With the Chinese buying cars by the tens of thousands every week – big cars, too – and throwing up new buildings, driving in Beijing is no lark. It was an hour before Guo Pei and her husband, Bao Jie Cao, reached the headquarters of Rose Studio, their fashion company, on the city’s north side. The October sun was blazing pale when their Mercedes pulled up to a low-rise office complex, its white brick rendered shabby by newer developments. Bao, a stocky, good-looking Taiwanese man who goes by the name Jack, had been kneeling the whole time next to the driver, facing his wife, who sat in the back, and translating from Chinese into English. Now he sort of backed out of the car.
Guo Pei, whose career as a fashion designer began when there was no fashion in her country, remained a study in Asian poise and etiquette. In addition to large eyes and delicate features, enhanced by careful makeup, she definrtely has a gentleness unmarred by circumstance. These circumstances include wealth and a list of clients in Beijing’s highest political, media and social circles. But as Jack said proudly, “Guo Pei is a very traditional lady – a wonderful wife and daughter and mother who always cares more about her family than the attention she receives.” Be that as it may, nobody, upon learning that Beijing has its own couturière, would ever imagine such a salon. Rose Studio’s décor goes well beyond Chinese standards, in fact, its excessiveness suggests that in her ideas Guo Pei is anything but modest. Along one wall are display cases of dresses in gold and Easter shades of blue and yellow, behind which are lighted panels of doily-white filigree rising to the mirrored ceiling. A glittering staircase, as wide as those in a musical, is ornamented with bronze vines. Coiled around its base, like a fat, drowsy serpent, is a tufted green damask banquette. Several assistants, half-hidden by vases of red silk flowers, work at a large white table. In the center of the room is a molded silver chair in the shape of three plump breasts. This is what you see upon entering Rose Studio from the parking lot. Nothing prepares you for the many-hued jolt any more than the desert prepares you for Las Vegas.
On the second floor are three private rooms where luminaries of CCTV, the state-run television station; businesswomen; and the wives and daughters of Communist Party leaders come for fittings. According to Jack, many of the Politburo wives are customers, though few Chinese people would know since the wives do not play much of a public role. So there is no P.R. value as there would be for dressing Michelle Obama, but there are certainly guanxi, or connections, which anyone with a problem appreciates. On the third and fourth floors 140 people cut, sew and finish clothes, with a separate workroom for shoes and jewelry.
Guo Pei, 43, started her business 13 years ago, and it’s safe to say that just about everything in China has changed since then. Many more people are able to afford luxury products, and Beijing’s malls are packed. Still, this small woman with a bob and a tendency to finish her sentences with a giggle is an anomaly, and not because she dresses V.I.P.’s or designs one-off pieces in a country geared for mass production. What makes Guo Pei different is what she puts on a runway. Five years ago, she began making collections that were on a scale that equaled, and in some cases surpassed, the technical feats of Paris couture, skirts of fantastic dimension, molded into bell shapes, or cones that rippled like the surface of a shell.
Some dresses are inspired by children’s clothes, and on adults the proportions look extreme, an effect she heightens with ridiculously high platform sandals. The clothes are also lavishly embellished. Next to her dresses, the most elaborate Paris stuff is a dim bulb — and growing weaker as European houses subtly cut back on handwork to meet rising labor costs. In China, it’s the reverse. Guo Pei says that when she went looking for people to do embroidery, in 1998, the only product in demand were the kind of slippers you’d find on Canal Street. Today she employs 300 people in a workroom about two hours from Beijing. She had to train them, but it’s also true that her creative freedom is tethered to relatively cheap labor. One dress alone, made entirely of golden panels, took 50,000 hours to embroider.
Guo Pei announced her ambitions at China Fashion Week in Beijing. The city was in a building frenzy because of the Olympics, and European luxury brands were finally seeing the fruits of their marketing. Young people with decent jobs were the driving force, a McKinsey study found, and unlike people who had lived through the Cultural Revolution, they had no problem spending three times their monthly salary on a bag if it showed they were well off. Still, their reasoning was pragmatic, McKinsey said, and not emotional. For Guo Pei, however, the decisions were all emotional. One can see in videos of her shows, which typically last 35 minutes and invoke Chinese fairy tales, the artistic yearnings of a woman — yearnings that until then had a limited outlet. Last November, for her third collection — held in the National Stadium at the Olympic Village before an audience of 2,600 people — Guo Pei flew the legendary model Carmen Dell’Orefice in from New York. Dell’Orefice was 78 when she agreed to wear a bejeweled sheath and an embroidered, fur-trimmed cape fit for a Ming empress, and heavy enough to require an escort by two men “and two boys in back pushing the train.” When asked about the experience, Dell’Orefice answered, “That’s like asking me how I would feel about Zeffirelli.” She went on to compare Guo Pei to Charles James and added: “I was awe-struck by the pure beauty. She brings some part of the Chinese history forward and jumps over Mao Zedong.”
