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Guo Pei, China's doyenne of haute couture, is on first-name terms with many of the country's stage and screen celebrities. "(Zhang) Ziyi said she wanted a qipao," Guo says, referring to the film actress, a member of the China delegation to Greece who needed an outfit to initiate the torch relay before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. "I told her it was a bad idea."
She understood that Zhang wanted an outfit identified with China, but in the West, the traditional gown has become associated with hostesses at Chinese restaurants, Guo says.
The outfit Zhang finally received was a shoulder-baring, white, gown, with phoenix and auspicious clouds embroidery forming a top-to-bottom band in the front. The trim fit was like a qipao, but the typical collar and short sleeves were substituted with what looks like du dou, halter-like underwear women used to cover their chest.
The dress was a great success. Interestingly, when people complimented the actress on it they called it a qipao, and Zhang told Guo this when she phoned her from Athens.
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It has taken a long time for Guo to be accepted. She worked for 10 years in prêt-à-porter fashion design, before opening Rose Studio in Beijing, in 1997, when haute couture was an unfamiliar concept.
Bespoke tailoring was considered inferior to many of the items sold in department stores at that time. Clients often asked her why the clothes she sold at Rose Studio were more expensive than brand name items.
What sustained her, she says, was her passion for couture.
A ready-to-wear designer has to guess what will appeal to the general consumer, she says, but haute couture is easier because "you only need to think about one customer, her needs, her taste and her style".
It also allows her free rein on her creativity: "I can design something very arty and far removed from reality."
Guo admits she has not been a shrewd businesswoman. It is the usual bespoke tailoring rule to ask only for a deposit first, but Guo insisted on the full amount upfront.