It was the golden gown meme-d around the world: the gorgeously embroidered, yellow cape that Rihanna wore to the 2015 Met Ball, so heavy and delicate that it took several men to help her carry its train on the red carpet. The designer responsible for the look was Guo Pei, a Chinese fashion designer who specializes in shockingly intricate, wildly complicated clothes, which can take years to make and sell often for upwards of a hundred thousand dollars. As the subject of New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly’s new documentary Yellow is Forbidden, Pei is a force to be reckoned with, a deeply unpretentious fashion designer with an affinity for the kind of clothing you’d sooner imagine appearing in a fairytale than anywhere in the real world.
Brettkelly’s film follows Pei as she assembles a new collection in Paris, though she usually presents her work in China. The move is, in part, because Pei wants nothing more than to be accepted into France’s prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture of the Fédération Française de la Couture, a committee of sorts which establishes industry standards on couture (as a designer you can technically not, no matter the handiwork that goes into your clothes, call it haute couture if it’s doesn’t follow the federation’s rules.)
Pei is a funny, wildly ambitious and over-the-top subject (I chuckled when she made a note out loud at a fabric expo to obtain some hot pink crocodile, as that’s the kind of fabric she’d consider a basic necessity) who houses a massive teddy bear collection in her home. But she’s also an intense, demanding perfectionist, and you’re left biting your nails as she sends her collection down the runway. While viewers may balk at Pei’s excessive approach to clothing, she is a child of China’s Cultural Revolution, born to two Communist party members. And when Pei begged, as a child, for a gold dress of her own, she was told that “yellow is forbidden.”
Thus, Yellow is Forbidden is far more than just a typical fashion documentary, but a study of a designer who’s piercing the white, Western, male-dominated field of haute couture and redefining what it can be in the process. After the film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival, I sat down to speak with Brettkelly about how she came to profile Guo Pei, her philosophy on cinéma vérité, and seeing something in Pei “beyond fashion.”
JEZEBEL: How did you first come to know of Guo Pei’s work and decide to document her?
PIETRA BRETTKELLY: I became aware of the shoes that she makes years ago. At the time, I had just completed my previous film, A Flickering Truth, and I collapsed on the couch. And then after two weeks, I thought, Alright, get another idea. I had written something up about the shoes years ago—that there’s a whole world inside the heel, and that really interested me. I have all these ideas I’d like to explore in my career and one of them for a few years has been about how the middle to upper class in China is increasing and gaining in wealth.
So I sort of googled Guo Pei’s name and out popped the Rihanna thing, which had just happened. There was a line in this article [about Pei] where said she didn’t know who Rihanna was. That really intrigued me. In New Zealand, I feel isolation. I feel isolation from stories and from my filmmaking community and that’s not such a bad thing and so I’m drawn to others isolation. And I thought who doesn’t know who Rihanna is, really? But she didn’t. I’m not particularly interested in fashion per say; I’m interested in tribes of people. There was definitely a complexity in her personality and the work that she was doing, and I saw that it could be something beyond fashion. I could see she was an artist.
What are you typically looking for in a documentary subject?
To me, that they reflect certain aspects of myself [laughs]. Some people say to me, Oh, you must write a book, and I’m like, well I think all my films are semi-autobiographical, anyway. But I’m drawn to driven people who have quite a singular vision—which Guo Pei does have—and they have a creative bent to themselves. I always struggle when I meet people who I know have an exceptional talent and haven’t explored it in their lifetime. And, of course, that’s their choice, but I find such a sadness in that because I think those with gifts, they need to explore them.
It’s interesting because her work is so much about the fantasy. She creates these incredible worlds and intricate structures. And she’s also a deep perfectionist who’s under great stress in the film. Was she ever reluctant to let you into the nitty gritty behind-the-scenes aspects?
Never. What some subjects might do because they’re all wearing a radio mic, they might switch off the radio mic. And she never did that. Which is amazing because most films, there’s a time when people will try and stop you or control it. Because she was still trying to get into the haute couture council, in the subtitles she asked that I not put “haute couture” as her translation, that I just put “couture” or “handmade.” I used different words because she wasn’t officially in [the council]. And that’s a translation thing. So I was fine with that because that’s a context thing.
When you’re filming a documentary like Yellow is Forbidden, in which you don’t speak the same language as your subject, how do you know what you’re getting when you’re filming it?
I don’t! [Laughs] It’s just [my director of photography Jake Bryant] and I, we don’t have translators with us. I get it all translated months later. We really believe in the simplicity of just the two of us. I do really bad sound, and I believe in the intimacy of that. It is amazing what you can gather from what’s going on. Also, Guo Pei and I would use WeChat, which is an online app that translates, if there was something she needed to tell me or I needed to tell her. We just filmed the days and weeks just being with each other, really.
