Michelle Li is a NYC-based costume designer for the screen and stage. You can see her latest work in the film Chaperonerecently premiered at the Sundance Film festival and her website here. We sat down to talk to her about her personal and professional journey.
Interview conducted by Katie Constantine & Tiffany Chan
Edited by Tiffany Chan, cover image provided by the artist
Q: How did you first fall in love with fashion and costume design specifically?
Funnily enough, I stumbled head first into costume design! I never thought I’d end up working in entertainment, let alone behind the scenes. I always knew that I was going to pursue a career in the Arts but thought it’d take the form of fine arts or graphic design. Discovering theatre in highschool really opened my eyes to the collaborative nature of what we do but I still didn’t know one could make a career of it. However, finding costume design in college felt like coming home; it combined all the aspects of my art-making practice that I loved – working with my hands, illustration, daydreaming about a script + its inhabitants, and swapping ideas with creative partners.
Q: What was your professional path like? How did you get started in the industry?
I started out dayplaying as a costume production assistant (PA) on a half-dozen different television shows in NYC while at the same time, trying to grow my freelance design portfolio. Being a PA is really tough work (thank you to ALL the PAs out there) but being able to see how different costume studios ran their organizational systems was invaluable as I gradually stepped more towards pursuing my own design career. I took what worked for me and brought them into my own projects. My lucky break was when the producers of a short I did a few months earlier called and asked if I was interested in designing a film called Shiva Baby. I fell off my bed in sheer astonishment, as it would be my first feature!
Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced as a designer?
Gaining equal respect whether through pay equity or creative credit as costume designers is something we all struggle with. There’s a misconception that what we do is “women’s work” and that it’s easy and frivolous. Fast fashion has also severely warped the way people think about how much labor and time goes into creating clothing. But we are culture makers and have the capacity to create a lasting impact through our designs. The talented makers who we work with are literally engineers of fabric and structure. Imagine The Matrix without the costumes – you cannot separate the two. So, I’d say that is probably the biggest challenge; educating those who don’t know (and not out of malice, either) what costume designers and costume artisans really do.
Q: What are the greatest rewards of your job?
The people and memories you make along the way, hands down. I love the filmmaking and costume design process. Being able to witness an actor inhabit your costumes and bring a character to life is palpable and it never gets old. The moments in-between filmmaking can also be wondrous – one late evening on the set for Acidman, the entire cast & crew were bundled together on top of a windy mountain. We were filming a scene under a crystal clear night sky when suddenly, we all swear we saw UFOs blink by. I’ll never forget that moment we shared together!
Q: Were there ever moments throughout your career when you doubted yourself/what you were doing? How did those moments ultimately resolve?
A mentor I had shared a quote with me that I still revisit frequently : “The only way out is through.” There have been many moments of trepidation in my process where I’ve struggled with “what ifs” but I have to remind myself that by making a decision, a solution will follow. For example, when I designed Kaley Cuoco’s dress for her character Sheila in Meet Cute, I was caught up between all the different yellow gingham swatches I could choose from. I was so worried about not choosing the right fabric for her dress but I had to calm my thoughts and trust my gut – and I’m glad I did. Because looking back, I can’t see the dress fabric in any other way.
Q: What is the quirkiest side job you’ve ever worked?
I don’t know if this counts as quirky or exciting, but sometimes I help my mom out at her small business by packing & shipping medical instruments.
Q: What motivates you to continue taking projects (what criteria does a project need to have for you to sign on)? Does/did it differ between stage and screen production?
A project has to have either extremely captivating characters or a unique story arch. I like designing in a wide variety of genres and mediums because it not only pushes me to grow as an artist but it also keeps the work interesting.
Q: Roughly speaking, what is your design process? Is it roughly the same for each project you’ve worked on (feel free to contrast mediums for this question as well)? What is the interplay between showing character development/evolution and sartorial storytelling? Do those two elements always work together?
My design process always begins with reading the script a few times. I read it once to get a grasp of the story and then a second or third time to really analyze the characters and their motivations. I then turn towards gathering visual research to ground the costumes — the internet, books, historical references, even physical site visits. If my timeline allows, I also really enjoy creating preliminary costume illustrations of the characters to capture an initial essence regardless if it even looks like the end product. As far as the conceptual side goes of making sure the story arch of a character comes across through their costumes, understanding how far you can abstract the design depends on the script/story. The most hyper-stylized example of what I mean by this is comparing costume design for opera to costume design for a modern television show – in an opera, you may be able to get away with the suspension of disbelief because of the inherent proscenium and ability to make grand abstractions where as in a modern TV show, those same opera costumes in this space might connotate a dream sequence.
Q: What is the creative collaboration like with other teams (hair/makeup, lighting, etc)?
The costume design department works most closely with the Hair and Makeup departments. We share our mood boards and ideas with each other pretty early on to make sure we’re on the same page about the character before going too far. We also work together with the Art department and Production Designer to ensure that the costumes don’t end up clashing (or making sure they intentionally clash!) and that the overall palette works for the cohesive vision.
Q: What advice would you give someone just starting out in the field? Or, what is the best advice that someone ever gave you?
It’s not all glitz and glam, but the best advice I’ve ever received is that it’s called “show business” for a reason — it really is a business! Keeping that in mind has been transforming to the way I approach my work because one can dream endlessly about how expensive and magnificent a costume can be, but making sure that your design can jump from imagination to reality in addition to meeting expectations through the process of sourcing, budgeting, and scheduling is quite meticulous.
Q: In your opinion, what are the most important considerations that make up good/effective design? (and does it differ between movies/theatre as different mediums)?
