When the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana displayed a gown crafted by internationally-renowned fashion designer Guo Pei four years ago, visitors couldn’t get enough.
The dress, which features an embroidered, fur-lined canary yellow cape with a 16-foot train, had become famous in 2015 when the singer Rihanna wore it to the Met Gala, the annual fundraising event for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
“People were wanting more,” said Victoria Gerard, director of collections and special exhibitions at the Bowers Museum. “You can see the beauty of Guo Pei’s designs in that one dress, but it wasn’t enough to give life to her inspiration and her craft.”
Now Pei is back at the Bowers with “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond,” the West Coast premiere of the designer’s first solo museum exhibition in the U.S., featuring 40 of the Chinese designer’s pieces over the last two decades, which range in value from $100,000 to millions of dollars.
The show runs until July 14.
For Pei, who grew up in Beijing, fashion is an opportunity to share her roots.
“It’s the way that I want to educate and promote Chinese culture to the world,” she said.
One of her greatest creative influences is Chinese history and art — particularly dragons, the color gold and what she called the “extravaganza” of the country’s royal history.
“She was inspired by her grandmother who lived at the end of the Qing dynasty and talked about the court garments,” said Gerard. “After the Chinese Empire fell during the revolution, they couldn’t use colors or have these extravagant garments. So her grandmother would tell her stories about the end of the Qing dynasty, and they were almost legends in [Pei’s] mind and she was able to interpret them through her career.”
Some of her designs are also influenced by other parts of the world.
The collection “1002 Nights” takes its inspiration from the collection of Middle Eastern folk tales “One Thousand and One Nights.” Recalling the garments worn by princesses and queens in centuries past, the gowns in the series are made from silk, fur, Swarovski crystals, pearls, diamonds, gemstones, gold leaf and silver-spun thread.
Pei’s “Garden of Soul” collection was inspired by a visit to the garden where Vincent van Gogh painted his blue irises, while another collection, “Legend,” draws upon the architectural details of the 18th-century St. Gallen Cathedral in Switzerland through materials such as metallic fabric, silk, embroidery and crystals.
The collection “Elysium,” meanwhile, was inspired by the natural world. One of the gowns in the series was made from bamboo woven into a lattice skirt several yards in diameter and decorated with hand-made metal flowers and gold lace.
Gerard said the exhibition should resonate with Orange County residents.
“In this county we are very much fashion- and shopping-forward, so it’s an interesting approach to actually learn about the haute couture concept,” she said.
Pei is a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which designates haute couture status. Other members include Chanel, Christian Dior and Givenchy.
“Unless you’re in that world, few of us really understand what that means and the expertise and specific achievements you have to have to be a part of that realm,” Gerard said.
Pei said that some of her creations require up to 50,000 hours of labor. The gown that Rihanna wore in 2015 took Pei and her team of 500 artisans two years to complete.
“It’s not just about the costume, it’s about the craftsmanship and creativity,” Pei said.
This is why a museum — not just a runway — is a fitting venue for her pieces, she said.
“The most important thing is to give audiences an opportunity to look at my work,” she said. “When you’re at a fashion show, you only have two minutes — it’s flashing by.”
But in a museum, visitors can get up close and spend more time with the gowns.
“Like photography, fashion isn’t always considered a traditional fine art,” Gerard said. “But I don’t think anyone could look at any of these and dispute that it’s a work of art.”
Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil is a contributor to Times Community News.
IF YOU GO
What: “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond”
When: Through July 14
Where: Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana
Cost: $13 general admission, $10 for seniors and students