Shout-out to the person who named the new Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy exhibition at the Legion of Honor. It’s the clearest way to sum up the premier Chinese designer’s work. Of course, “mind-blowing, heart-thumping, meticulously crafted, East-meets-West wearable art,” works, too.

Just opened and on view through September 5th, the show dazzles from top to bottom, gravity-defying headpieces to fanciful footwear and everything exquisite in between. Essentially, it’s a celebration of the renowned couturier’s remarkable work over the past 20 years. You’ll find more than 80 pieces from Guo Pei’s collections, which have graced runways around the globe, from Beijing to Paris. Plus, many of the designs have never been publicly displayed before. (We love a first to see moment.)

The fashion designer is best known for lavish embroidery that draws on artistic Chinese traditions, unconventional design techniques, and exquisite craftsmanship. Her couture fantasy fuses the influences of China’s imperial past with the grandeur of European court life, architecture, export art, and floral and botanical motifs. Themes that show up often in her magical designs include rebirth, Chinese legends, and religion.

Installation of ‘Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy’ at the Legion of Honor.(Gary Sexton; courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

“In my life, there are two types of designs—the first type is very realistic and wearable. The other type of design is for me. These things are closer to art. My designs tend to be wild and whimsical, and I try a lot of new things. I am using clothes to tell a story, so it’s very similar to a play,” Guo Pei explains.

While the designer was looking forward to attending the museum’s opening events, Covid restrictions in China made it impossible for her to travel. Still, she’s thrilled that her first comprehensive exhibition has finally arrived.

“As a creator and artist, there is no greater honor or privilege than to share my creativity with a wider audience. I am therefore honored and humbled that the prestigious Legion of Honor Museum is presenting a retrospective of my work. In doing so, I hope that it brings greater awareness and understanding of my life’s passion, and conveys Chinese culture, traditions and shows the new face of contemporary China,” she says.

So exactly who is Guo Pei and what’s her story? Here’s a condensed primer. The 55-year-old Beijing native—crazy-famous in her home country—has been dressing A-listers of all types for years. She came of age during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and graduated at the top of her class with a fashion-design degree from the Beijing Second Light Industry School in 1986.

Guo Pei, Legend of the Dragon, Autumn/Winter 2012, Silk; embroidered with metallic threads, sequins, embellished with Swarovski crystals, rhinestones, metal wire.(Copyright © Guo Pei / Asian Couture Federation. Photograph by Lian Xu; courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

After a decade working for major manufacturers, she set up her own atelier, Rose Studio. Today, it employs more than 500 skilled artisans who produce her elaborate creations. Some take, literally, thousands of hours and years to complete.

In 2015, Pei became only the second native Chinese member of the prestigious Chambre Syndicate de la Haute Couture—allowing for her Paris haute-couture debut in 2016. Her Courtyard Collection won rave reviews and there have been many accolades since (i.e. making Time mag’s 100 Most Influential People and Business of Fashion’s BoF 500 lists).

Undoubtedly, though, there is one moment that launched Guo Pei into another stratosphere of fame. It had a little something to do with a pop star named Rihanna and the Met Gala in 2015. When the “Diamonds” chanteuse stepped out in a GP-designed canary-yellow cape gown with detailed floral embroidery and a pooling train, it was instantly iconic. The memes flowed on social media. And turns out, having one’s dress compared to omelets and other food items increases your street cred and recognition with Western audiences.

Installation of ‘Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy’ at the Legion of Honor.(Gary Sexton; courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

While visitors won’t get to see the dramatic RiRi gown, they’re in for another surprise: the exhibit’s unconventional format. Sure, there’s a dedicated area on the museum’s lower level where a cluster of small galleries display Pei’s luxurious works. They’re arranged by theme not chronologically, on the chicest mannequins we’ve seen. But these beauties are just the amuse-bouche.

The scrumptious main course takes place upstairs in the permanent galleries. Guo Pei’s showstoppers are placed en scène, next to paintings, antiquities, and decorative arts from various periods—Medieval Renaissance and Mannerist Art to 19th century European Art to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

These cleverly curated juxtapositions are truly delightful and thought-provoking—and that’s the point.

“Displayed in a neoclassical architectural context at the Legion of Honor, amidst our collection of European art, Pei’s designs encourage our visitors to consider the rich historical ties between China and the West,” says Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Bottom line: There’s much to see here—all fabulous, especially for fashion lovers. But even if you don’t read one placard or listen to the excellent audio tour, Guo Pei’s work is a feast for the eyes, heart, and mind. As long as you bring those along, you’ll leave richer for the experience.

// Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave. (Sea Cliff); advance tickets are recommended, tickets.famsf.org.

Installation view of ‘Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy’ at the Legion of Honor.(Drew Altizer; courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

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