Lately, I’ve been really craving a good trip to a museum. I want nothing more some days than to wander around a quiet space looking at interesting and beautiful things. While I was able to wander around the Art Institute of Chicago right before everything shut down, it feels like it’s been ages since I was able to go to a good textile or clothing exhibit.
However, it is going to be a while before that happens again. Even if museums were to open today I wouldn’t feel safe going. So, I decided I needed a new way to feed that part of me that’s been craving inspiration.
I had heard of the documentary about Chinese couturier Guo Pei, Yellow is Forbidden, back when it first was released in 2018. However, at the time I wasn’t able to find a way to watch it. It wasn’t playing in my local theaters and there was no way to stream it. So, I made a mental note to check again later and moved on.
A few days ago I found out it was available to rent (Google/iTunes/Youtube) and so I paid the 5-ish dollars and settled in with a cup of tea. I started out live-tweeting it but about 1/3 of the way through I realized I just needed to write a review.
The film follows Guo Pei as she works to design a collection and plan a fashion show for her spring/summer 2017 couture collection. This collection is notable because it was the first Pei showed as an honorary member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Membership to this organization is highly selective and Guo is the first member who was born and raised in China.
Guo is best known in popular culture as the designer of Rhiana’s 2015 Met Gala dress. An elaborate ensemble of yellow and gold embroidery with a much meme-ed train, the dress was a turning point for Guo in the west. One of the first thing this film does is tell the story of how the dress ended up in that place and on that particular person.
I found Guo to be delightfully charming when she explained that she didn’t really know who Rhianna was at first. Guo was just happy that her dress would be seen. Showing this at the start of the film helps to place Guo in context. She is at once a very important, innovative designer and an outsider to the western fashion system. She is someone who is very interested in clothing as an art form but she also has a sharp business sense.Embed from Getty Images
From there the audience gets to glimpse a bit of Guo’s life, design process, and business. This includes a look inside her home including her extensive collection of stuffed bears and fashion history books. The most intimate part has to be the interview with her parents, who she seems to have a good relationship with, even though they don’t quite understand her.
Her husband also appears to be incredibly supportive, both with his time and by financing her work. He often looks a little out of place with his charmingly floppy hair but later in the film, you see him stepping up frequently to translate for Guo, who only speaks mandarin.
Looking inside Rose Studio, where Guo works and sells her designs, was one of my favorite parts. Getting a look at some of her more wearable designs was great (I wanted pretty much all of them). However, I didn’t fully understand her business model until I came across this 2016 New Yorker Piece. Rather than buying individual pieces, clients pay a large membership fee upfront and their purchases are deducted from that. This ensures that her workers never spend the hundreds of hours needed to make a dress only to have the client change their mind and refuse to pay. A savvy business decision if ever I saw one.
The director made the choice to largely avoid using voice-overs, talking-head interviews, and other methods to explain the footage being shown. There are a few interviews with Guo herself, including one with her parents otherwise, the audience is left to piece together the story largely from context clues.
This has the same effect as an exhibit with only minimal name/date labels. On the one hand, this curatorial choice forces the viewer to spend more time looking at the actual art. I don’t think I would have paid as much attention to things like the way Guo lit up when talking about her inspirations like early Balenciaga and Chinese court embroidery. If you look at the film as an exploration of or introduction to the designer and not as a complete biography it is much more satisfying.
On the other hand, there were some parts that really could have benefitted from a bit more context. The most glaring example of this was when Pei is heading into a Time 100 event with Wendi Deng Murdoch. Deng mentions that Pei may be seated next to the Trump’s. Guo’s reaction is brief, as if she knew they were famous and was hoping to make a good connection, but had never really given the couple much thought. Given that the Time event took place in April 2016 (before Trump was even the official nominee) and Guo isn’t American, that is a totally reasonable reaction. The problem is that the filmmaker didn’t give us any clue as to when the event was taking place.Embed from Getty Images
Additionally, I really wanted a bit more explanation related to a segment that took place at a hand embroidery factory. Here Guo was arguing with a woman who appeared to be the owner of the shop over the prices she was charging and the work she was taking on. It wasn’t clear what the relationship was between the two women was or how this workshop fit into Guo’s previously mentioned 300 embroiderers. I was just left with the nagging question, were these amazing and expensive clothes made using unethical labor?
While this level of uncertainty makes this sometimes a frustrating film to watch, I think it also makes it a great candidate for use as a teaching tool. Because the filmmaker leaves space for interpretation there are plenty of areas for discussion. A course on globalization and fashion would be a natural fit, but I could also see working this into an intro to fashion history course during a unit on the birth of Haute Couture.Embed from Getty Images
Overall, I would recommend this film. It’s beautiful and interesting even though it does only scratch the surface of its subject. And if you need more, there are plenty of different resources to explore. I admit to going down quite an internet rabbit hole after watching the film, including watching a video of the entire 30-minute long spring/summer 2017 fashion show. You also may want to check out Guo Pei: Couture Beyond, the book (Bookshop/Amazon) written in conjunction with the 2017 SCAD FASH Museum of Film and Fashion exhibition of the same name. Maybe someday in the future, we’ll all have the opportunity to see Guo and other designers beautiful work in person again. Until then, we’ll just have to keep finding ways to keep inspired.
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