Guo Pei at the media preview at Asian Civilisations Museum on 12th June. Photography: Russell Wong
At the forefront of Chinese couture is one of China's most influential fashion designers, Guo Pei. Bringing traditional elements together with contemporary design, masterful craftsmanship and plenty of decadence, the celebrated couturier is showcasing 29 of her most iconic, elaborately embroidered pieces (including that magnificent robe worn by Rihanna at the 2015 Met Gala as well as Chinese bridal dresses donned by celebrity brides) alongside 20 Chinese art masterpieces in the Asian Civilisations Museum’s collection.
Image: Her World Brides
Her World Brides speaks to the 52-year-old couturier on the significance of weddings, how she recreates traditional wedding outfits to suit the ever-changing tastes of the modern bride, and how long it takes to bring her incredible designs to fruition.
What do weddings mean to you personally? And how important is the wedding dress?
Guo Pei: A wedding ceremony is incredibly meaningful. It marks a new beginning to a woman’s life; it represents a change in her identity – from a girl who is well protected by her family, to a strong and independent woman. She carries the weight of an entire family on her shoulders, and the responsibility of continuing a bloodline. She represents the hope and strength of the many generations of women before her.
Since the 80s, the white wedding gown, symbolizing purity, has been popular in China. Certainly, the Western tradition has its own symbolism and identity with brides, and the same can be said for our Chinese cultural and traditional beliefs.
A decade ago, I received a request from a client in Hong Kong to alter her mother-in-law’s Chinese bridal dress for her daughter-in-law to wear at her upcoming wedding. This client had also worn the same dress for her own wedding. It was a very emotional occasion, because this gesture of intimacy is more than a passing on of a piece of clothing – it is the family’s heritage and best wishes embedded in an heirloom piece, passed on to future generations.
Photography: Phyllicia Wang
What are the most important elements and details in your Chinese wedding creations and what significance do they have for the for the newlyweds and the wedding occasion?
Traditions evolve over the years. The bridal gowns I have created are reimagined for a more contemporary bride, though they still retain and preserve our traditions.
In my choice of Chinese decorative motifs, I choose to retain those with auspicious meanings. Animals like goldfish and paired butterflies symbolize fertility, while flowers like lotuses and peonies symbolize purity, harmony and good fortune. In Chinese traditions, the bride and groom are generally referred to as empress and emperor of the day; hence phoenixes are frequently featured in our bridal gowns like the one in the 凤求凰 Courting phoenix bridal ensemble, where you will find a pair of large, multicolored courting phoenixes on the inner robe.
Photography: Phyllicia Wang for Her World Brides
Your creations reflect a great reverence and respect to the traditional Chinese wedding designs – how do you update and refresh these designs for the modern bride?
Respecting tradition is crucial. However, my designs are never limited to stereotypes or confined mentalities. For customised wedding dresses, the customer's requirements always come before my personal preferences. If a bride wants a traditional wedding, I will tailor it in a more traditional way; and for a modern bride-to-be, I will include more contemporary elements in my design.
The ‘Pearl Bridal Gown’, made of 250,000 seed beads and over 450,000 pearls – 31 being South Sea pearls of the highest grade. Photography: Phyllicia Wang for Her World Brides
Photography: Phyllicia Wang for Her World Brides
"The wedding dresses in the final stop of the exhibition are my favorite pieces - not just a fashion item but it can going into the lives of every person, every woman and family heritage as part of their culture and heirloom." - Guo Pei
Fundamentally, all the dresses I create are based on the highest standard of craftsmanship, because the bridal dress is an heirloom piece. Therefore, the needlework and embroidery techniques, which represent the highest standards and the most advanced craftsmanship, are used to match the significance of a wedding dress.
As an example, out of the 10 bridal dresses in the exhibition with Asian Civilisations Museum, the one that took the shortest time to complete took my team of artisans a total of 4,500 hours. This is our respect for our history and shows our sincere blessing to the newly-weds.
The 'Nine Dragons Gown' from Guo Pei's bridal collection, which took 4,500 hours to create. In Chinese numerology, the number 9 is closely associated with the emperor. Photography: Phyllicia Wang for Her World Brides
"In China that time there was very little records of Chinese wedding outfits and the I was inspired by the Singapore exhibition of peranakan and Chinese wedding outfits that led me to visit Singapore
These wedding dresses were inspired by the peranakan beadwork and it is in a way my effort to continue this heritage and embroidery."
As a couturier, what is your ultimate vision of the wedding dress?
A bridal dress reflects the expectation the newlywed has for their marriage and their future. It carries with it many years of tradition and it becomes a timeless heirloom piece to be passed down through generations – from mother to daughter.
"The wedding dresses in the final stop of the exhibition are my favorite pieces - not just a fashion item but it can going into the lives of every person, every woman and family heritage as part of their culture and heirloom."
How long does it take to create one of your wedding creations and how many people does it take to complete it?
