Watched: Yellow Is Forbidden

In last Sunday’s closing film of the Design Film Festival 2019, Yellow is Forbidden, the designer Guo Pei is shown—at work and at play—as complete contrast to her couturière self. But it is left to the viewer to decide if she would really leave a legacy in Asia that we can be proud of or just scoff at years later


Guo Pei June 2019 SGGuo Pei during a talk at TAFF, Design Orchard, in June. Photo: Jim Sim

It is easier to doubt Guo Pei’s (郭培) talent than her sincerity. Or her willingness to be unmasked, whether in the presence of a film crew or an audience. In Yellow Is Forbidden, a film that’s less about the disallowed than what is allowable in the design of clothes, Ms Guo reveals all the different aspects of being a working couturière, as well as, cliched as it might be, a mother, a daughter, and a wife. Documentary film-maker Pietra Brettkelly (A Flickering Truth, a narrative about Afghan cinephiles excavating and preserving the films of the nation’s past) created a surprisingly intimate portrait of Ms Guo, who allowed cameras beyond her atelier, into her home, as well as her parents’. In Ms Guo, the New Zealander found not only a willing subject, but a gregarious one—a world-famous woman unafraid to tear up before the camera. Or reveal her softer side, a lover and collector of teddy bears—400 to date.

At 52, Guo Pei has the effervescence of a 25-year-old. She sounds girlish, with an enthusiastic lilt most of the time, so much so that she would not be out of place among the many schoolgirls that gather in Starbucks to do whatever they do there. And sometimes, with her Taiwanese husband Jack Tsao (曹宝杰) in the picture, she sounded almost coquettish. But that teasing sweetness and the tendency to call people baobei (darling) do give way to a more aggressive voice, such as that used when she was not able to come to the right price, in the right amount of time with the rural embroiderers she was engaging. For a moment, the way she argued, the way she sat, the way she held herself, she appeared to us, even when her stance is understandable since she was dealing with out-of-city folks, as one of those irate China women at an airport—any airport, about to go ballistic on an airline staff.

Many people who have met Guo Pei like to speak of how amiable she is. The constant refrain and common first impression “she’s really nice” perhaps beget a just-as-agreeable reaction to her work as a fashion designer, and an eloquent one. But it is possible that her niceness could be a disarming front, engaged to discourage one from disparaging her or from looking at her work too critically. And she is mindful of how others view her, saying in the film (and off-camera, such as during the talk that she gave in June when invited by the Textile and Fashion Federation) that she does not want to be seen as a designer who caters only to celebrities. Or that she, when ask of what her work will be bring to China, is definitely “a designer, not a nation”.

Guo Pei @ Paris ExhibitionGuo Pei at the opening of the Paris exhibition. Film still: Madman Films

Yellow is Forbidden, made possible through the crowd-funding site Boosted, brings the audience surprisingly close to the sometimes close-to-tacky oppulence that Guo Pei sells and the people important to her. In fact, it’s surprising that the Tsao family is not forbidden to the film-maker’s cameras and husband Jack, also her business partner, takes up not insignificant screen time, by her side—at home, in the office, in the car. It’s also a peek into the world of her customer base in China, comprising what appeared to us the new rich (and reported elsewhere to be from the upper political, media, and social echelons of the country)—the many matrons may not be different from the women Ms Guo tried to court here through a couple of private shows that she hosted when she was in town in June to open the Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM) exhibition, dedicated to her, Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture. She urged her guests/customers not to don the qipao (旗袍 or cheongsam) when going to the West, urging them, instead, to consider her designs which are clearly Western garb characterised by Eastern details. The women were enraptured, as if she was deliverying a sermon.

