by AMY VERNER

Those who arrived at Guo Pei following Vetements no doubt experienced some version of culture shock. Just a few moments earlier, they were processing androgynous models in achingly cool street clothes; now they were watching a procession of hyper-feminized empresses. The only way to reconcile such absolute extremes was to appreciate that fashion today welcomes both. Pei used the word encounter as a common thread to describe creations that were made from anything but. Fringes looked fiber-optic; a dragon arose from a mass of copper mesh; most of all, there was gold in every wearable form. Backstage, her husband, Cao Bao Jie (better known as Jack) noted how some of the materials and embroideries were developed a year or more in advance; he flipped through a binder of metallic, filmy swatches from the renowned textile manufacturer Jakob Schlaepfer, drawing attention to their Swiss origins. These pseudo-futuristic fabrics did more than emit a high-gloss shine; they suggested that Pei’s design considerations stretch beyond costume drama, which was the obvious conclusion when each passage represented a different rarefied archetype: ice queen, Art Deco diva, Belle Epoque enchantress, Russian princess, first lady, neo-Joséphine. The level of craftsmanship never wavered but shone brightest with the final dress; its single peaked shoulder, jeweled embroideries, and funneling train ridged in countless pearlescent embellishments seemed destined for a queen bee.

Still, Pei’s lustrous chopine-stiletto hybrids were uncomfortable to watch, let alone to wear. Women who hold positions of power today appear highly mobile, even if they’re just walking a red carpet. Earlier this year, Pei was profiled in The New Yorker, a piece likely prompted by the intrigue of her infamous yellow gown for Rihanna. Judith Thurman wrote that Pei told her, in no uncertain terms: “I’m not a feminist,” adding, “I think women should be like water: It looks soft and tender, but it’s very powerful. The women among the crowd wearing Pei’s gala attire to a fashion show suggest that the market for her idealized vision exists, even if it goes against the flow.

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