The 潮汕褂皇Chaoshan-style embroidered wedding dress, which Cecilia Liu wore on her wedding day, retained the style of a traditional imperial Chinese kua (See also: The Chinese wedding Kua: 3 things to know), shortened the length of the skirt, created a swaying Ming-dynasty-styled skirt, and added a pair of “grandchildren’s bags” which represent a blessing for the continuation of the couple’s family line. The dress is embroidered with a three-dimensional dragon and phoenix in gold thread. The dress may look silver, but it is actually a large piece of embroidery stitched with gold and silver thread on a red brocade, with an embroidery density falling between 95% to 100%. It took 7,500 hours to make.
The 橘彩锦凤褂裙 Glorious orange phoenix top and skirt, which Michelle Chen wore, were embroidered with 12K gold thread using a technique that was created by my team and myself. The technique resulted in embroidery with fuller yet delicate pattern. The gold thread used is fragile, and took us a lot more time (5,700 hours) than we would have using our regular thread.
Image: Her World Brides
Why you should be visiting Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture
The exhibition’s curator, Ms Jackie Yoong, shares more with us.
What can we expect from this exhibition of Guo Pei’s stunning creations at the ACM?
Couples can look forward to an entire section, called “Treasured Heirlooms: Chinese Bridal Dress” in the exhibition, where they will see and appreciate how traditional Chinese wedding colours, designs and techniques are reimagined and rejuvenated by a leading couturier of China today, while retaining their cultural symbolism. Several of Guo Pei’s stunning works are red, considered an auspicious colour for bridal fashion since the Qing dynasty. The dragon and phoenix – symbols of the groom and bride – continue to be key designs.
As compared to a white wedding dress, she stitches modern elegance into classic Chinese bridal silhouettes. This includes a two-piece jacket (ao with side fastenings, and kua with frontal fastenings) and skirt, cheongsam, and sleeveless vests (xiapei) over long robes. Wearing the xiapei – associated with status and rank - used to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a Chinese bride, when she was considered “empress for a day”.
Angelababy's wedding outfit (centre), together with its Peranakan inspiration (left). Photography: Phyllicia Wang for Her World Brides
10 years ago, the Asian Civilisations Museum had a traveling exhibition, Baba Bling: The Peranakan Chinese of Singapore and the Straits, at the Musée du uuai Branly, Paris. This was the moment where Guo Pei was so captivated by a bridal dress for a Penang Nyonya bride, that she reinterpreted it for a contemporary bride. Shanghai-born actress, singer, and model Angelababy, requested to wear this dress for her big day in 2015, an occasion seen by Chinese media as the “wedding of the year”. It is fascinating that the original dress worn by the Nyonya bride was made in China in the 1930s. Nearly a century later, history comes full circle: a timeless design for the Chinese diaspora remains inspiring and relevant, regardless of time and cultural backgrounds.
She also admired the delicacy and intricacy of the museum’s Peranakan beadwork on display in Paris, and in response, created breathtaking bridal works that are completely decorated with tiny, sparkling embellishments. A must-see is the splendid ‘Pearl Bridal Gown’, made of 250,000 seed beads and over 450,000 pearls – 31 being South Sea pearls of the highest grade.
What is the main theme of the exhibition?
This collaborative exhibition, Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture, opens ACM’s Season of Chinese Art. This is also the first time the museum is focusing on contemporary, couture works in a special exhibition. We believe that beyond paintings, sculptures and ceramics which are represented more frequently in museums; fashion and textiles are also important mediums of art to studying Asian cultures. (See also: 8 meaningful Asian wedding traditions to note)
By juxtaposing 29 of Guo Pei’s iconic embroidered masterworks with 20 Chinese art masterpieces from ACM’s collection, we would like to show that Chinese art, craftsmanship and design are highly relevant in today’s contemporary world. This is seen especially in two of Guo Pei’s exquisite Chinese bridal gowns – which were directly inspired by two bridal ensembles for Peranakan brides from ACM’s collection – in a way this exhibition was born with a shared belief between ACM and Guo Pei in keeping Chinese art and heritage alive and relevant, which is also the key message we wish to convey to our audience.
The traditional Chinese wedding outfit has evolved through the years - how do you view Guo Pei's creation - a modern avant-garde update or a renewal of the traditional dress in a different form?
Guo Pei’s refreshing, high-quality interpretations of traditional Chinese bridal dress, have clearly resonated with Chinese around the world. Celebrity brides like Cecilia Liu Shi Shi and Tang Yan have also appreciated their elegant style, and the thousands of hours behind the Guo Pei creations they wore on their wedding day. Her dramatic creations are works of art to be cherished like treasured heirlooms: significant records for future generations of the ideas and technologies of the Chinese today.
Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture opens from 15 June - 15 September 2019 at the Asian Civilisations Museum. Visit https://www.acm.org.sg for ticket prices and more information.