PARTICIPATORY SPORT FOR CRAFT ARTISTS
Beijing-born Guo Pei is one of the biggest names in China’s fashion scene, dressing A-listers like Zhang Ziyi, Fan Bingbing and Li Bingbing as well as Song Zhuyin, who performed at the Beijing Olympics in a show-stopping, crystal-studded Guo Pei gown.
Ms. Guo, 46 years old, however, got her start designing children’s clothing, working in varied roles and brands for years before striking out on her own. She spoke with the Journal about making magazine editors cry, avoiding Chinese silk and how high prices got her business off the ground.
When did you realize that couture, not ready to wear, was your calling?
Ms. Pei:After working for 10 years as a designer for different clothing brands—doing everything from designing, sourcing, sales and marketing—it was a good time to change my direction. I started by designing unique evening gowns for television hosts and singers. At the time, so much of the local design was bad. The style was cheap. I really wanted to change the image of the MCs and redefine couture in China. I wanted to create the most beautiful dresses—to create haute couture. I started by charging 5,000 RMB [about $800 at current rates] a dress. It might not sound like much now, but in 1998, that was very, very expensive.
Was it difficult starting out?
I had very few clients at the beginning, but the price I set helped. I knew if it was expensive, it meant getting one dress commission was enough to give me the space to work. I could survive by making just a few dresses.
One of my first clients was Zhang Ye, a well-known Chinese folk singer. She was wonderful. Whenever people admired her dress, she would tell everyone, “This is Guo Pei’s dress,” and introduced me to many other clients. It was unusual, because many celebrities at the time didn’t divulge their dressmaker.
Do you think Chinese consumers understand haute couture?
They would say, “Why is this so expensive?” Traditionally in China, it was prêt-a-porter that was expensive. Only if you couldn’t afford prêt-a-porter, then you would go to a tailor and get a copy of that outfit made. Tailors were not respectable people in society. So by charging 5,000 RMB for a dress, I could change that perception.
A few years later, I raised my price to 10,000 RMB a dress, because my material cost had increased. The focus of my work, traditional hand embroidery, was getting more expensive, and we started using imported silk. To this day, most of our silk is imported directly from Italy.
Why do you get it from Italy and not China, considering China’s established silk industry?
The local Chinese silk manufacturing is making silk for export, which often means value for money rather than making the best. In Italy, they will do small quantities and unusual colors. The dye is precise.
How do you structure your design team?
We employ 450 craftsmen, of whom 300 are embroiderers and 150 are designers, pattern-makers and sewing technicians. It was initially very hard to find embroiderers. In the past decades, so much of the traditional Chinese craftsmanship has been lost. It took me 15 years to get our people to a level of craftsmanship that satisfied me. Many people look at my past fashion shows and tell me that the dresses are perfect, but I can see the imperfection.
What are prices like for your dresses now?
It’s hard to name a price. The most expensive outfit here in this showroom is a suit for men, which is made by using 30,000 pieces of real pearls. It can cost up to 5 million RMB [$800,000]. A hand-embroidered wedding gown you see here sells for about 2 million RMB. But our profit margin is not high.