Guo Pei is often described as China's only couturier. The notes accompanying 'Chinese Bride', a two-day exhibition in Beijing's 798, highlight the time taken to complete each outfit. The least time-consuming of all took 966 hours, (well over a month if you worked round the clock). The most painstaking being a embellished pearl gown, which took 8026 hours to complete. Go on. Work out how long that is.
After getting a close-up look at this collection of wedding outfits, the attention to detail and sheer skill required to produce them, could leave you in no doubt of Guo Pei's credentials as a couturier. Though they may not be to the taste of the average bride-to-be (more and more young Chinese women are choosing white gowns and western style ceremonies over traditional Chinese ones), couture is not for the average woman, so it is not important that they do not speak to everyone. In observing the prevalent dragon and phoenix motifs, it would be easy to lump them all under the 'traditional costume' heading and leave it at that. It's true that there is an inescapable Chinese style to the embroidery, the mandarin collars and cheongsam silhouettes, which do feel a little restricting and seem to be something young Chinese women are becoming less and less interested in.
It would have been thrilling to see these intensely worked embroideries on a broader range of shapes. The fabrics had an embossed quality; so thick were the layers of thread that the silks could have stood on end, making them perfect for more experimental cutting. As it was, the styles remained true to tradition for the most part.
One particular style was a relatively simple peach creation with unembellished bell sleeves, and which curved in slightly at the waist, with a panel forming the front of the skirt coming away from the dress, and wrapping around the lower half. This created two unusual points at either side and an interesting layered effect at the back. From the front it appeared to be a simple, pretty, column-shaped dress, but this layer added a crisp, origami style precision, and it stood out from the rest for its unexpected construction.
The show itself, Legend of the Dragon, was a collection of haute couture in its most literal sense. Trains were over ten feet long, glittering dragons stood up on the shoulders like armour. Feathers were so tightly packed that they appeared like piles of fallen leaves, and almost everything had been embroidered and embellished to such a degree that each dress had a uniquely textured quality.
A highlight came in the form of a headpiece which accompanied a big frothy number scattered with butterflies. The headpiece, two long curving antennae which crossed over in opposite directions, was a superb addition which undermined the dress completely. It was so literal - these were clearly an insect's antennae, that it was both theatrical and amusing at the same time.
It's possible that a tiny injection of humour, or even the slightest raising of an eyebrow would have endeared us to the designs. It was just too serious. Shoes so high that the wearer can only take baby steps and dresses that need handlers to adjust them simply can't be worn with any degree of gravity. Haute couture needn't be so sober. It needs personality.