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The first word that comes to mind when entering the Legion of Honor’s Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy exhibition is “extravagance.”
The Chinese designer’s exquisite silk “Da Jin,” for example, inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte’s gold embroidered uniform and Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride,” is the result of 50,000 hours of work. Each of the 82 dresses in the show represents the fruit of thousands of hours of labor.
Guo was born in Beijing in 1967, and while she often draws artistic inspiration from Europe, her work functions as a clear response to China’s Cultural Revolution. Much of her work highlights the idea of rebirth—specifically, the rebirth of a new aristocracy in China. The designs displayed in this exhibition are laborious, luxurious and lavish.
Rebirth is a running theme through Guo’s own career. She graduated from the Beijing Second Light Industry School with a degree in fashion design in 1986—at a time when China was moving on from the Cultural Revolution, and when fine art and other luxuries finally began to see a renaissance.
With few famous fashion designers to look to within China, Guo turned to the West for inspiration, devouring the films, architecture and artifacts she encountered during her travels to Europe. In the absence of the formal training many European fashion designers undergo, Guo was free to improvise, and forged her own path as China’s first couturier.
The exhibition, much like Guo’s haute couture, is larger-than-life, consisting of several gallery rooms sorted thematically as opposed to chronologically. Her myriad influences include architecture, Catholicism and Buddhism, and florals. Guo also draws inspiration from Chinese legends, including Chang’e and The Journey to the West.
The true stars of the show, however, are upstairs, where there’s ample room for them to be admired alongside the Legion of Honor’s other collections. There are dresses patterned and presented to evoke chinoiserie, a 17th- and 18th-century Western interpretation of Chinese styles. These dresses take after porcelain; fragile, yet beautiful.
Mannequins dressed in Guo’s opulent gowns seem almost out of place as they stand, forlorn, in the centers of rooms adorned with old Western art. (I couldn’t help but feel a sense of camaraderie; perhaps because I know all too well the feeling of being the only Asian person in a room of white people.)
While it is this very juxtaposition of the East and the West that makes this exhibition effective, it also lays bare the Legion of Honor’s historical diversity problem—and its recent attempts at righting past wrongs. This first-ever headlining exhibit at the museum by a living, female fashion designer of color is a commendable move toward centering the work of someone who is not white.
In 2022, there is no need to distinguish between Eastern and Western art. For centuries, artists have drawn inspiration from other cultures. Art is most powerful when it is understood as an active conversation between cultures, rather than some static artifact.
In San Francisco, Eastern art wasn’t always delegated to its own museum. What is today the Asian Art Museum was conceived as a wing within the de Young Museum. (Together, the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor make up the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, or FAMSF.)
All of that changed when former International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage, who held racist views, donated his collection of Asian art in the 1960s on the condition that the wing split from the de Young Museum and become a separate institution. The Legion of Honor then gave most of its collections of Asian art to the newly founded Asian Art Museum, and largely stopped exhibiting Asian art, says Jill D’Alessandro, the curator of costume and textile arts at the FAMSF and curator of the Guo exhibition.
But “the textile department never actually adhered to that,” says D’Alessandro. “One of the first curators said, ‘Well, you can’t tell the history of textiles and exclude Asia.’” In recent years, the Legion of Honor has continued collecting Asian art—just differentiated from the work exhibited in the Asian Art Museum, D’Alessandro added, with the style of Guo’s work as a standout example.
Make no mistake, Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy is absolutely a step in the right direction. But what is equally clear is that there is still much work to be done for our museums to give due credit to the contributions of non-white cultures.
“It is a museum goal to broaden the artistic canon … and to look at designers or artists outside of the West or [outside of] what we had traditionally shown,” says D’Alessandro, noting that the artistic canon does not solely exist in the West. In recent years, she adds, the Legion of Honor has been asking itself questions about the role it plays in the Bay Area, which has a prominent Asian community.
Putting together an exhibition of this scale during a pandemic had its challenges, with time zone differences and language barriers. Surprisingly, dressing the mannequins turned out to be the most challenging hurdle, says D’Alessandro.
Since Guo’s team couldn’t physically visit San Francisco to help assemble the exhibit, the team filmed themselves dressing each mannequin from head to toe before sending the clothes overseas. (The resulting videos took four days to upload, according to D’Alessandro.) Using the videos as a guide, the FAMSF team mirrored each step in a time-consuming process.
Notably absent from the exhibition is the iconic yellow gown that pop star Rihanna wore to the Met Gala in 2015. Guo, by then already an established figure in the international fashion world, found her stature drastically elevated by the Rihanna Met Gala dress, and she became a household name stateside overnight. The decision to forgo the dress was one that came out of lengthy discussions over whether it could create the false impression that Guo is a “one-hit wonder,” says D’Alessandro.
It was a smart choice—in part because it gives Guo’s impressive body of work a chance to shine on its own, without being overshadowed by the dress that went viral because of its passing resemblance to an omelet.
Indeed, Guo’s work shines here, both literally and figuratively, considering the sheer amount of gold and silver thread she uses. Her entrancing, iridescent gowns, with bold silhouettes and precise needlework, are a treat for the eyes. The intentional placement of these creations by the Legion of Honor’s curatorial staff deserves notice, too. It adds an interesting dimension to Guo’s more saccharine designs.
“I have been really moved by Western architecture, culture, and history. I am curious. It’s this strong curiosity that has mesmerized me,” reads a quote attributed to Guo on one of the exhibition’s walls. “I want to know the stories of the West, like Westerners want to learn about the East.”
‘Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy’ is on view at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco from April 16–Sept. 5. Details here.