Not long after that show, Nicola Formichetti, an editor who helps style Lady Gaga, contacted Guo Pei to borrow some clothes. This was a provident match. Whatever one thinks of the entertainer or the designer, they share an outsize vision of a warrior woman. There is nothing dainty about a 40-pound crystal beaded dress, as Lady Gaga discovered when four or five dresses (and the platform shoes) arrived in Los Angeles, “all beautifully packaged in silver boxes,” Formichetti recalled. She tried them on, he said, “but basically couldn’t move in them, so they couldn’t work onstage.” “They were very nice, polite people,” Jack said of his dealings with Formichetti’s office, but one senses that Guo Pei isn’t dying to dress the world’s most famous performer.
The daughter of an army platoon leader who later held a high-ranking position in the state housing authority, Guo Pei was born in Beijing in 1967, at the start of the Cultural Revolution. Her family remained in the capital, and in 1982 she enrolled in fashion studies at Beijing Second Light Industry School. Guo Pei says her teachers had no knowledge of what was going on in Europe in the mid-’80s, which was the heyday of Azzedine Alaïa and the beginning of John Galliano. But the lack of worldly information wasn’t the obstacle it might seem. After secretly watching a movie that featured a wedding scene, she asked a teacher how to make a huge skirt. “He said, ‘I don’t know, but maybe you can find a solution in costumes for opera,’” Guo Pei recalled. “At that moment, I fell in love with big things.”
After graduating in 1986, she took a job designing children’s clothing. There was no question that she would find work. “The government assigned you a job,” said Guo Pei, who made 65 renminbi a month, the equivalent today of about $10. Three years later she moved to a women’s clothing company, Tian Ma, where she tentatively asserted her ideas. Tian Ma was among the first generation of privately owned companies, and as the Communist government was loosening controls and the dark Mao uniform was gradually vanishing in a sea of pastels and prints, Tian Ma’s owner gave Guo Pei a small percentage of sales. Eventually sales reached 100 million renminbi (about $15 million), but long before that, she says with a look of satisfaction, the owner pressed her to renegotiate their deal. In 1997, with money that she had saved, Guo Pei opened Rose Studio. Now married to Jack, whose family owns a textile company in Taiwan, she decided to pursue her dream of custom dresses. Even as her runway pieces serve a single-minded purpose — “I wanted a space of my own,” as she put it — Guo Pei’s evening dresses are hardly pedestrian affairs. Made in European fabrics, they are charming and pretty, like the pink taffeta column embroidered with a soup bowl of red Chinese characters (signifying luck) that the actress Li Bingbing wore at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Guo Pei dresses a lot of stars, including the singers Tang Can and Sun Yue. In the beginning, though, she nearly went broke dressing Beijing’s rising elite. She would make a sketch of a dress for a client, but at the first fitting the woman would complain it wasn’t what she wanted and demand her 30 percent deposit back. So she and Jack came up with a membership system, in which clients buy in at three levels — roughly, $15,000, $30,000 and $75,000. A dress like one that Li Bingbing wore in Venice would cost about $7,500, a traditional qipao with minimal embroidery $2,000. One woman spent $80,000 on a wedding dress. As for her runway pieces, Guo Pei, who says she has 400 clients, just shook her head: “I don’t even want to say what they would cost.”
Anyone who spends time in China’s cities, which in 20 years are expected to have a billion inhabitants, quickly realizes that shopping is like a new territory to be explored. As Linda Lin, who supervises Max Mara’s China operations, with 250 stores, said of the typical young professional: “You don’t have a place to go on the weekends. So you go to the shopping center.” Lin has never heard of Guo Pei, but that’s not surprising.
Local designers, no matter how good their guanxi, don’t have much of a chance in China’s frenetic retail scene, where Western brands have their pick of locations and managers. “The good people were all taken by Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci Group,” said Angelica Cheung, the editor of Vogue China. “So local designers end up doing everything themselves and they can’t move on.” It may just be that the farther you get from the “new” China, with its paved-over traditions and green spaces, the easier it is to appreciate Guo Pei’s achievement — her feeling for nature, beauty and China’s dead yet salient past. Wallace Chan, a Hong Kong jeweler whose masterly designs have a similar spirit, thinks China actually needs more designers like his friend Guo Pei. He said, “Only when there are more will Chinese people understand fashion.”
And Nicola Formichetti, seeing little in Japan that strikes him as new, thinks it’s worth paying attention to a woman whose artistry and ambition are fed by her sky’s-the-limit workroom. “I always have a desire to create something that is fashion and is not fashion,” Guo Pei admitted and then laughed. “So a dress ends up weighing 50 kilos! Every piece is not fashion anymore. It’s sculpture; it’s painting. I want to put all that into a dress.” Such a fortress may not meet Charles James’s ideal — “what is rare, correctly proportioned and, though utterly discreet, libidinous.” But give her time. She has been making these clothes only a few years, amid tremendous change. And she has not even begun to refine her ideas.