BIG, BOLD AND over-the-top, welcome to the world of Guo Pei. As China's top couture specialist, Guo Pei has made a name for creating outrageously flamboyant dresses. Now she has her sights set on the international market.
Beijing-based Guo has focused on making extravagantly beaded and embroidered special-occasion items for mainland clients, including many entertainment luminaries. Among the list of Guo customers willing to pay up to HK$350,000 for a one-off creation, have been actresses Li Bing Bing and Zhang Ziyi and singers Tang Can and Sun Yue. The often-wacky creations of Guo have even come to the attention of the razzle-dazzle-loving entertainer, Lady Gaga, who made inquiries about commissioning a Guo garment. The order was not followed up, but interest from the superstar gave Guo the confidence to set her sights internationally, beginning with a collaboration with Paris-based artist Benoit Munoz, which is due to be unveiled at this November's fashion week in Beijing.
The exact nature of the Guo-Munoz exhibition is still under wraps, but there are plans for it to go on tour to the world's fashion capitals, showcasing Guo's credentials as a designer who can compete on the global stage.
'I hope people in Paris, New York and London appreciate and like my work,' says Guo, 44, the mother of two young daughters. 'I want to become an international designer in the future. 'In five or 10 years, I think we will get more international attention on Chinese fashion. I think it will grow rapidly and we will have famous designers - I hope I can be one of them.'
Guo is already known for trawling the globe in search of ideas; previous collections have been inspired by bullfighters' costumes, Napoleon's uniforms and the wedding dresses in a Tim Burton fantasy movie.
'I like garments that are very elegant and classic and have a lot of detail,' says Guo. 'I am like an author with my clothes, I like to tell a romantic story, a fairy tale. I get inspiration from many sources.'
Many of her commissions are for custom-made wedding dresses: money is no object for nouveau rich fathers, who want their Little Empresses to have the very best that money can buy. The main reason the frocks are so pricey is the amount of time that goes into the beading and embroidery: a total of 140 staff work at Rose Studio in suburban Beijing with another 200 employed at provincial factories.
Bridal gowns will be the main theme of this year's Guo Pei's spring-summer collection, due to debut in Beijing in late November. The designer in particular wants to emphasise Chinese traditions, showing how they can be relevant in the modern, increasingly westernised Middle Kingdom where qi paos are being rapidly replaced by French chic.
'In the past, all my fashion shows described a story that I had in my mind but this one is very different, I want to tell society how important Chinese culture is and tell young people that traditional culture is important.
'I want to focus on traditional handicrafts and integrate them into international fashion, which is not, easy but I want to try. Traditional culture is disappearing, it is a worldwide problem, not just in China but I want to put it back into our lives.
'I do a lot of weddings, and a lot of brides choose western-style wedding dresses, but I want to tell Chinese girls that there is a lot of culture in Chinese wedding dresses.'
The Rose Studio head has one influential international fan. Godfrey Deeny of the respected trade-oriented web site Fashion Wire Daily witnessed Guo's last catwalk collection and was astounded at the lukewarm reception it received from local audiences.
'In Paris or New York she would have got a two-minute standing ovation, and merited every clap,' he says. 'Everything about the show was impressive, except maybe the audience
'There were hints of Galliano and McQueen, but Guo Pei very much does her own thing, from the traditional wooden-heeled shoes that morph into red carpet platforms to the exquisitely finished Chinoserie beading and embroidering. Think Salvatore Dali directing a remake of Sofia Coppola's royalist apologia Marie Antoinette.'
Guo herself dresses demurely, eschews jewellery and speaks softly, the antithesis of her showy, often bombastic work. 'There are two sides to my personality - inside, when I am creating, it is dramatic, but outside it's the opposite. I'm just the creator of the dream: my personal style is simple, although I wear my designs for parties and events it is not necessarily the showpiece ones.
'It's the technical side of design that I find interesting. For inspiration I go to museums. All designers have their strengths and styles; Yves Saint Laurent was an influence, and John Galliano at Dior.'