YELLOW IS FORBIDDEN Transcends Beyond The Pretension and Elitism of Haute Couture
Yellow Is Forbidden follows China’s most recognisable designer Guo Pei chasing every couture designer’s fantasy—to become part of the exclusive yet savage world of Haute Couture. Set within the new China, Yellow Is Forbidden is a feature documentary encompassing contemporary global power dynamics and the opposition between art and commerce, looking back at the history of couture all wrapped around the beauty of fashion.
Director: Pietra Brettkelly
Cast: Guo Pei, Philip Treacy, Wendi Murdoch, Godfrey Deeny
Country: New Zealand
Language: Chinese, English, French
Runtime: 94 minutes
Once a year, Millennials and Gen Zs alike gather on the social channels of their choosing to get on our high horses and play fashion police. Almost like our version of the Super Bowl, we unite to scrutinise, gawk, and tear to shreds the sometimes giddily extravagant, sometimes comically lacklustre celebrity couture at The MET Gala. It’s become a sport—well at least in my social circle.
So in 2015, when Rihanna, hot off the heels of her relentless album run, stepped onto the red carpet in an outrageously ornate yellow fur-trimmed cape, social media was set ablaze. Behind the constant barrage of omelette memes, a name was put on the map of fashion consciousness—Guo Pei, the first female Chinese designer to have her couture grace the MET Gala.
Yellow Is Forbidden captures the period after Rihanna’s show-stopping red carpet look, following premiere Chinese designer Guo Pei as she prepares for a career-high runway collection in Paris. The campaign would hopefully result in her acceptance into the incredibly coveted and exclusive world of haute couture. The term haute couture itself being a protected accolade, only awarded by the French federation to a select group of members.
There’s a riveting story to be told about breaking the glass ceiling, balancing Chinese tradition with Western modernity, and fighting for a place on the infamously white male dominated French haute couture elite. Yellow Is Forbidden starts off seemingly gesturing towards that direction. But Guo Pei makes it clear very early on: she simply represents herself, not an entire nation.
She is a singular, larger than life personality. Her fight to be recognised amongst the elite isn’t meant to be a representation of China’s efforts to be acknowledged on the global fashion stage. Guo Pei, with her 30 some years of experience, instead anchors the documentary with her palpable drive and endearing sense of whimsy, as director Brettkelly purposefully navigates the camera to quietly observe the various highs and lows of breaking into the snobbish Western boy’s club.
Archival footage shows Guo Pei’s models stiffly walking down the runway with a discernible mix of fear and focus in their eyes. Burdened with strutting in crippling platform shoes, outrageous headpieces, and bulky gowns, Guo Pei explains they were made to mimic the weight of responsibility women face. “The more responsibility a woman faces, the greater they become,” she tells French reporters.
Brettkelly, interestingly enough, carefully leaves just enough moral grey area as to not elevate Guo Pei to hero worship status. Scenes such as arguments about overworking her army of embroiderers and discussions with wealthy Chinese housewives about going under the knife to achieve greatly desired Western features, are intentionally left in. These leave the viewers to ruminate about the ethics and morals behind the glamorous world of couture.
From the get go, it’s made painfully obvious that Guo Pei doesn’t live in the same world as the rest of us, but the same could be said for any high fashion designer. She flaunts her sizable house and affluent connections—which include the likes of Wendi Murdoch and people so achingly wealthy that they own historical chateaus in France—but in the same breath, we’re quickly reminded of what makes her an underdog the audience wants to root for.
The more understated moments juxtapose her luxurious creations, as we see Guo Pei happily seated in her parent’s small apartment recalling their humble beginnings, or in her genuinely down-to-earth interactions with her husband and daughter—something I would like to have seen more of to better illustrate the depth of Guo Pei’s motivations outside being a fashion designer.
The runway finale, a breathtaking culmination of Guo Pei’s years of hard work, is every bit as satisfying and ravishing as the documentary leads it up to be. Yellow Is Forbidden’s striking atmospheric score and cinematic language transcend beyond the pretension and elitism of haute couture. Brettkelly innately understands that she’s not only documenting Guo Pei’s opulent gowns; they’re also high art and history.
As a child, Guo Pei was told by her grandmother that yellow, or more specifically gold, should not be worn by commoners due to its association with the historic ruling class. Despite her adamance that she’s not representing a nation, Yellow Is Forbidden denotes a larger implication: that Guo Pei’s career-defining yellow gown and intrusion into the exclusive world of haute couture are a sign of progress for the colour Yellow, racial connotations and all.
Yellow Is Forbidden was screened as part of Asian Civilisations Museum’s Drop It Like It’s Haute: Style It Up at the Chinese Art and Couture Weekend Festival, and in conjunction with its Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture exhibition.
Watch the trailer here:
About Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture
Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture presents a dialogue between historical and contemporary Chinese design, juxtaposing embroidered masterworks by China’s foremost couturière with Chinese artworks from the Asian Civilisations Museum. Guo Pei’s dramatic, sculptural gowns reflect influences from growing up in Beijing surrounded by Chinese imperial art and mythology. Her creations express her personal take on contemporary fashion and aesthetics. Exploring her impact on everyday lives beyond the runway, the exhibition presents several of Guo Pei’s intricate Chinese bridal gowns – including two directly inspired by artworks in the ACM collection. Serving as points of encounter and departure, the ACM objects invite contemplation on how Guo Pei references and reimagines Chinese art and tradition for China and the world today.
The exhibit runs from 15 June-15 September. More information can be found here.