Guo Pei’s Couture Fantasy Report

Thanks to a friend, I had the good fortune of seeing the Guo Pei Couture Fantasy show at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. While much has been written about this fashion designer whose work combines elements of theatre, fashion, sculpture, and performance, what touched me most was her focus on the details.


As a global fashion designer, Pei’s mastery of the entire presentation of an outfit is something to behold. Pei’s ensembles include not only the garment, but the jewelry, often headwear, sometimes outerwear, and custom 3D printed shoes. The silver embroidered and pleated ensemble below includes a bolero embellished with trim, a necklace, earrings, bracelet or cuff, and ring in tiger eye blue. It’s definitely not only about the dress.


Proud to be Chinese and of her Chinese heritage, the revival of embroidery techniques from Chinese history is central to Pei’s mission. And wow, has she done it! Pei’s innovative use of materials is evidenced throughout the exhibit and signals her mastery. While embroidery is clearly the star technique, I experienced a growing awareness of the important role that pleats play in Pei’s work.

Pei uses pleats in an unusual way. Ordinarily, a pleat is used to soften edges, to add ease where the body needs to move. Some examples include a pleat in the center back of a man’s dress shirt to allow for arm movement and in a woman’s skirt to add drape and movement. Instead, Pei uses pleats to add stability, structure, and volume. The net effect is that the pleats dramatically increase the space that the wearer takes up and establish a strong perimeter around the wearer.

Pei also makes the pleats out of an unexpected material; silk. Silk is a delicate fabric that I associate with drape and flow but here it adds architectural form.

My friend and I tried hard to deconstruct how these were done without getting in trouble with a security guard or looking like absolute weirdos. We had modest success looking at another ensemble.

The volume of the pleats provides architectural framing for the embroidery (Embroidered Front). The folds of two pleats face each other like envelopes with flaps together (Pleated Sleeve). The rows of pleats are interleaved two on the top row followed by two on the bottom row (Pleated Sleeve). The pleats look secured and slightly separated at the body by clear beads and anchored together (Pleat Detail). I would have loved a much closer look!


What I enjoyed photographing most was a composition of the bust and or visage entangled in the frame. Each ensemble and mannequin conveyed the impression of a presence. I attempted to capture each presence as though glimpsed passing by. Even in the incompleteness of these photos, I want to know more.


There’s so much more I’d love to share and show about the incredible Guo Pei and her work. But it’s more fun to see it yourself and as of now you still have a chance. Due to Couture Fantasy’s wild success, the Guo Pei Legion of Honor Exhibit has been extended through November 27, 2022.


  • A professional milliner’s thoughts on the exhibit. MilliStarr