For those outside China, chances are you have never heard of Guo Pei, yet she is the country’s most acclaimed haute couture fashion designer. Her creations featured prominently in the Beijing Olympic Ceremonies and both Chinese and international celebrities including Lady Gaga seek out her designs. Fifteen years ago, Guo Pei was already in the limelight of China’s fashion scene and she starred in the 1997 fashion documentary titled Mao’s New Suit which I covered a few weeks ago. In the documentary Guo Pei dreamt of a day when China may rise to become a leading fashion market in the world and she is a successful designer. Those days have now clearly arrived and with this journey in mind I recently sat down with Guo Pei and spoke to her about her life of fashion in China.
(Translated from Mandarin)
What was fashion like when you were growing up and how did this influence you to become a fashion designer?
I first discovered fashion design around 1982 when China had only opened a fraction to the Outside World, and I thought to myself “how can there be such a thing as fashion design?” At that time, most people’s thinking was still very closed. There was no such thing as ‘fashion design’ in China. For my mother and grandmother’s generation, they only ever wore a few outfits with unified styles and everything was either grey or navy blue. There was no need for any clothing ‘design’ at all.
From a very young age I was interested in fashion and out of all my schoolmates I was most fond of beautiful things. I remember once when I was very young I suddenly wanted to wear yellow clothes, but my grandmother forbade it. “No one wears yellow” she said, it was simply inconceivable for any normal person, even children to wear yellow. Another time I found a black shiny outfit and I convinced my mother to buy it for me even though it cost more than one month’s income for her. I promised her that I was allowed to wear it to school, but of course when I arrived at school I was sent home to change.
Has there been a defining moment in fashion for you over the last 30 years?
In terms of brands, in the 80s everything foreign made was better. Because China hadn’t developed at all, even second hand foreign made clothes were considered better than new Chinese made ones. As more Chinese grew wealthy they continued the trend of buying foreign brands, and so for a long time Chinese brands struggled to gain acceptance by Chinese. This changed almost overnight with the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The day of the Opening Ceremony Chinese stood up and realized that China was on the world stage. Everyone’s thinking changed! We started to believe more in our own brands, culture and designs. Now Chinese brands have a better chance and an opportunity to do well in the changing market.
How have customer’s attitudes to fashion changed and how did this affect you?
As for shopping, fifteen years ago 5000 RMB was extremely expensive for clothes in China. You might spend 5000 RMB on Dior, but never on a Chinese brand. Back then, when I started Rose Studio to make bespoke clothing customers would get angry at the price of my clothes. They were very reluctant to pay and didn’t understand that the price reflected quality of materials, production and design. I didn’t want to just sell cheap clothes, so I didn’t budge on price, I didn’t care if no one bought my clothes. Over time my customers grew to appreciate what they were paying for and they all thanked me. Now people are willing to pay 500,000 RMB for something special from a Chinese designer.
China has a long history of fashion infused with arts and crafts. In the days of the Emperors someone could literally spend a lifetime making one Dragon Robe for the emperor. These clothes were made to the highest standard you could ever imagine, and they were done perfectly, for if they weren’t your head might be cut off. I use the same philosophy of diligence in the clothes we make for our customers. Not of chopping your head off of course, but something that expensive must be absolutely perfect and made to the highest standards of quality.
Stay tuned for Part Two of the Interview next week.