An effective costume design should reveal to an audience something about a character that isn’t being verbally or physically expressed. For example, if a character is feeling sad, does the designer decide to put them in a softer silhouette or does the designer put them in a rigid suit? What do those different costume choices convey about the character and how they “put their armor on”, so to speak? I also think that good design needs to have an additive purpose to the story otherwise it’s redundant. I also think that aspects of these considerations apply to both movies and theatre but in theatre, you get to play with the immediate elements of time and space in a way where you don’t get to in film.
Q: How do you maintain your creative energy? Do you have specific things you do to avoid burnout?
I’m a huge advocate for taking time off when you need it — and I don’t believe that has to be as grand as booking a vacation to the other side of the world! It can be something as simple as spending time with friends, meditating or even drinking a cup of coffee without a phone in your hand. All these moments that you allow yourself to be present add up and equate to a better work-life balance. I can’t create meaningful art and enjoy my creative process if I’m constantly inputting stressors. Even machines will break down without a tune-up.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
If I’m having a leisurely day, I’ll wake up around 8:30am, do a short morning meditation and then make myself a cup of coffee while reading the latest issue of New York Magazine – that might last about an hour. Then I’ll move over to my home studio to check emails, read scripts and catch up on any other work I have to do. I’ll take a break mid-afternoon to exercise and then return to working after that. After making dinner in the evening, I may continue to work if it’s a busy day or I’ll choose to turn on some television (currently working through The Sopranos) or play a video game (The Witcher 3) before getting some shut eye. That’s my day!
Q: Can you tell us about a costume of which you are really proud?
I know I mentioned this earlier, but I am really proud of the yellow gingham sundress me and my team created for Kaley Cuoco in an upcoming rom-com called Meet Cute. We had less than a week before the first day of filming when we switched gears and decided to build the dress instead of shopping for it – nothing coming back from the stores was right. I designed it, my assistant designer swatched it, my wardrobe supervisor draped it and my set costumer + an additional tailor helped stitch it. This whole process was done in 4 days from conception to completion and on top of that, my incredible team made 8 identical dresses for the various stunts that Kaley’s character Sheila would be doing. That’s the kind of costume magic I’m talking about!
Q: What is the funniest/snarkiest/most memorable reaction someone has had to your work? (actors seeing their costumes inclusive!)
It was pretty awesome and surreal to see people dressing up in my designs from Shiva Baby for Halloween. My brain still has a hard time recognizing that “Hey! You did that!”
Q: Some parents may discourage their children from following a creative path (especially Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) parents), out of concern for financial stability (or at the very least, worry greatly about their children). How would you address those parents/their concerns?
AAPI representation within the entertainment industry is still growing and I think that’s a big factor in many parent’s hesitation. They don’t see folks who look like them and so how can they be sure their children can make it? I count my lucky stars every day to have parents who are supportive of my career choice, especially considering they’re both immigrants who have chosen financially stable professions (doctor and accountant). Growing up, they tried to persuade me into studying medicine but I really had no interest in that at all – I wanted to draw and they saw my penchant for it. I may be paraphrasing my father, but if you pursue something that you’re passionate about, you will succeed one way or another. I’d tell parents that their concerns are very valid but what worthwhile things in life are without risk?
Q: How has the COVID pandemic changed your day-to-day workflow? What impact has it had on the industry as a whole and do you think that these changes will be long-lasting?
Our industry was definitely shaken. Costume studios all across the country were turned on their heads because we were one of the departments who had closest contact to the most vulnerable – actors who couldn’t wear PPE on-screen. Shopping had to be quarantined, fittings became remote – it was really nutty but really important as our unions tried to put together action plans for working in COVID times. I’m grateful it hasn’t impacted my own workflow too much but it is challenging. I have had a few completely remote costume fittings and it can be nerve wracking because you miss a lot of the non-verbal body language an actor might give you during a fitting. Nearly three years later, it’s still with us but I know our industry will continue to adapt and move forward.
Q: What are some of your future goals/dream projects?
I’m attracted to stories where the main character struggles with their flaws and ego. That being said, I would love to design an episodic dramedy series like Pen15, Fleabag, Hacks or Russian Doll. I think there’s so much emotional depth that can be explored through dramedy and the costumes that come with it.
Q: What inspired you to create a light (Russell Kahn) vs. dark (Zachary Quinto) motif in Chaperone?
The role that Quinto plays, Chaperone, reminded me of the Grim Reaper and so I took inspiration from that figure to create a modern, minimalist version. From the dark sunglasses invoking a skull to the black gloves with 3 point stitching alluding to bones. Conversely, Kahn’s role as Client in a lighter look alludes towards their impending life transition.
Q: When outfits are kept simple, like in Chaperone, do you feel it’s harder to reflect the characters’ personalities?
It’s a unique task because you can be limited in your choices, but simplicity can also allow for a range of freedom born out of creative restraint. Although the costumes in Chaperone were very simple, it was succinct and a lot about the character can be expressed through silhouette and fabric. Simple designs can sometimes allow for more conceptual and metaphorical ideas to come through.
Q: In a short like Chaperone that plays on mystery and things unsaid, how did you use the wardrobe to enhance the intrigue and questioning of what is going on with these two characters?
I think the simple costumes very much added to the mysterious dynamic between Client and Chaperone because you couldn’t glean much information about either person based on what they are wearing. That suspense and lack of clarity is important because in the story, Chaperone and Client are also trying to slip under the radar and go unnoticed.
Just for fun…
Q: What are your favorite comfort foods/drinks/favorite snacks?
My first meal back to New York after being away is always this amazing Korean fast-casual dining spot called Rolly Kimbab. They have incredible portions for really good prices and all their food is made right in front of you. I also appreciate a nice kombucha and a Cypress Grove cheese.
Q: What do you do for self-care/unwind after long days?
I love a good epsom salt bath after a long day on set! It’s easy, therapeutic and calming.