The kimono is a national costume for which China has no equivalent. When most Westerners picture Chinese dress, they think of the Mao jacket, or of the qipao , a sexy sheath with a mandarin collar and frog closings. The Han dress movement, which started a decade ago to protest the dominance of Western fashion, encourages its followers to post pictures of themselves in period costume. When I visited, in early January, everyone seemed to be wearing jeans and puffers.
Even in the Dashanzi Art Zone, a former factory complex where galleries and design companies are concentrated, there is little of the fashion street theatre that enlivens comparable neighborhoods in Tokyo, Berlin, and Brooklyn. We were walking through a residential hutong—an alleyway that had not yet been gentrified—where sooty wash hung from clotheslines.
But in a climate hostile to personal expression both sexes wore the same shapeless clothing as a badge of patriotism. They had thrown her shoes—a pair of high heels—up into a tree. Guo recently opened a Paris atelier in order to qualify for a slot on the calendar for Paris Couture Week. They are impatient with drabness and proud to assert their national identity—not to say their buying power. Their court dressmaker, who was unknown in the West until recently, and to whom the West was virtually unknown until sixteen years ago, is Guo Pei.
There are two Guo Peis, however. Guo A is a counterrevolutionary—a conservative whose work rejects not just the austerities of Maoism but also the youthquake of the nineteen-sixties. She borrows her silhouettes from the pages of Eisenhower-era Vogue, in which socialites of indeterminate age, with arched eyebrows and a slouch, wore tailored sheaths under a matching coat, or boxy little Chanel jackets with braid and gold buttons. Guo B is a fabulist of sovereign fancy.
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She samples images of dress from Renaissance art, opera, Gothic fairy tales, or wherever she finds them in pre-Sputnik fashion history, and recombines their hallmarks—a sleeve, a ruff, an apron, panniers—with fantastical decoration that alludes to her own heritage. Porcelain is a recurring theme, especially blue-and-white.
A mermaid gown that Charles James might have made for Gypsy Rose Lee is crossbred with a Ming vase; a cascade of ruffles evokes the waterfall in a brush-painted landscape.
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They do, however, advertise her talents on the runway and on the Internet. Rihanna asked to borrow a coronation cape of sunflower-yellow satin, trimmed in matching fox, with a sixteen-foot train and some fifty pounds of 3-D embroidery. Resplendent and impassive, she took the stairs like a temple idol ascending to her altar, and the image went viral.
So did Photoshopped versions of it lampooning the cape as an omelette. The installation sprawled across three floors, taking over the Astor Court and the Chinese galleries and juxtaposing their contents—devotional sculpture, masterpieces of calligraphy, Qing ceramics—with several centuries of couture inspired by Eastern exoticism. In a high-ceilinged gallery, encircled by great Buddhas, a gown by Guo had pride of place.
Long tongues of brocade sheathed an armature shaped like the dome of St. Each tongue was so densely embroidered with gold thread that its surface looked chased. Some of the pairings of sacred art and decadent couture gave off a whiff of sacrilege. Yet the dress, like the show, asked you to suspend your prejudice toward fashion as a vain pursuit and consider it as the mandarins did: an aspect of self-cultivation. Guo was pleased with the attention, though unawed.
The honor, she said, belonged to China. Guo A is the one you meet. She is a gracious woman of forty-nine, pretty and petite. There is nothing of the fashion priestess about her—no exaggerated chic. She exudes naturalness and a conventional femininity. Her husband and partner, Cao Bao Jie, known as Jack, is a rugged-looking businessman from Taiwan—an importer and converter of luxury European textiles.
His wealth staked Guo to her career, and his devotion has nurtured it since they met, in the late nineteen-nineties. Jack and Guo have two daughters, eight and sixteen; they live in a northern suburb of Beijing, in a private house whose massive chandeliers, white leather sofas, and plush media room would not seem out of place in an upscale enclave of Houston. Guo has a collection of Teddy bears, and Jack has one of batiks. Nearly everything about Guo A is anomalous in the Western fashion world, not least her indifference to it.
