by AMY VERNER
The upside of Guo Pei’s show starting late was that time could be spent appreciating the life-size Romanesque, Gothic, and Neoclassic molds within the vast gallery of the Cité de l’Architecture. But whereas most of us would be content to simply gaze at these facade fragments and detailed maquettes, the ever-ambitious Chinese designer interpreted them as vaulted pannier skirts, arched necklines, quatrefoil lace, and rose window embroideries. Rare is the person who looks at a cupola rising from a church and sees a ball gown tiered in bronze organza. Brunelleschi would have smiled.
Pei’s ambitious couture creations often project outward from the body, and previous collections have explored religious subject matter, so perhaps a meditation on Gothic churches was inevitable. The show notes described her intention to evoke architecture’s “beauty of strength” via garments that suggest “a dialogue between the human body and spatial dimension.” That these dresses pushed the limits of fashion, in other words, was exactly what she set out to do. “Haute couture, if it’s really interesting, doesn’t have to be close to everyday life, and very few designers have to dare to use their extreme designs to express themselves,” she said through a translator following the show. “It doesn’t have to be wearable like ready-to-wear.”
No one would deny the technical mastery of building a recessed window into a dress, yet several looks proved rigid even when their materials were actually light and sheer. Flying buttresses were never meant to be twisted into bodices. Platforms with heels like columns seem unlikely to get anyone closer to God. It’s just too bad the collection comes as the Costume Institute’s “Heavenly Bodies” exhibition is under way, as there would have been several promising options to showcase. And with those extreme constructions off in museum vitrines, the remaining styles might speak to clients or celebrities looking for original, elaborate eveningwear: a dress like a gilded spire or ivory pants embroidered in black tracery, for example. That Pei opted to realize so many looks in black ultimately gave the collection coherence while casting an edgier reading on her divine theme—gothic grandeur for goth girls.