This article was originally published here on _Shift London
There is something magical about the universe. It’s connotations are those of scintillating stars, myriad constellations, a great unknown. For others it could be the coordinates of heaven or the gloomy remnants of an afterlife. Perhaps even faraways lands bearing great goddesses and mythical beasts. Without bounds to her imagination, Guo Pei explored this parallel with great intricacy in a recent showcase at Paris Couture Week 2019. Now she unveils her whimsical work in London for the first time.
Cork-screwing around South Asian statues in the Victoria and Albert Museum, fashion aficionados were awaiting the UK debut of Guo Pei with relish. Famed for the canary yellow Met Gala dress that Rihanna modelled back in 2015 – that birthed many an internet meme – the designer is here to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Fashion in Motion live shows. Nothing short of an otherworldly treat, Alternate Universe Couture is Pei’s opulent AW19 collection that merges fantastical beauty with impeccable handiwork.
“The V&A is historic – preserving then celebrating art and design in many forms. From many cultures, and quite often spanning many centuries. I feel fortunate to be included onto V&A’s platform and I am very much looking forward to the collaboration,” says Guo Pei before the show.
Illuminated by a royal blue lustre, the Raphael Gallery atmosphere is abuzz under the watchful eye of madonnas and disciples, in the seven Raphael Cartoons lining the walls. An ornate backdrop – a gilded Spanish altarpiece – glistens at the end of the gallery and parallels the exquisite craftsmanship of Guo Pei. Temporarily-conjoined twins, with intertwined braids, arms around one another, open the fashion show at a timidly slow pace. Mumbles and subtle gasps of shock are overheard as the dress de deux shuffles its way down the gallery, evoking the collective thought of “but what if they fall?”
A myriad of strings uplift the renaissance corridor into classical symphony, as an underlying bass creates a hum beneath. Audibly, there is an aura of uncertainty. One that compliments the universe theme in its exploration of the unknown. This collection mixes the mad fantasy of Alice in Wonderland with the poise of a high priestess.
Fashion stylist attending the show, Rebecca Lilley, describes the collection as: “Utterly breathtaking. It’s this sort of grand, regal atmosphere – you could imagine the models to be princesses. Guo Pei honours the traditions of dynasty China with her amazing embroidery but then you have this melting pot of other influence. Say Greek mythology meshed with 1950s cocktail shapes.”
Pei takes these cultural pickings from a wide sourcebook, with Kimono silhouettes following Georgian ballgowns in 18th-century crinoline. Ragdoll plaits worn in the hair sprout wildly from each model’s head to create a delightful vision of dishellvement. This unkempt bird-nest look continues through feather-adorned pannier skirts and bird props perched upon hands. Comprising of shimmery eyes and powdered skin, the makeup guise is subtle compared to the lavish designs below.
Lullaby tunes chime on as ethereal voices lull the fashion pack into a complex universe of elven curl-toed shoes and festooned applique. Far from the realities of inclement London outside, dresses in the shape of bells, others with outreaching branches and lengthy trains dazzle under the changing lights. A dreamland of floating chiffon.
The ensembles, fit for a deity, mirror the florid religious artifacts surrounding the room – ecclesiastical robes, black and gold accents. While the palette offers a beige wash for much of the collection, designs are so flawlessly detailed that colour would be perhaps gluttonous. From bejewelled beetles to capes embroidered with all-seeing eyes – they are the gowns of Daenerys’ dreams. Placement of every bead and metallic thread is meticulous; designs that are the result of several hundred laborious hours.
Oriole Cullen, V&A fashion curator, said: “Guo Pei’s work demonstrates the height of what can be achieved in the skilled ateliers of an haute couture house.”
Above all, it was the statement pieces that garnered the most magic. A theatrical ensemble waltzes down the runway to fantasia sounds of a wind-up jewellery box. It is complete with tie-back curtain details and dolls stitched into the skirt like puppets. Then, an oversized shoulder-piece atop another dress; so closely resembling a tether of handwritten scrolls or Queen Elizabeth I’s stacked neck ruff – it is layered with black feathers taking shape of a crow. A bird that sits between the boundaries of life and death in folklore culture. Shakespearean chic comes to mind; a fitting tribute to English heritage and literature.
“I find it incredible that people still appreciate this painstaking craftsmanship, in a day and age where fast fashion prevails,” continues Lilley. “This glorious exposure is exactly what fashion needs. An antidote to cheap fabrics and swift speeds in manufacturing.”
It’s finale is a mesmerising blur of flowing, creamy fabrics that glide across the tiled flooring. The models are beautiful apparitions, walking in ceremonial gait to exit the runway. Pei appears, overshadowed by a towering botanical creation to her left and the twin structure on her right. A beautiful conclusion between the treasures of earth and fantasies of a higher dimension.
Header image: courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum