Life lessons from couture queen Guo Pei

Published September 29, 2017

IMAGES COURTESY OF SCAD.

Beijing-based couture queen Guo Pei is blazing through the ranks of avant-garde design faster than a celebrity meme going viral. Best known in the west for the yards-long canary yellow cape worn by Rihanna at the 2015 Met Gala—the one that drew awe, ire and odd comparisons to food—Guo was, at the time, one of few Chinese designers inspiring prolific mainstream interest. But the winds seem to be shifting east as of late. This season alone, New York Fashion Week hosted 31 Chinese designers—many of them up-and-coming—a more than 200 percent increase from years prior.

It’s an important step toward diversity in the fashion industry, one that has historically benefited from cultural appropriation (that same Met Gala, wherein “Chinese gongs” summoned attendees to dinner, was lambasted for its misrepresentation of Chinese culture). And Guo, with the poise of a monarch, seems to be leading the runway for the next generation designers of Chinese heritage.

So, on the beautifully embroidered heels of her first solo exhibition in the United States at the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, we asked Guo for some seasoned life advice.

JANE GAYDUK: Do you have any advice for young artists and designers? Especially those with limited access to resources?

GUO PEI: The most important advice I can give is to concentrate on the things that you love. The measurement of a person’s success is how far you can go, not which road you take. It is also necessary to be loyal to your initial choices. If you choose and change unceasingly, there will be no time for you to achieve success. Time is human’s most precious asset. We have to use the time we have to do the things we love.

GAYDUK: How do you respond to those who criticize your work?

PEI: Over my 30 years of designing, I have met many people who have been critical of my work. Criticism allows us to assess ourselves from different points of view. I actually like hearing different opinions, because critiques help me evaluate my work at different stages in the design process. Sometimes criticism makes me feel more determined about what I do. It helps me develop my own understanding and ways of thinking, thereby enabling me to have more confidence. I am appreciative for all sorts of feedback—positive or negative alike.

GAYDUK: What do you consider to be your proudest acheivement? Has there been a moment in which you felt completely content?

PEI: I’ve lived just half of my life, so there is a long way to go. I’m very proud that I’m surrounded by people who love and support me. I have a very happy family, a stable career, a husband who continues to encourage and motivate me, as well as two very adorable children. These things in my life give me the greatest sense of pride.

As for my business, I have a brilliant team, and several hundred creative colleagues. They are dedicated to creating a future for the business alongside me. They are willing to give their all during the whole creative process, and willing to make sacrifices to make that happen.

I still have not had that feeling of complete contentment. With the success of every show or every recognition, I’m motivated to do even better. As I mature, I feel more confident in myself and my work. I know that I’m leaving precious memories for this world with each piece that I create.

GAYDUK: Who are some women that inspire you?

PEI: I have found inspiration in many women, but I will tell you about two. I really love Frida Kahlo. I have read lots of books about her, watched just about every movie made about her, I have also been to her former residence in Mexico and seen her paintings. I’m inspired by her courage as a strong woman who took such a proactive attitude to face the pain in her life while leaving the world with so many masterpieces, thus sharing this courage with countless others. She has inspired me a lot. Then of course, I appreciate the very great female designer, Coco Chanel. Her life and experiences inspired me greatly when I first started studying fashion design.

GAYDUK: What is something we might be suprised to learn about you?

PEI: I do not know that anything in my life would shock you. If I think carefully though, I shocked my daughter when I told her about a time I had a vocational fashion design exam which required us to draw and do some basic sketching. I had never learned sketching or drawing. Many people don’t know that I did my first sketch in an exam. At that time, out of the 500 candidates, only 26 passed. I was very lucky to be selected as one of these 26 people and I entered the fashion profession. I’m still very shocked when I think of that moment.

GAYDUK: Is there anything you have regretted over the course of your career?

PEI: In all truthfulness, I have not had a moment of regret. I didn’t when I left a great job at a company I loved to establish my own label, and I have not regretted a moment since I started my own label. I believe as long as you persevere and keep moving forward to achieve one’s goals or dreams, regardless of any short-term difficulties or painful experiences, it is always worth it.

GUO PEI: COUTURE BEYOND, PRESENTED BY THE SAVANNAH COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN, IS ON VIEW AT THE SCAD FASH MUSEUM OF FASHION + FILM THROUGH MARCH 4, 2018.