World-renowned couture designer Guo Pei stands in front of some of her "Garden of Soul” pieces in the West Coast premiere of “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond” at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)
Designer Guo Pei received global attention when Rihanna wore one of her pieces to the 2015 Met Gala. Forty of her designs are featured in her solo show, “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond,” at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana through July 14.(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)
A close-up of the detailing on the shoes in one of the fashion designer Guo Pei’s displays in “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond,” currently at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)
On the left is a lace jumpsuit and silk jacquard jacket with mesh overlay, embellished with diamonds, gems and sequins. On the right is a geometric gold jacket embellished with embossed metal; a bodice with crystals, gems, beads, sequins and copper appliques; and harem trousers embroidered with copper wire and embellished with crystals. The collection is on display in the West Coast premiere of “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond” at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)
This blue gown with silk and tule fabric, embroidered with silver-spun thread, pearls and Swarovski crystals is on display at “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond” at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana through July 14.(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)
This silk gown with gold-spun thread and fox fur is on display at “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond” at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana through July 14.(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)
On the left is an embroidered silk and Lurex arch-paneled dress embellished with sequins, gems, Swarovski crystals, Swarovski beads and brass florets. At the right is an embroidered silk and Lurex dress embellished with Swarovski beads and brass florets. Both are part of Guo Pei’s “Garden of Soul” collection, on display at “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond” at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana through July 14.(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)
This embroidered silk dress with gold and multicolor threads and Swarovski crystals is on display at “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond” at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana through July 14.(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)
Anne Shih, Bowers Museum chairwoman of the board, wears a Guo Pei dress at the West Coast premiere of “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond” at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)
Forty of Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei’s pieces, which range from $100,000 to millions of dollars, are available to view at the “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond” exhibit at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)
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
Information: (714) 567-3600: bowers.org