is presenting a retrospective of my work. In doing so, I hope that it brings greater awareness and understanding of my life’s passion, and conveys Chinese culture and traditions, and shows the new face of contemporary China.”
Couture Fantasy invites visitors on a journey into Guo Pei’s creative universe with designs displayed throughout the permanent collection and special exhibition galleries at the Legion of Honor, transforming the museum into a palace of couture.
Special Exhibition Galleries
Each of the Legion of Honor’s special exhibition galleries is dedicated to one or more of Guo Pei's key runway collections.
The opening gallery, Rosekrans Court, provides a dramatic backdrop for an exploration of the interplay between theater and costume design in Chinese fashion. Shown on the runway as a play, An Amazing Journey in a Childhood Dream (2008) was created when Guo was pregnant with her second child. For this collection, she envisioned her daughter’s dolls coming to life. These playful designs reveal an overlay of influences that define Guo’s artistic vision. The tightly pleated dresses, made from origami-like folds, reference Guo’s own childhood and the toys she made and played with during the Cultural Revolution. The pastel color palette derives from eighteenth-century French drawings; and the separates embroidered with raised metallic thread were inspired by matador costumes worn by Spanish bullfighters.
“For Guo Pei, each collection starts with a philosophical idea—a spark of inspiration—drawn from a wide range of sources from her personal life and travels, as well as art and architecture, literature, and nature. Layers of meaning and imagery form a bricolage of opulent surfaces imposed upon sculptural silhouettes,” explains Jill D’Alessandro, Curator in Charge of Costume and Textile Arts.
Floral motifs, associated with traditional notions of femininity, have a long history in Chinese decorative arts and textiles and appear frequently in Guo Pei’s designs. The next gallery focuses on the botanical world through two collections: Garden of Soul (2015) and Elysium (2018). Guo Pei cites the Chinese saying “There is a kingdom in a flower; wisdom in a leaf” as the inspiration for Garden of Soul. She further explains, “I always find the power of nature fascinating, especially when the flowers are blossoming,” and she draws comparisons between the human soul and gardens and their mutual need to be nurtured. In Elysium, Guo Pei continued to explore botanical life, looking not to the flower petals but the root structures. “Roots are the source of life and vitality; without roots, there’s no life,” she explains. The designer employed skilled bamboo-basket weavers to create the voluminous silhouettes with intricate embroidered detailing that form part of this collection.
The following gallery is dedicated to the skilled artisans who work in Guo Pei’s atelier. Visitors will get unique insight into the designer’s adaptation of traditional techniques and the time-consuming craft of creating couture in a display of “long pau,” or “dragon robes,” juxtaposed with three ensembles from Guo Pei’s Legend of the Dragon collection (2012), current works in progress, and a video of Guo Pei’s atelier.
Exhibiting in Paris and traveling in Europe has had a profound impact on Guo Pei’s work. The next gallery presents Guo Pei’s exploration of architectural elements in two collections called Legends and L’Architecture. Guo Pei’s second couture collection presented in Paris, Legends (Spring 2017), was inspired by a visit to the Abbey of St Gall in Switzerland. For this collection, she commissioned a fabric woven of gold metal fiber and silk thread, printed with images from the cathedral’s arched domes. Guo Pei staged her runway presentation for L’Architecture (Fall/Winter 2018–2019 Paris Haute Couture Week), at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. The museum’s extensive collections of Romanesque, Gothic, and Neoclassical molds served as the inspiration for the collection. In Guo Pei’s hands, flying buttresses were translated into wide panniers of translucent silk with a stated intention to evoke architecture’s “beauty of strength” and foster “a dialogue between the human body and spatial dimension.”
China’s imperial past and the country’s vast cultural history was the focus for the collection East Palace (2019). For this runway show, presented at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Guo Pei created a rendition of the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City. Inspired by Qing Dynasty court dress, Guo presented an overview of traditional Chinese dress and Chinese design elements, with elaborate three dimensional pale gold embroidery of imperial dragons, birds, and flowers.
The penultimate gallery will present Guo Pei’s most recent collection, Himalaya (Spring/Summer 2020 Haute Couture). In its creation, Guo Pei was drawn to the Himalaya mountain range—as a holy place, the residence of the gods, and a sacred temple of the soul and other Asian cultures. She used her personal collection of rare obi belts from Japan, which she and her team transformed by turning them inside out and reassembling them to show the time and labor of the skilled weavers who created these exquisite textiles. Guo Pei states, “Haute couture is not made for commercial gain, but more for a kind of inner quest, a satisfaction of our spiritual being.”
