The room is quiet, and Guo Pei is nervous. She’s waiting with her husband to meet the president of the Haute Couture Commission — a moment that will surely define her career as a fashion designer. If accepted into this inner circle of elite fashion designers, she will finally feel as if she’s made it on a global scale.
In the film Yellow is Forbidden, director Pietra Brettkelly builds her film around moments of tense anticipation. In this particular scene, the audience hones in on her nervous breath and uncomfortable body language as she waits nervously. It becomes abundantly clear how she feels like an outsider — without saying anything at all.
She calls this technique "considered quietness," and according to her website, it is what allows "the subjects to tell their stories."
In-between moments of silence and beautiful landscape shots, Brettkelly captures the overarching challenge Pei faces. More than anything else, she wants to be accepted in Paris as a front-runner in haute couture, but to be taken seriously, she’s afraid she will have to give up parts of herself that define her as a designer, including her traditional Chinese heritage.
The film flows chronologically; carefully documenting the chaos it takes to make a fashion show happen — from the concept of her designs to the moment they are worn on the runway.
After watching the film, it becomes evident that there are many factors other than a designer’s talent that determine their status and prominence. All too often, these factors are political.
One scene that illustrates the undercurrents of the fashion industry is when Pei sits on the couch with her mother and father. She recalls a moment from her childhood when she asked her grandmother for a yellow dress. Her grandmother told her she couldn’t have one because it wasn’t a color for commoners.
Ironically, one of Pei’s most famous works is a yellow dress, which was worn by Rihanna at the 2015 Met Gala.
Perhaps Brettkelly wants the audience to realize that the conflict is more than Pei finding acceptance in the fashion industry. Instead, the real struggle is Pei’s inner conflict to not let society’s rules define what she creates.