She sticks with traditional talismans—a phoenix, a dragon, butterflies—of good luck or longevity.
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The house specialty is wedding and evening wear of delirious opulence, with five- or six-digit price tags, and here the gap closes between Guos A and B. Yet her virtuosity is mysterious, considering that she has only ever seen haute couture in a museum. Jack took her abroad, for the first time, in , partly to acquaint her with the antique Chinese textiles in overseas collections.
When I asked her about mentors or models, she hesitated. He retired in , as the May uprisings in Paris threatened to disrupt the old order. Guo has a similar distaste for youthful insurrection. Older women, she said, inspire her more than younger ones. Brides are an exception, however. Last year, according to the BBC, the Chinese wedding industry generated revenues of some eighty billion dollars.
The average expenditure per couple is a third greater than the average wage. The white gown for the vows was by Dior, but to the tea ceremony the bride and groom wore traditional red-and-gold costumes by Guo Pei.
Many of her patrons might spend as much on dinner. I went with two friends and one of their older brothers. His hair was long and lank. He hardly looked up.
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He was, at this point, very deep into an addiction to heroin. Backlit, he looked like some woodland ghoul. But he played in long, convoluted paragraphs and snappy banjo blurts. Torrents of melody poured out of his stubby, tarred hands, chiming and snarling into the night. The sounds produced by the bassist, Phil Lesh, were by turns plummy and thick, trebly and melodic. The music was somehow both pretty and mean, bouncy and diabolical, busy and clean. You could get lost in it. I went again the next night. That show, in retrospect, was the best I would ever see.
Later, I got the tapes. To my ears, the performances held up, and the music, on repetition, began to feel like something composed, rather than improvised.
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It took on a life of its own, apart from my experience of having witnessed its creation. The tapes themselves are long gone, but I still listen to those shows from time to time. The Grateful Dead occupy a curious spot in the canon. Their music has turned out to be extremely resilient, considering that they were primarily a live act and effectively ceased to exist seventeen years ago, when Garcia died, and that for many of the years prior to that how many is just about the most debated question in Deadland they were a weak incarnation of themselves.
They made a lot of studio albums, but few memorable ones, and had just one Top Forty hit in thirty years, and not for lack of trying. History, admittedly, is short. The band has released a hundred archival concert recordings, under various rubrics, but they also often though not always tolerated the taping of their concerts by people in the audience, as long as the tapes were traded, not sold.
This spring, the Library of Congress announced that it was adding a Dead recording to its National Recording Registry. But because a good audience tape of it circulated right after the show, and because a particularly clean soundboard version materialized, in the eighties, with the appearance of the first batch of Betty Boards, and because it is a polished and accessible example of the band at a high point, it became a mainstay of most tape collections and is possibly their most beloved piece of work. Blair Jackson, a Grateful Dead historian and biographer, estimates that it has been copied two million times.
Some believe that the show never happened, that the tape is just a collection of performances culled from other shows. It is very easy, and in many circles compulsory, to make fun of the Dead. Even the fanatic can admit to a few things. The Dead were musically self-indulgent, and yet, to some ears, harmonically shallow. They played one- and two-chord jams that went on for twenty or thirty minutes.
Oh, to have been in Rotterdam! Even their straightforward songs could go on for ten or twelve minutes. Pop-craft buffs, punkers, and anyone steeped in the orthodoxy of concision tend to plug their ears to the noodling, while jazz buffs often find it unsophisticated and aimless. For those attracted to the showy side of rock, the Dead were always an unsightly ensemble, whose ugliness went undiminished in middle age—which happened to coincide with the dawn of MTV. They were generally without sex appeal. Even the high-tech light shows of later years and the spaceship twinkle of their amplifiers could not compensate for a lumpy stage presence.
They could be sloppy, unrehearsed.
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They forgot lyrics, sang out of key, delivered rank harmonies, missed notes, blew takeoffs and landings, and laid down clams by the dozen. Their lyrics were often fruity—hippie poetry about roses and bells and dew.