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From left to right: One of Guo Pei’s garments, on display at Auckland Art Gallery, Rihanna’s gown at the 2015 Met Gala, also on display at Auckland Art Gallery and Guo Pei herself. (Image DesignL Tina Tiller)
From left to right: One of Guo Pei’s garments, on display at Auckland Art Gallery, Rihanna’s gown at the 2015 Met Gala, also on display at Auckland Art Gallery and Guo Pei herself. (Image DesignL Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureDecember 21, 2023

Guo Pei stuns at the Auckland Art Gallery

From left to right: One of Guo Pei’s garments, on display at Auckland Art Gallery, Rihanna’s gown at the 2015 Met Gala, also on display at Auckland Art Gallery and Guo Pei herself. (Image DesignL Tina Tiller)
From left to right: One of Guo Pei’s garments, on display at Auckland Art Gallery, Rihanna’s gown at the 2015 Met Gala, also on display at Auckland Art Gallery and Guo Pei herself. (Image DesignL Tina Tiller)

After its huge success in San Francisco, China’s most famous fashion designer exhibits more than 60 of her works at the Auckland Art Gallery. Sam Brooks goes along to the exhibition and responds to it.

Before the tiresome debate “are video games art?”, there was the equally tiresome debate “is fashion art?”. While that debate resolved in favour of fashion, there is still a lingering stigma from some parts of society about the validity of clothing as fine art. Can something functional be art? On the other end of the spectrum, can something frivolous be art? The answer is, of course, yes, but it’s not often that you see the form vaunted in our largest city’s namesake art gallery.

Guo Pei: Fashion, Art, Fantasy, which opened earlier this month at Auckland Art Gallery, doesn’t put to rest that debate (that’s long over) but it does an excellent job of nudging even the skeptic towards a conclusion of “duh, obviously”. The exhibition, coming from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in collaboration with the Asian Couture Foundation, displays 60 of the Chinese designer’s works (which include not just garments, but fantastic headpieces, accessories and shoes! The shoes!). And yes, it includes the reason you’ve probably heard of Guo Pei in the first place: the dress Rihanna wore to the Met Gala in 2015. 

It’s a real coup for the Auckland Art Gallery, especially given the exhibition’s wild success back in San Francisco. Not only is it commercial – Guo Pei is hardly a household name, but is one of the better known living fashion designers who isn’t also a celebrity in her own right – it’s a rare chance to see couture fashion in the flesh. Or fabric, as it may be.

Guo Pei’s concept drawings, on display at the Auckland Art Gallery.

Fashion, Art, Fantasy is, right from the jump, overwhelming. I doubt there are more Swarovski crystals per metre anywhere else in the world right now. Most people go their entire lives without seeing one haute couture gown in person, let alone 60 of them. My most earnest recommendation for seeing this exhibition is to take a gamble on when it is going to be quiet – the Tuesday morning before Christmas was not quiet, so good luck – and allow yourself at least a minute to take in each gown and their details. (And maybe another minute to take in the shoes, especially in the Magic and Dreams part of the exhibition. Pei’s gowns defy the bounds of craftsmanship, but her shoes defy the bounds of humanity, or at least human perambulation.)

It’s perhaps telling that the part of the exhibition that I enjoyed, or hung around, the most, were the gowns that look the most like they could actually be worn. Of course, most of these gowns are designed for proportions that are runway tall and mannequin thin, and while practicality (or function!) is not the point of haute couture, it does make you realise the specific body that these gowns are designed for.

Other parts of the exhibit remind you of the haunting beauty of a garment that sits just right. Tucked away in a little corner, which is perhaps my favourite part of the entire gallery, is a room with just one gown. It’s perhaps the least elaborate of the gowns in the exhibition (from the L’Architecture, Fall Winter 18-19 Collection), a simple black number, albeit with an opening at the back that resembles a Victorian window, and a mask. It struck me because I could imagine running into the person wearing it – probably a widow at her fourth husband’s funeral. All of Guo Pei’s works feel like the makings of a real human artist (and many artists beyond just her as the designer), but the exhibition is at its best when you can imagine the human who might meet her art halfway.

Guo Pei’s L’Architecture Collection from the Fall/Winter 2018-19 season, on display at Auckland Art Gallery.

This does, however, raise the question of what is lost when fashion is exhibited like this. There’s a very good reason why fashion shows exist – and indeed, it’s a good move that the exhibition includes a video of the runway for Pei’s Spring/Summer collection from 2017 – and it’s because fashion doesn’t exist, in the real world, in stillness. It exists in motion. While seeing these gowns allows the viewer to slowly take in every intricacy, and there are obvious logistical issues in including a human element in the exhibition, it often feels like looking at a film on pause, rather than in motion, as it should be seen.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the exhibition’s most famous dress: the “Yellow Queen” from Pei’s One Thousand and Two Nights collection of 2009/10. It’s also known as “the Rihanna Met Gala dress” (an impressive moniker, given the star’s famously high quality showings at the Met Gala), the “Guo Pei dress” (equally impressive, given the excellence of Pei’s output) or the “omelette dress” (because that’s what it looks like). Seeing the dress, arguably the most famous piece of modern visual art – fight me – is breathtaking. Less so is the chance to take your photo in front of it, as I shamelessly did, as did many of the attendees both times I went to the exhibition. Despite the garment’s construction, something feels missing.

An integral part of fashion, and fashion as art, is the person wearing it. The yellow dress is undoubtedly one of the most impressive bits of craftsmanship I’ve ever seen in person (famously 50,000 hours, across two years were spent on its construction, and it’s not even the garment with the most hours credited to it). But without someone like Rihanna proving that if wearing clothes is not a skill, it’s definitely a gift, it feels remote. Not even the staging of the garment, with the massive train pouring over several stairs, can give the illusion of it being worn. In a gallery, it’s a piece of art. On a red carpet, being worn by one of the most famous women in the world, it becomes a collaboration between artists. One is more powerful to take in than the other.

As I left the exhibition, a man walked by me wearing a shirt emblazoned with “Fake News Editor”. For some, fashion truly is just function, and that’s all it needs to be. For the rest of us, and thankfully shown by this exhibition, it’s art. Worthy of more than just observation, but engagement and interrogation.

Guo Pei: Fashion, Art, Fantasy runs until May 2, 2024 at the Auckland Art Gallery.

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