The Mi-Lau wedding proved to be a galvanizing moment for the then 39-year-old designer, however, because it reflected an important turning point. It was emblematic of a movement within the Chinese fashion industry in which the ‘West is Best’ attitude that had prevailed until then was being replaced by one where local brands were finally taking their rightful place alongside the big international names. It is no coincidence that just the year before, Peiyi was invited by Nadja Swarovski to create Re Love for Atelier Swarovski – the brand’s first capsule jewelry collection by a Chinese designer. All clean-cut lines and bold stones, it allowed the crystal to take center stage. Also in 2013, he made his debut at Milan Fashion Week and was the first mainland Chinese designer to do so. That Fall/Winter collection – all sequined dresses, luscious velvet and brocade, and embellished bodywear teamed with supple leather – was glamorous and modern and drew inspiration from the magic of the Northern Lights. It showcased Peiyi’s keen attention to detail and an ability to knit together opposites: dark yet delicate; edgy yet soft; daring yet elegant. Today, his customized haute couture has dressed everybody from supermodel Cindy Crawford to Chinese actors Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha) and Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Given that he is affectionately referred to as the ‘goddess maker’, it seems strange to think that Peiyi became a fashion designer almost by chance, studying printmaking from an early age. “I had thought it would be a good career path,” he explains. “My orientation was towards industrial design. I thought at least it would allow me to secure a job with a steady income.” Thankfully, a last-minute change saw him enroll at Beijing’s Central Technology Academy of Fine Arts to study fashion design instead. “When I was in college, there was only one major international fashion magazine in China – Elle – and a handful of foreign fashion titles available from street vendors outside the school,” he laughs. “It was a kind of education in enlightenment.”
This relaxed and self-deprecating attitude defines the designer today, as does his predilection for wearing all black: from his (self-designed) overcoat and hoody to his super-tight jeans and high-top sneakers and even his Tom Ford glasses. He’s also something of an introvert (“I’m not a social designer. I’m more concerned with designing well than being part of the social scene”) and averages two overseas trips a year, the rare moments when he can completely relax. He is thoughtful and quiet, but on the subject of travel the laconic Peiyi instantly becomes animated: “Southern Italy is very beautiful, completely different from its northern cities,” he says, smiling. “I prefer Europe to the United States.”
Peiyi established his studio in Beijing’s Pingod Community neighborhood, an area dotted with tranquil cafés and independent boutiques. “I love visiting the nearby Today Art Museum, it has some really great exhibitions every year,” he says. While friends have been urging him to move to a more fashionable location for years, his quiet two-story workshop suits his somewhat reclusive tendencies.
Shanghai Fashion Week has become a magnet for China’s fast-emerging independent designer labels and Peiyi believes that sometimes the industry’s support of these young people is akin to destructive enthusiasm. “The fashion media goes wild, even if a label has not yet reached a certain level. However, designers are often unprepared for the moment, which results in the disappearance of their label within a year.” This is one of the reasons Peiyi is not keen on designers establishing their own labels as soon as they graduate from college. “You really do need to take time to gain experience,” he stresses. “Managing even the smallest details, such as communicating with factory workers, is not easy.”
Peiyi’s fashion empire now includes Wang Peiyi haute couture, Alex Wang ready-to-wear and a wedding gown collection. There are also collaborations with Omega, SK-II, Shanghai Tang and Vidal Sassoon, among others. The business was built on word of mouth, and regarding social media Peiyi has an open-minded attitude: “The most appropriate method of promotion must be chosen for the right moment,” he says. “The online celebrities, with their huge fan bases, are very beneficial to the sales of ready-to-wear clothing labels.”
Installed at Manufaktur – Swarovski’s cutting-edge crystal atelier in Wattens, Austria – is a custom-made Wang Peiyi brocade dress in black and silver, lavishly embroidered with Swarovski crystals. Peiyi says he as a sentimental bond with crystals and admits that on a customized garment they can exceed half the production cost. “You have a gut feeling when certain pieces would look better with crystals,” he muses. “Crystals can make the texture of the fabric more prominent or the overall image more dazzling. It’s a combination of experience and intuition, there is no fixed model.” As the maker of gorgeous goddess gowns, Peiyi should know.
This story appeared in the Spring/Summer2019 issue of SALT magazine.
Image credits: Alex Hofford/EPA/Rex/Shutterstock; Dave Tacon/Polaris/Eyevine; Keith Tsuji/Getty Images; VCG/Getty Images; Victor Fraile/Getty Images; Yashan Zhang/Getty Images, Lintao Zhang/Getty Images