The Style Issue: The empire’s new clothes – China’s rich have their first homegrown haute couturier

Guo Pei, 49, pretty and petite, exudes naturalness and conventional femininity. She has a collection of Teddy bears. Her husband and partner Cao Bao Joe, known as Jack has a collection of batiks.

Lady Gaga coveted one of her art pieces, then found she couldn’t move in it.

Guo Pei initially refused to lend a coronation cape of sunflower-yellow satin to Rihanna, not knowing her. But then Rihanna’s 57 million Twitter followers made it happen and Rihanna wore it at the Met Gala inaugurating “China: Through the Looking Glass” .


Partly as a result of the Met show, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture had admitted Guo as a guest member, which entitled her to a slot on the calendar for Paris Couture Week. She had to open a Paris atelier and was surprised at the restrictions on altering a historic building.

In China you can raze almost anything.

Guo’s mentors or models, hesitating:

“Well, I admire Chanel and Rei Kawakubo,” she said, “but more as career women than as designers.” Balenciaga was the only other couturier she cited, for his technique.

Guo and Jack’s coup is their business model:

“patrons of the house pay an annual fee, from which their orders are deducted. The club has four tiers of membership, with subscribers in the top tier spending roughly eight hundred thousand dollars. There are about four thousand subscribers.”


Bobo Zhang, a 34 y.o. professor of fashion design and communication, said:

“I don’t have any interest in Guo Pei,”. “It’s a good thing that she trains technicians from ethnic communities, who would not otherwise be employed in industrial Chinese fashion, but there is no new style or concept to her clothes. On the other hand, foreign fashion people are curious about China, so maybe she can attract their attention, even just as a novelty.”

Huang Hung, who publishes a life-style magazine and promotes the work of up-and-coming designers through her company and boutique, Brand New China also assessed Guo bluntly:

“Our young people are looking for a cultural identity,” she said. “Guo Pei’s notion of identity isn’t contemporary. While I can see her as a great costume designer, her clothes tend to reinforce a Western stereotype—‘The World of Suzie Wong.’ ”

The boldness of her graduation project impressed the class: a bouffant white wedding dress with tiers of ruffles. Guo has recalled that she asked a professor for help with the skirt, but he had no idea how to construct it.

“The rest of us did ordinary street wear. Only she had the nerve to dream.”

Guo has succeeded in the global economy’s biggest market on her own terms. When I asked how the current financial crisis, she serenely predicted

“I am confident about my work, and I don’t care what people think about it,”

And perhaps that was her point in bringing it to Paris. Her show wasn’t an audition—she was throwing down a gauntlet.

Guo censors her prodigious imagination in her lucrative clothes for rich ladies, and it isn’t clear that she or they see any need to embrace an alien notion of idiosyncrasy.