But there is the whole thing of needing the dramatic moments. We’d been filming for about a year, and Jake and I spoke about when we were going to get these big moments. There was was one day where there was a lot of shouting and everybody was yelling at each other and throwing up pieces of cloth and stuff like that, and Jake and I were filming it and were both like, Oh my god, something’s happening. We filmed all of this and were both excited and wondered what the heck was going on. Then, when I got it translated when we’re back home to New Zealand, I called him back and said, “You’re never gonna guess what the scene was about.” They were talking about what they were going to order for lunch. But that’s the kind of wonderful life Guo Pei creates around her. They laugh a lot.
She’s very funny.
So funny. But yeah, the process of not understanding, it’s amazing what you can read. And I also found it amazing over the years what people let you into if they don’t think you understand, even if you say to them, “I’m getting it all translated.” We’d film these scenes and it would be amazing what would happen in the scene. So I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. It’s good for my films.
Other than the interview we see you do with her parents—and we see her doing press for other outlets while filming the movie—the documentary doesn’t follow a stereotypical format, there’s no talking heads, no section where you sort of lay out her past career.
I never do films where I make anybody sit down and do an interview. I hate that kind of storytelling. I find it one step away from news. I’m making a film and there has to be a different approach to that. I’m also expecting the audience to want an experience and to not know exactly everything that’s going on. I also don’t like things to be tied up too neatly in a bow at the end because life’s not like that either.
In all my films, it’s a filmic choice that I make to be an observer. I was on this jury last year in Europe and one of the jurors was really anti-the film that the other three of us wanted to give first place to because he said that’s cinéma vérité and what’s that, that’s not directing. And I actually think cinéma vérité is so much more difficult than when you just control things. I could have shot the film a lot faster if I was controlling everything. But that’s the intimacy I wanted or the representation of her personality, which I don’t think you get when you sit somebody down and you interview someone. You don’t get their personality—you get a performance.
Was there anything about her or her work that surprised you while making the movie?
When we started I couldn’t believe the detail. She was also across all the business, the scene in the film where she’s talking to the VIP client who’s spent a million bucks just like that. I had seen other fashion films trying to understand the industry, and from what I saw in the other films, I couldn’t see that anybody else was across all that detail in the same way. That really blew me away—that there wasn’t somebody else in charge, though her husband is also involved across the business, but she’s the one doing it all. And also how prolific she is. She designs like 2,000 dresses a year because she does the haute couture lines, then all these clients, and then she was also approached to do some films so she was designing for films. I was like oh my goodness, this is a phenomenal amount of work.
You said that you were attracted to her isolation, but it’s clear in the film she’s trying to push her work and get recognition outside of China. She’s interested in being aligned with Paris’ haute couture and all these older designers like Balenciaga. There’s that moment in the film when Philip Treacy says to her: don’t go commercial, be “more Chinese.” And I can imagine that must be difficult because she’s interested in being a part of the larger conversation.
I think there’s a fine line—and I don’t know if she would voice it this way—between acceptance and assimilation. I think she was finding her way in what that meant. Her drive was to be accepted, so how far do you go? And even when she says [when casting her runway show in Paris], I don’t want any Asian models, no Chinese models; I just want Europeans, it’s kind of heartbreaking. But I get what the motivation was. She wanted her clothes to not be seen as costume. I think she felt that if she sent them out on Chinese models people would go, oh it’s Chinese costumery.
Watching the film, you feel her stress creating the show, the mounting expenses, the difficulties of finding a venue, and when you finally see the show, it’s breathtaking, but it was such a battle-filled road to get there. What was going on in your head watching the final show?
For me, to be honest, I was so relieved it was a great show. I wanted it for her, of course, but I needed it for my film. I couldn’t have some shitty show and then, “Oh, she went back to China and put her tail between her legs.” That would have been an ending. Failure is also interesting, and some of my film’s failure is the ending, I’m not afraid of that. But I was hugely relieved when these garments started to take shape. [I said] okay, this is looking amazing. There was this whole other subject line I had in some scenes, but I dropped it, about the gold fabric we see being created. They really struggled with embroidering it because the needles kept on breaking and it wasn’t working, and they were up against time. And I was like, oh, god, this bloody fabric that I filmed the inspiration of, the printing of, I mean they were discussing not even using it, and I was like, oh no it’s my bloody through line! But they did manage to work with it. When they got to the final show, I was like, thank god. I could see in her, as well, this amazing relief that it all came together.