Inside “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond” at Bowers Museum

I turn around the corner, and my breath catches in my throat when I see it. It’s almost like the curtain parts, and I’m treated to a grand, extravagant production. Guo Pei’s exhibit in Santa Ana is somewhat like a visual aria—beautiful music wrapped in overheated drama, punctuated by a masterly command of whispered emotions. It’s all sung in fabric, of course, if that makes any sense at all. Perhaps it doesn’t, maybe not now, at least. But once you see the collection, which touts more than 40 pieces, you’ll know exactly what I meant.

To understand Guo Pei, you have to look into her past. Born to parents who were members of China’s Communist Party, Guo Pei grew up in a time when women wore Mao suits and rarely anything else. Inspired by the Stalin tunic, the Mao suit was a utilitarian, androgynous look comprised of a high-collared, loose tunic and shapeless trousers. So you can see why the designer decision to pursue a fashion degree was an early sign of her boundless ambition. It worked out well though, because by the time she wrapped up her college education, China started to go through a period of experimentation with fashion.

Guo Pei stood out early on. After a few successful years working a clothing brand manufacturer, Guo Pei took off on her own and launched her namesake fashion brand. She wasn’t just a young fashion hopeful anymore. Mind you, by early 2000’s, she was already scoring a slew of highly coveted commissions, her brand growing slowly and steadily with dazzling, over-the-top getups. In the recent years, her designs have found cult status on both sides of the globe—and deservedly so.

Walking through the exhibit, I feel her stirrings of genius. I feel it when perusing her 2015 collection, Garden of Soul, in which Guo Pei interprets the gardens where Van Gogh painted his irises. I gawk at one voluminous fairytale-esque garment after the other, which are paired with Guo Pei’s signature sky-high, sculptural shoes. (You can easily spent a few minutes just exploring the details of the heels). The corridor opens up to the main hall, where I immediately recognize pieces from Guo Pei’s fifth runway show, Elysium, a fantastical reimagination of the beginnings of the world. Made entirely out of natural materials—gold lace and latticed pieces of bamboo—the dress that takes my breath away is “Big Gold,” a odd, oblong-shaped piece that also looks like a kind of art installation.

The exhibition flows to Guo Pei’s 2007 collection, An Amazing Journey in a Childhood Dream, which she dreamed up long before Rihanna’s Met Gala gown thrusted her into an international spotlight. It then moves to Legend, Guo Pei’s third haute couture collection, which was inspired by an 18th-century Swiss cathedral and boasts incomprehensibly intricate textiles that I must’ve stared at, slack-jawed, for a solid 10 minutes.

But, truth be told, there’s just so much more in between. And even if you’re not a fashion enthusiast, there’s so much to be appreciated here. Because Guo Pei’s work, devoid of any wearable practicalities, can also be viewed as art. In fact, personally, that’s the only way I look at it.

I could speak volumes about the Chinese fashion designer’s embroidery and bead-work, pen essays on how she captures the essence of a theme in the most magical way, and rant and rave about how she folds fabric like decadent layers of a towering mille-feuille. But no matter how hard I try, there are certain things I can’t effectively describe—like fireworks and a really fiery sunset. All I can say is: You just have to see it. But in the meantime, before you plan a trip out to Orange County, here’s a series of images I took at Bowers Museum.