by AMY VERNER
“We are giants!” said one of the models backstage as a sneak peek spoiled the surprise that one of them would be encircled in an embroidered and gilded ovoid shell that might have represented the sun, moon, or perhaps a golden egg. Another looked as though she had been outfitted directly from the forest floor in lustrous leaves and tangles of undergrowth. The recurring presence of dark blue floral embroideries hinted that this could have been dawn or dusk—the so-called l’heure bleue, when twilight casts a mystical blue aura on the world. Each model, no matter what she was embodying through her dress, towered over the heads of humans upon stepping into crystal-like platforms that hovered above the ground. With their gothic crowns and fantastical halos, they embodied Guo Pei’s extraordinary imagination, once again elevating her pursuit of handcraft to the sublime.
Through a translator, the designer explained her vision as something along the lines of representing the life force of roots and flowers, which explained the stylized structure suspended above the stage of the Cirque d’Hiver venue. “Roots are the source of life and vitality,” she said, offering “primitive” as a description of these creations that were anything but. “Without roots, there’s not life. This world is a very mysterious place, but it’s linked intimately with our lives. That’s why the tree is onstage, and you’ll see a lot of flowers.”
With much of the fabric research done in Switzerland, Pei uses her atelier in the Chaoyang District of Beijing to realize embroideries worthy of royal or religious ceremonial dress. While this extreme flower theme doesn’t technically overlap with the Costume Institute’s forthcoming exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” several designs would easily qualify for the gala. From her otherworldly gothic theme last Spring to today, a divine aspect remains consistent in Pei’s work. How else to account for all that gold? “I like gold, obviously! I think gold embodies what is at the top in terms of knowledge and wealth,” she said, before offering something of an epiphany: “I think it is the color of our souls.”
Now a regular presence on the Paris calendar, Pei has elected to reserve her fantastical visions for January, while proposing a comparatively wearable offering in July. In other words, don’t expect a similarly ornate adventure next season. But what links them and reflects back on her immense skill is a complete and utter devotion to the handcraft of couture. “You have to have time to do this,” she said. “Just as it embodies life, it is the result of a lifetime.”