Couture Fantasy invites visitors on a journey into Guo Pei’s creative universe with designs displayed throughout the permanent collection and special exhibition galleries at the Legion of Honor, transforming the museum into a palace of couture.
Through exquisite craftsmanship, lavish embroidery, and unconventional dressmaking techniques, designer Guo Pei creates a couture fantasy that fuses the influences of China’s imperial past with the grandeur of European court life, architecture, and the botanical world. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are pleased to celebrate Guo Pei’s extraordinary designs with Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy, the first comprehensive exhibition of her groundbreaking work. The exhibition includes more than 80 ensembles from the past two decades, highlighting the designer’s most important fashion collections, shown on Beijing and Paris runways, including many designs that have never before been shown to the public. .
In the early twenty-first century, China emerged as a leader in the fashion world. The exhibition explores the career of Guo Pei—hailed as China’s first couturier—within this context through several galleries.
The opening gallery, Rosekrans Court, provides a dramatic backdrop for an exploration of the interplay between theater and costume design in Chinese fashion. Shown on the runway as a play, An Amazing Journey in a Childhood Dream (2008) was created when Guo was pregnant with her second child. For this collection, she envisioned her daughter’s dolls coming to life. These playful designs reveal an overlay of influences that define Guo’s artistic vision. The tightly pleated dresses, made from origami-like folds, reference Guo’s own childhood and the toys she made and played with during the Cultural Revolution. The pastel color palette derives from eighteenth-century French drawings; and the separates embroidered with raised metallic thread were inspired by matador costumes worn by Spanish bullfighters.
Floral motifs, associated with traditional notions of femininity, have a long history in Chinese decorative arts and textiles and appear frequently in Guo Pei’s designs. The next gallery focuses on the botanical world through two collections: Garden of Soul (2015) and Elysium (2018). Guo Pei cites the Chinese saying “There is a kingdom in a flower; wisdom in a leaf” as the inspiration for Garden of Soul. She further explains, “I always find the power of nature fascinating, especially when the flowers are blossoming,” and she draws comparisons between the human soul and gardens and their mutual need to be nurtured.
The other galleries present Guo Pei’s exploration of architectural elements, her most recent collection, Himalaya and the fantastical collection Alternate Universe (2019–2020) serves as the exhibition finale. Inspired by the ideas of an afterlife and reincarnation, Guo Pei expresses that, “Since death is inevitable, I prefer to imagine it as a dream, an alternate universe parallel to this world, where everything returns to its original state of true pureness and beauty. It is the start of a mysterious journey.” Her signature three-dimensional embroidery techniques conjure up animal and insect motifs, from the monkeys of Aesop’s Fables to the snake that lured Eve to steal the forbidden fruit.
Artist and designer Guo Pei says: “As a creator and artist, there is no greater honor or privilege than to share my creativity with a wider audience. I am therefore honored and humbled that the prestigious Legion of Honor Museum is presenting a retrospective of my work. In doing so, I hope that it brings greater awareness and understanding of my life’s passion, and conveys Chinese culture and traditions, and shows the new face of contemporary China.”