The fantastical collection Alternate Universe (2019–2020) serves as the exhibition finale. Inspired by the ideas of an afterlife and reincarnation, Guo Pei expresses that, “Since death is inevitable, I prefer to imagine it as a dream, an alternate universe parallel to this world, where everything returns to its original state of true pureness and beauty. It is the start of a mysterious journey.” The ensembles presented symbolize light and darkness coexisting, angels and demons next to one another, and magical creatures creeping out of the shadows. Her signature three-dimensional embroidery techniques conjure up animal and insect motifs, from the monkeys of Aesop’s Fables to the snake that lured Eve to steal the forbidden fruit.
Permanent Collection Galleries
The museum’s collections of European painting and decorative arts are presented in a suite of galleries designed in the neoclassical style on the Legion of Honor’s main floor. As a metaphor for the intercontinental world in which we live, opulent and intricate designs by Guo Pei are displayed in these galleries. The dialogues created highlight the sculptural nature, and the historical and iconographical references made by the designer in her creations.
Examples include the “Phoenix” gown from the designer’s Legend of the Dragon collection (2012), presented as the guest of honor in the museum’s popular grand gilded historical French reception room, the “Salon Doré. The majestic gold-embroidered “Da Jin” (“Magnificent Gold”) ensemble from the Samsara (Lifecycle) collection (2006) takes center stage among works of French and Italian Baroque and Rococo art. Gowns from the Legends collection, inspired by the Abbey of St Gall in Switzerland, are situated among the saint icons and Madonna figures that populate the medieval gallery. Several pieces from the Encounter and Courtyard collections (both 2016) are interspersed in the French and British painting and Decorative Arts galleries, highlighting the transcultural resonance of Guo Pei’s designs. A gallery is dedicated to a special presentation that juxtaposes objects from the Museums’ collections of Chinese export art and European chinoiserie—including a tapestry, vases, and a tea set—with Guo Pei’s “Porcelain” dress from the One Thousand and Two Nights (2010) collection.
Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy is curated by Jill D’Alessandro, Curator in Charge of Costume and Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, in close collaboration with Guo Pei. BuYun Chen, Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies at Swarthmore College, and currently fellow at Stanford Humanities Center, and Rachel Silberstein, Lecturer in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington serve as advising scholars to the exhibition.
Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco with significant support from the Asian Couture Federation.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Guo Pei is China’s most renowned couturier. For over 20 years, she has been dressing celebrities, royalty, and political elite. Born in 1967, she started sewing at a very young age and quickly developed a passion for dressmaking. In 1986, she graduated at the top of her class from the Beijing Second Light Industry School, and she spent the next ten years designing for major manufacturers.
In 1997 she launched her own label and atelier, Rose Studio. Today she employs nearly five hundred skilled artisans dedicated to producing her stunning creations, some of which can take thousands of hours and up to two years to complete.
In 2015, Guo Pei became the second native Chinese member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the chief governing body of the high-fashion industry, allowing her to show on the Paris Haute Couture Week calendar. She made her Paris haute-couture debut in January 2016, unveiling her Courtyard collection to wide critical acclaim. In the same year, she was also named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and one of the Business of Fashion’s BoF 500, a list of the most influential people shaping the global fashion industry.
A lavish catalogue accompanies Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy. The publication showcases the garments’ consummate craftsmanship, lavish embroidery, and unconventional dressmaking techniques, all of which are hallmarks of Guo Pei’s work. In addition to its visual splendor, the book features a Q&A with the designer; essays by Jill D’Alessandro, Curator in Charge of Costume and Textile Arts; I-Fen Huang, Assistant Curator, National Palace Museum Taipei; and Anna Katharina Grasskamp, Assistant Professor, Academy of Visual Arts, Hong Kong Baptist University.
This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco with significant support from the Asian Couture Federation. This exhibition is made possible by presenting sponsors Diane B. Wilsey and John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn and leading sponsor East West Bank.
Significant support for this exhibition has been provided by Dr. Junning Lee and Xiaojun Lee, LOUIS XII Cognac, The MAE Private Foundation, and Michelle and William Tai. Generous support provided by E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, Sakurako and William Fisher, The Diana Dollar Knowles Foundation, Patricia Lee-Hoffman, Jennifer and Steve Walske, David A. Wollenberg, and Zenni Eyewear.
