When I first met Chinese fashion designer, Guo Pei, in May of 2015, she was just coming off the biggest high in her career.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Rihanna walked up the Met Gala steps wearing one of Guo’s dramatic designs.
It was a moment.
A thousand memes were launched...
The next year, Time listed her as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world.
Fast forward to this past Saturday: a new exhibition showcasing Guo Pei’s work opened at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco.
It’s on view through September 5th.
I recently sat down with Guo over Zoom – with the help of a translator – to discuss her thoughts on the exhibition and that famous dress.
What an honor. This is the [largest ever] exhibition of your work. How does it feel?
GUO PEI (via translator): First of all, I'm so happy to be able to have this exhibition at this very location.
I love the architecture there, and I love the collection in the museum.
I worked together with the museum curator and the staff for almost three years before we were able to launch this exhibition.
ALINA CHO: Wow.
GUO PEI: It covers almost every era of my work.
It's very symbolic of my work.
I love the curation.
It's amazing. I sense the recognition. I sense that people understand me more as they see me more. And so, I am very excited about that.
ALINA CHO: For people who aren't familiar with your work, what do you hope they take away from this exhibit?
GUO PEI: Sometimes, I see visitors, after they visit my designs, they cry.
ALINA CHO: Wow.
GUO PEI: There was one time, the CEO of the Bowers Museum in [in Santa Ana, CA], told me that [one person] came 26 times to see my collection. I couldn't understand why that person [would] come 26 times. It's obviously that the previous time wasn't enough to look at a specific design. Yes, my dresses and designs have a lot of details.
And the details [are] what mark me different from others.
ALINA CHO: It’s true.
GUO PEI: When the audience comes to my exhibition at the museum, they may not completely understand the intent of an artist, in this case a designer such as myself. They may feel something that's different from my original intent, but it doesn't matter. My purpose is to be able to touch someone, [and if I can do that], then I have already reached my goal.
ALINA CHO: I think it's safe to say [photos of] that gown you made for Rihanna at the Met Gala in 2015 broke the internet.
It was so breathtaking. Take me back to that moment. How did it happen?
GUO PEI: The omelet dress that Rihanna wore…
ALINA CHO: The omelet dress.
GUO PEI: It stunned everyone, including myself. I want to talk to you about how she found me. This particular dress was made long ago, and I showed it in Beijing in 2010. Then all the photos were published on the internet. So, it must have been the internet, that’s how she found it. At the time, I was not very focused on global news or anything other than China. And so, I did not know who she was.
ALINA CHO: What?
GUO PEI: I heard that she was a singer.
ALINA CHO: Oh my God.
GUO PEI: I thought, what was she going to do with my dress? Sing with it? I was quite curious as to what type of environment she was going to wear that dress in. And I wasn't too sure about the red carpet, either — the Met Gala.
ALINA CHO: Wow.
GUO PEI: But since I was going to New York at that time, I thought it would be best for me to bring it. Perhaps when Rihanna sees it in person, how heavy the dress is and how big the dress is, she may want to reject it. [But] she liked it, and she wore it on the red carpet. I was there at the time. When she showed up, I heard all the murmuring and then the crying in the audience, the excitement. I thought, “Wow, that was successful.”
ALINA CHO: That’s for sure.
GUO PEI: I have such gratitude towards Rihanna.
When I showed it in 2010 in Beijing, I recall that the model wore it. The dress was so heavy and so big, I didn't think the model appeared very natural as she was walking. It didn't look perfect. But when Rihanna wore it, her own essence, combined with the dress, it was just perfection.
ALINA CHO: What happened [after] that moment? Because designers tell me all the time, "You cannot put a price tag on that kind of publicity."
GUO PEI: I was completely stunned. I was surprised, so surprised, that this event just fell from the sky to me. And even afterwards, the hotel guard saw me and said, "Oh my gosh, you're the designer of Rihanna." And when I was leaving, I was at the airport, the customs agent checking my passport said, "Oh, Guo Pei, Rihanna dress."
ALINA CHO: Wow.
GUO PEI: And that was the first time I realized that Americans in the United States, they understand beauty so much more. They have this common language towards beauty that other countries don't have, especially not in China. That's not something I experienced. Even the customs agents, the hotel guards, they all have that sensitivity and the same sentiment towards beauty. That really moved me.
ALINA CHO: What happened to your business?
GUO PEI: Business wise, because of Rihanna, a lot of customers started to approach me [who] are not Chinese customers. I have now a lot of United States customers. And I have now a lot of global consumers. So, career wise, I reached a new stage that I never was able to reach [before the Rihanna moment].
ALINA CHO: [There were a lot of memes, too].
GUO PEI: Some people in the United States and, especially in China, did not like it because it is perhaps too big. Some people criticized it as an omelet dress.
Or pizza dress.
It caused some controversy. [But] some people were inspired. And I'm glad that this dress can inspire people. I didn't care about the controversy and the criticism. I was glad that I [could] bring some entertainment and inspiration to people overall.