In her latest film, Yellow is Forbidden, kiwi documentary-maker Pietra Brettkelly (A Flickering Truth, The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins) follows Chinese designer Guo Pei journey as she makes her Paris Haute Couture Week debut and aims to join the exclusive world of Paris’s Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
Yellow is Forbidden: From China to Couture
Givenchy, Chanel, Dior. Haute Couture is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world and consists of mostly European men from privileged backgrounds. No Chinese designer has ever been invited to join the French fashion federation, home and regulators the use of the term “haute couture”.
Guo Pei’s upbringing did not have any of the trappings that would suggest she was on her way to international fame and fortune. So how did the daughter of a communist soldier, primary school teacher and the Cultural Revolution end up trying to break down the walls of such a revered establishment, determined to be recognised amongst the rarefied few who can call themselves Haute Couture designers?
Guo Pei catapulted into fashion headlines around the world in 2015 when Rihanna wore her spectacular canary yellow gown to that year’s Met Gala. I found it astonishing that she’d never heard of Rihanna before she was approached to lend her the dress. How could she not have heard of one of the world’s most famous singers?
Yellow is Forbidden primarily focuses on Guo’s preparations for her Spring 2017 show at the La Conciergerie in Paris (the former prison where Marie Antoinette was held prior to her trial and execution), and her attempt to be accepted into the elite world of Haute Couture designers.
I was hooked from the film’s opening scene; a gasp in the darkness, faceless voices talking about the need for light. Then we are greeted with the film’s first image as the shape of a dress comes into focus.
Guo, like the couture designers who came before her, lives in the paradigm between fashion, sculpture and high finance. She doesn’t sell any of her couture pieces, instead, she keeps them as a priceless, personal collection. At one point in the film, we see her with one of her clients, a successful plastic surgeon, who spends around €750,000 with her on a new season wardrobe. I embraced this symbolism; Guo is a strong, successful woman who’s clientele includes strong, successful women.
The film weaves a narrative as beautiful as Guo’s embroidery work. The designer is immensely likeable. Through the film, she invites us into her private world. We see her in her elegant home where she is a loving mother to her daughters. We meet her parents and discover her to be a loving daughter, and learn the origins of how she learned to sew as a toddler to help her blind mother. She is also a tough businesswoman and demanding creator. Her team of over 500 workers toil away with age-old embroidery techniques; all pieces, in the tradition of haute couture, are hand-made.
Guo Pei’s rise in the fashion world coincides with China’s ranking as a global power. Her work references China’s past while simultaneously embodying its future. She was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2016.
Yellow is Forbidden is her story, told beautifully by BrettKelly, highlighting the tension between art and commerce, culture and Couture. “Guo Pei is an inspiration to every person who dreamed a truly impossible dream,” says Brettkelly.
Watch the trailer above. Yellow is Forbidden is being screened as part of the NZ International Film Festival. For the full schedule and ticket information, visit the NZIFF website.