Guo Pei, a non-English-speaking createur in a non-Chinese speaking world of the West, must have appeared impressive and admirable and a doyenne to her audience in China, so much so that this woman, the product of an earlier, just-after-the-Cultural-Revolution zhongguo and a graduate of Beijing Second Light Industry School (1986), can be allowed to shape their sartorial taste because, unlike them, she had made a deep impression among the laowai (老外 or foreigners), through Rihanna no less, and interfaced with the West and, through her visits to museums, explored close-up the couture gowns of Jeanne Lanvin, for example, and has become far more knowledgeable than the average knowledgeable fashion-consuming woman.

Westerners, including the milliner Philip Treacy, may be enamoured with the works of Guo Pei because of the detectable (delectable?) ‘Chinese-ness’, but many in Asia, including those in Ms Guo’s motherland, find her taste unable to give wholly to the refined. Her output may be so, but the sum for some of us escapes the discernment that characterised the work of, say, Charles James, whose designs Ms Guo’s favourite model Carmen Dell’Orefice has said the Chinese designer equals. We will never know what Mr James would have thought of that comparison, but Guo Pei has never truly left the fantasyland she ensconced herself to as a little girl and possibly lived through, even at Beijing Second Light Industry School, where, she admitted in the film, she did not even know what shizhuang (时装 or fashion) was. It isn’t clear she now does.

Yellow Queen P2The Yellow Queen, aka omelette cape/dress, that set Guo Pei on the path to Paris, here seen at the ACM. Photo: Jim Sim

Unencumbered by what defined (or defines) fashion, Ms Guo, we feel, designs from the memory of imagined places and people or from the mental notes she takes from museum visits. These, embellished with the palace tales and fashion her laolao (姥姥 or maternal grandmother) used to regale her with, constitutes the foundational aesthetics from which she launches her over-the-top designs—the Western silhouette is there, but the exaggerated forms that the possible lack of exposure afforded her, underscores what may be excess bereft of finesse. Despite not knowing what shishang was, she defined it not by any clear terms, and as such, was neither able defy it, which left much of her work in a sort of couture limbo.

Geographical placing may give the clothes a certain Gallic air (or the romantic notion of it), but what we have seen so far is nothing like what the French does, nor do the clothes bear Chinese aesthetical distinction, whether past or present. They may have emotional heft since so much is invested in them, but they lack soul, like stage costumes waiting to be given life by whoever is cast to wear them. The film does not go into what makes her desire to create clothes that weigh as much as the wearer (so heavy, in fact, that they are against French laws pertaining to how much workers can haul each time—35kg versus her 50kg gowns!), or if such surfeit of material, not just fabric, is a reflection of the past or the present, or the future. Or, just a self-assuring practice of more-is-better.

“I’m the slowest designer in the world,” Ms Guo, professes, but we are not certain if that is declared with regret or pride or a bit of both. As there is no real discussion of what saturates her work (nor does she truly explain), we may never know why the lack of speed is an asset or why superfluity of details and embellishments in a dress are pluses when they circumvent productivity or demand the prolonged dedication of those involved. Or why any outfit with the total weight of an adult North Pacific giant octopus, necessitating unrushed putting on, may make the outfit more appealing. Are long, impossible-to-imagined hours—50,000 man hours, a figure she cited more than once—on a single dress the only hallmark of couture? That, and embroidery and beading?

Guo Pei & familyGuo Pei and her parents. Film still: Madman Films

Guo Pei has positioned her work as yishu (艺术 or art) and, as such, it is possible this standing deters one from questioning the artist. It’s got to a point that many observers convinced themselves that if her designs are good enough for a star such as Rihanna, and can be the subject of museum exhibitions around the world, she must be good. The thing is, the converse is not necessarily true either: it would be grossly untrue and unkind to say she’s bad. So where does that leave Guo Pei? Or, is it not quite percipient to evaluate the work of someone who exists—creatively—outside the circle that we are familiar with? And therein lies the problem in deciding where her work can be best positioned within a conservative hierarchy of things: she does not fit in.

