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China’s First Class Dress Designer

Guo Pei is a familiar name in China’s dress-making circles. For years, her works have been one of the shining highlights of the annual showcase of talent, the CCTV Spring Festival Gala. And she was also the designer behind the beautiful ceremonial dresses used in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Let’s hear more about her story.

The closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics saw a duet between Chinese singer Song Zuying and world famous tenor Placido Domingo as they performed “The Flame of Love”.

Standing on a high elevator platform in the center of the stadium it wasn’t only their voices that impressed the audience. Song Zuying’s long robe also dazzled, adding even more glamour to the event.

The diamond-studded garment was a product of Guo Pei, one of China’s most prominent dress designers.

“I didn’t spend much time designing the dress but it did take a lot of time to make. I used more than 200,000 Swarovski crystals that we had to attach to the dress manually. Since we only had about 2 weeks, I hired a dozen people who worked shifts nonstop day and night to finish the dress on time.”

Few designers are bold enough to use 200,000 crystals on one dress. Guo Pei explains what lay behind this decision.

“I think I purchased almost all the Swarovski diamonds in Hong Kong! Why choose diamonds to decorate the dress? Since the Olympics was such a unique opportunity for our country, for the singer Song Zuying and of course for me to show my work to the world, I felt there was nothing else that could reflect the glamour of the occasion. I wanted my dress to glimmer like a precious stone, so I decided to use diamonds.”

Song Zuying is not the only big star in China that has donned Guo Pei’s masterpiece. The actress Zhang Ziyi has also had the privilege. Guo Pei is now a household name in China after producing dresses for the hosts of the annual CCTV Spring Festival Gala.

Guo Pei is China’s answer to haute couture. The last time she showed her collection, she sent Carmen Dell’Orefice out in an embroidered, fur-trimmed cape so heavy it took four men to help the legendary model make it down the runway. So expectations were high earlier this week when Guo, whose sculptural, over-the-top creations have drawn admirers including Lady Gaga, mounted her first fashion presentation in more than two years, in Beijing.

In the second of two showings in a soaring industrial space, visitors on Monday entered via a blacked-out exhibition displaying Guo’s 30 startlingly handcrafted takes on traditional Chinese wedding dresses: sunburst collars, acres of silk, and more hand embroidery than you could shake a needle at. According to the punctilious wall texts, one dress took 7,412 hours to make; another incorporated 465,756 pearls. And the show hadn’t even started yet.

Once it did, it was an immaculately constructed dark fairy tale of dragon manes, impossibly high wedges, vertiginous headpieces, and ballet dancers, all under the rubric “Legend of the Dragon,” and all slowly paced, shown one at a time. With arguably her country’s most high-wattage client list, Guo in many ways represents China’s new Gilded Age. But her true message was rather more understated: “My goal was to let more people see beautiful things, especially beautiful handicrafts,” she said. “We want to inspire a greater appreciation for traditional crafts, so that they can continue.”

“When the curtain opens for the start of the show and we hosts step out, before we speak, the first scene billions of viewers see is our dresses, our make-up and our smiles. You can tell how important the dresses are.”

Every year, the Gala show attracts billions of Chinese viewers both at home and abroad with the whole world focused on the stage. Guo Pei also sees the Chinese New Year gala as a chance to represent her works to the public.

Guo Pei started her designer career when she was 19. In 1986, she graduated from college and became one of the first professional designers in China. Back then, most Chinese people didn’t know what design meant. People didn’t care much whether clothes were designed well or not. Even TV hosts and performers wore everyday clothes. But along with the development of society and thanks to the government’s opening up policy, people have become more aware of well made clothes. An increasing number of people are getting involved in design with many other experienced Chinese designers like Guo Pei winning recognition both home and abroad.

Guo Pei’s designs always contain Chinese elements, from embroidery to traditional patterns, but they also include modern influences. She combines oriental flavor with western cutting styles perfectly. It’s for this reason she was chosen to design the ceremonial dresses for the Beijing Olympics.

Now she runs a clothing design company called “Mei Gui Fang” or “Rose Workshop”. For ten years, she has been promoting the idea of high-quality tailor-made garments in china, and her clientele includes many of the biggest names in the country. Guo Pei says she will continue this work, and the pursuit of her lifelong dream, namely to design garments that will be remembered for generations.