Rihanna likes to make a grand entrance. But possibly the most dramatic in recent memory would have to be her arrival at last year's Met Gala, when she made her red carpet stroll in a remarkable 55-pound couture creation by Chinese designer Guo Pei. To this day, it's hard to not think of that moment when you mention Guo Pei or her work.
Of course, RiRi's star power helped, but in a single year, the Beijing-based couturier has built up an international presence, garnering worldwide recognition for her exquisite designs and her unwavering commitment to creating beauty, regardless of how long it takes (a shining example: Rihanna's dress took her 30 months). She also famously turned down a $700,000 offer to buy her masterpiece of a gown that was on display in the "China: Through the Looking Glass" exhibit at the Met, citing that it was invaluable, that the 50,000 hours she invested couldn't be quantified ("It's as if the piece has a life of its own that can't be bought," she explains).
Another big moment for Guo Pei: When she was invited to show at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture last fall, a first for a designer from Asia. It also serves as validation, an accreditation that she fought so hard to earn in a country that didn't value fashion as a credible career path even as recent as 30 years ago when she was first starting out. During a Q&A hosted by China Institute, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting a deeper understanding of China, in New York City, Guo Pei revealed that it was her husband-slash-partner Jack (or Cao Bao Jie) who insisted that she was more than a tailor—that she was, in fact, a couturier. From there, it had been an uphill battle, from clients questioning her high prices to the lack of embroiderers in China. Fashion design isn't practical, and as such, hasn't been accepted, respected or rewarded. But all of that is changing.
"In China, people are in the process of pursuing beauty, pursuing fashion, so there are different levels and different stages of people's understanding of fashion," says Guo Pei, through her translator, after the panel. "I'm very lucky that I work in Beijing, because there's an openness to the thought and emotion behind a design. Whereas in other parts of China, a lot of design is commercial-driven, a way to make money. Once your work is appreciated, you can break free from the commercial bond."
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It took three decades, but she finally has found the freedom to create—a career path that she has forged for aspiring Chinese designers. "I consider myself a pioneer in the industry," Guo Pei says, through her translator. "And whatever obstacles and achievements I've experienced are good examples for young designers."
And even though, Guo Pei has found fame from dressing stars, like Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang and, well, Rihanna, she maintains that she's not in it for that or for the money. "My passion is in my creation," Guo Pei's translator says. "It has nothing to do with getting my name out there, becoming famous, or making a profit."