What does Guo Pei want? This is the question lurking at the heart of Pietra Brettkelly’s new documentary on the exacting Chinese fashion designer who first skyrocketed into the public eye after designing Rihanna’s infamous canary yellow dress to the 2015 New York Met Gala. The extravagant ensemble was representative of Pei’s opulent, more-is-more aesthetic: taking over 50,000 man-hours over two years to complete, it weighed an astonishing 55 pounds and required the aid of three attendants to hold the massive train. It wasn’t the first time Pei had saddled a model with a dress that could have smothered them: video footage of one of her first major fashion shows sees models struggling to walk the runway without collapsing under the weight of massive dresses or tripping on gaudy platform heels. Later in the film, during a key Paris fashion show that doubled as an unofficial tryout for membership in the esteemed and highly exclusive Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture—the governing body of French fashion—Pei realizes in horror that one of her models is effectively walking the runway blind, her visibility almost completely blocked by her bizarre headpiece. Miraculously the model stays upright and completes her walk. But why does Pei feel compelled to punish the fingers of her seamstresses and the backs of her models with such nightmarishly complex work? And why insist so much on doing shows in Paris instead of her native China? Again we must ask: what does Guo Pei want?
For the answer, one need look no further than the title of the film. During a visit to her elderly parents’ apartment, we learn that restriction had been handed down from the time of Pei’s grandmother who lived during the Qing Dynasty. Yellow was a color for royalty and other prominent people; mere peasants were restricted from wearing it. When the imperial system was torn down in the early twentieth century, class-based prohibitions concerning “acceptable” garb were replaced with Maoist ones. For decades, the only acceptable outfit was the Mao suit, a bland four-pocketed tunic. Fashion, or what was left of it, was considered a “light industry” by the government, not a means of artistic pursuit. But it was in the age of Deng Xiaoping’s post-Maoist reforms where these restrictions began to be lifted that Pei first came of age and entered the fashion world. And here we see the key to her work: the giddy rejection of past austerities. Gone are the imperial restrictions on color; gone are the Communist rules against ostentation and individuality. Her dresses are sumptuous, voluptuous, and luxurious with bold colors, intricate stitch-work, and embroidered jewelry.
She is truly the new designer for a new China. But Yellow is Forbidden has very little idea what to do with her. It’s a scattershot, painfully paced film with only the Paris fashion show deadline to provide forward momentum. We watch as she absorbs Occidental aesthetics and Christian art to create a collection she feels will earn the respect of her Western peers, but we learn very little about what these things mean to her beyond superficial inspirations for garment patterns.
(In one interview she reflects that her time studying Catholic cathedrals has effected her thoughts on God, a stunning revelation which is promptly ignored.)
We hear her anxieties about being a Chinese woman trying to break into European high fashion, but they’re shoved aside for more scenes of Pei traveling through France and marveling at picturesque mansions and architecture. She even admits early in the film that she doesn’t want to represent China—she represents herself, a claim which in context with the rest of the documentary seems baffling. We never get an explanation for how utterly bizarre and just plain weird her Paris collection is considering their rigid classical Roman influences. What fifteenth century fresco of Jesus inspired the giant white helmet that blinded one of her runway models? And finally we never get an idea of Pei’s possible future after she gets accepted by the Chamber Syndicale. The film is all about Pei’s immediate appetites for recognition—recognition as a Chinese designer; recognition as a fashion icon; recognition as a great artist. But the explorations of Pei’s mind are stunted and underdeveloped. We might know what Guo Pei wants, but the better question would have been who she is in the first place.