And the films doesn’t suggest she does. Instead, it shows her with her weaknesses and wonderment, foibles and fears, tantrums and tears. That she’s just as good a salesperson reminds us that Guo Pei runs a very tight ship, so tight, in fact, she does not have a sourcing manager or agent to assist her. Instead, she does most of the (leg) work herself (accompanied by her husband), such as buying her own fabrics at what could be the B2B marketplace Première Vision, where she, unsure of the visuals she wanted to apply on her fabrics, prodded her husband to ask the supplier if angels are areligious! There’s not only her lack of inter-faith knowledge, but also the blank on the meaning of spiritual beings in any religion or culture. Would it not be dicey to use a subject one has scant knowledge of?

When it comes to Guo Pei, how much is head, how much is heart, and how much is gumption? It is not entirely clear, nor is it shown. Ms Brettkelly allows Ms Guo to do most of the talking, which gave the film a platform on which only the designer’s views matter. Sure, there were cursory remarks and encouragements from others, but it would complete the picture if viewers could understand what her clothes—also designed for public consumption, not just for her own love—meant to others and why to them the designs are stunning and stirring. It could have been informative, even broadening, to know how officials of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, French governing body for couture that admitted her as a guest member, viewed Ms Guo or why followers such as Frank Cintamani (a glimpse of him was caught), the now-laying-low president of the just-as-quiet Asian Couture Federation (the organisation established a “base” in Beijing last year), are so ardent in their pursuit, or what those rapt customers during the trunk shows truly think of her designs and how the clothes could fit into their existing wardrobes.

Magnificent gold Guo Pei.jpgMagnificent Gold, one of the most featured dresses in the film, here seen at the ACM exhibition. Photo: Jim Sim

What Guo Pei is able to achieve is not endeavour of a single woman. So much of the details in her clothes, as one could see to one’s heart’s content at the ACM exhibition or, earlier, to one’s amusement at her show during Fidé Fashion Weeks in 2013, is not the result of her own craftsmanship alone, but the combined effort, push, and resolution of an incredible atelier—Rose Studio. Virtually no one in her team is given a voice to express what it is like to do the kind of work they do (except that it is hard work) or how gratifying it is, if it is at all. Of if they are.embarrassed to be associated with dresses that possibly beg as much ridicule as admiration. It has been pointed out by Western observers that what Guo Pei has done, by way of engineering the clothes and the ornamentation applied on them, few others in Paris can achieve. China doubtlessly has a long history of craftsmanship. And Ms Guo has no qualms in using them all, in one garment. It would, therefore, be compelling to see the actual toil behind the production and what it is like to be so deep in such hard handiwork.

Of the Yellow Queen, that cape/dress Rihanna wore to the Met Gala in 2015, Ms Guo said, “the weight of the dress and the height of the heels represent responsibility. I believe that the more responsibility a woman takes on in her life, the greater she becomes”. Greatness is not just the assuming of responsibilities, but also the people under which the responsibilities include their employment and welfare. There were snaps of the staff at work and a quartet manoeuvering a stairway with a massive gown to get it to some place, but these hardly revealed the labour involved in creating clothes with the theatricality that befits a show venue such as the Conciergerie, a former prison where Marie Antoinette spent her time before execution. Guo Pei is only the second designer after Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen to present a collection in the gloomy place (after her first choice, the L’église de la Madeleine unsurprisingly turned her down).

To be fair, she did show herself sharing her achievements with her family. She was comfortable for cameras to capture her daughters, with one of them so emotionally affected at the end of the first couture presentation in Paris that she broke into tears (followed by mother comforting her child before the former stepped out on the runway to acknowledge the applauding support). Surprising and heartwarming was a visit to her parents’, where she regaled the viewer with recalls of her relationship with her maternal grandmother and the tales the old lady told her. The nicest touch of the film came in the end: Ms Guo’s mother, a former school teacher, sang a song of tribute to mothers and daughters. This served as soundtrack to the end credits. For a moment, we forgot we were watching a fashion film. Zhang Yimou would have approved.