“When I was working on my graduation design, I specifically wanted to make a very large skirt, like in western movies, but I had no idea how the inside of the skirt would need to be made,” Guo tells BBC Culture. “I went to the theatre and asked the costumers if they could help me. I was very surprised when they took me backstage and showed me a pannier made of bamboo and layers of petticoats that were hidden inside a skirt. It helped me create what was probably the largest dress in the Chinese fashion designer industry. The theatre experience was the beginning of me making big dresses.”
Graduating with the highest grade in her class, Guo went on to a successful career in the nascent Chinese fashion industry. However, despite her achievements, she felt creatively thwarted as she was unable to create the magnificent dresses she wanted. It wasn’t until she established her own design house, Rose Studio, in 1997, that she could truly begin to unleash her creative desires. With no Chinese precedents to turn to as an example, Guo created a fashion house in her own image, which just like her graduation collection, paid little heed to the conventional ways of doing things.
“It was outside of the Parisian system,” says Jill D’Alessandro, curator of the exhibition. “She didn’t even know how a couture house was formulated. The approach was closer, I feel, to an art-making approach of problem-solving. She said: ‘I have people who studied fashion design making jewellery and I have people who studied furniture design making shoes’. In Paris you might go to a specific atelier who only does feather work or embroidery.”
Guo’s aesthetic inspiration expanded when travel to the West became easier for Chinese nationals in the early years of the 21st Century, and she was able to view historic examples of fashion, textiles and embroideries in European museums. The Napoleonic uniforms she saw in the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, which to her symbolised the cycle of human life, came to influence her breakthrough 2006 Samsara presentation, which she considers to be her first true haute couture collection. Da Jing was the awe-inspiring finale to the show.