Additional support is provided by Sandra and Paul Bessières, Carol and Shelby Bonnie, Fred Levin, The Shenson Foundation, Cathy and Howard Moreland, W.L.S. Spencer Foundation, and the Textile Arts Council of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. In-kind support is generously provided by Fairmont San Francisco and Molekule.
Saturday, April 16, 2022 \ Opening Day Celebration, Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy
Legion of Honor
Join us for the public opening celebration of Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy at the Legion of Honor. Enjoy live music and dance performances by Megan Lowe Dances and Rebirth Canal throughout the day in the Court of Honor.
Saturday, April 30, 2022 \ Unlocking Fashion with ELLE’s Véronique Hyland
Gunn Theater, Legion of Honor
Véronique Hyland, ELLE’s fashion features director and author of Dress Code: Unlocking Fashion from the New Look to Millennial Pink, will walk us through the way style intersects with our everyday lives in sometimes little-noticed ways. She will touch on topics like uniforms, style subcultures, and the role of color in fashion.
Saturday, May 14, 2022 \ A Look at Guo Pei’s Career: Film Screenings
Gunn Theater, Legion of Honor
Join us for a day of film screenings highlighting Guo Pei’s journey, from the early beginnings of her career to becoming China's most renowned couturier. Film screenings include: “Yellow is Forbidden,” “Mao’s New Suit,” and the exclusive premiere of our own “Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy” exhibition film.
Saturday, June 4, 2022 \ “Hearts and Minds”: A production by GAPA Theater + GAPA Men’s Chorus
Gunn Theater, Legion of Honor
Hearts & Minds is a collaborative production with selected works by GAPA Men’s Chorus and a collection of new works developed by the GAPA Theatre collective speaking to the hearts and minds of the LGBTQ Asian and Pacific Islander lived experience.
Hearts & Minds is presented by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center as part of the 25th annual United States of Asian America Festival.
Saturday, August 20, 2022 \ Auntie Sewing Squad: Radical Care In The Time Of COVID-19
Since March 2020 the Auntie Sewing Squad has sewn and donated more than 350,000 cloth face masks for vulnerable communities impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Valerie Soe screens clips from the upcoming Auntie Sewing Squad documentary and Mai-Linh Hong, Chrissy Lau, and Preeti Sharma talk about The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice (UC Press).
[Virtual] Wednesday, August 10, 2022 \ “At The Easel” with artist Cynthia Tom
Surrealist Cynthia Tom explores intuition to image–Haute Couture, Cultural Heritage, and Ancestral Healing as art inspiration. Join us for an evening of artistic engagement and discussion of how art can be a powerful tool of healing.
VISITING \ LEGION OF HONOR
Lincoln Park, 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco. More information regarding tickets can be found at legionofhonor.org/visit-us.
ABOUT THE CAROLINE AND H. MCCOY JONES DEPARTMENT OF TEXTILE ARTS
Since its inception, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have been devoted to the collecting, study, and display of costume and textile artworks. Today, the Caroline and H. McCoy Jones Department of Textile Arts has holdings that span two-and-a-half millennia and represent cultures from 125 countries. The collection comprises more than 13,000 textiles and costumes from traditions around the world. Collection highlights include rare 12th- through 15th-century Central Asian and North Indian silks, the most important group of Anatolian kilims outside of Turkey, Turkmen carpets, European tapestries, ecclesiastical textiles, contemporary Bay Area fiber art, and 20th- and 21st-century couture. Since the opening of the new de Young in 2005, the textile arts department has enjoyed an exciting and successful exhibition program by developing in-house exhibitions and hosting major touring exhibitions, as well as collaborating with other museums, fashion houses, artist’s studios, and guest curators. Past fashion exhibitions include Yves Saint Laurent (2008–2009), Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave (2011), Balenciaga and Spain (2011), The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll (2017), Contemporary Muslim Fashions (2018), and Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love (2021).
ABOUT THE FINE ART MUSEUMS OF SAN FRANCISCO
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States.
The Legion of Honor was modeled after the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. The museum, designed by George Applegarth, opened in 1924 on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate. It offers unique insight into the art historical, political, and social movements of the previous 4,000 years of human history, with holdings including ancient art from the Mediterranean basin; European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; and the largest collection of works on paper in the American West.