From directing to costume designing, Asian women continue to flourish in the film industry. This Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating the accomplishments of Asian women in show business.
We recently talked with Chinese-American costume designer Michelle J. Li.
From comedy to romance, Li has designed costumes for a wide array of movies and short films like “Shiva Baby” and “Chaperone.” You can see more of her work on her Instagram @michellejxli.
In this interview, Li discusses her introduction to costume design and how she collaborates with other parties on set. She also talks about preparing costumes for different genres of film, her upcoming projects and current inspirations.
Upon graduating from [Carnegie Mellon] University, how did you start your career in costume design? And later grow to work on bigger projects?
After graduating, I went back to my hometown of New York City, where I started to dayplay on a bunch of different television shows as a costume production assistant. At the same time I was also growing my freelance design career, so I worked on a bunch of different short films as well as designing student MFA thesis films.
I would say that it was maybe three months after graduating from school that I got the call to design my very first feature film, and that film was “Shiva Baby.”
Is costume design a collaborative effort or do you have more free reign?
I think filmmaking as a whole is really collaborative in nature, and that absolutely applies to costume design as well. Costume designers have to communicate with the directors, actors and other department heads in order to make sure the cohesive vision comes to life.
So I would say that, overall, it's very much collaborative. But giving a costume designer free-reign and gaining that trust from a director really allows you to flourish and make sure that your ideas are the best they can be.
How do you work with movie directors and other departments on set? How do you prepare before the shooting starts?
Being on a film set is oftentimes utter chaos because all the different departments are working really hard in order to make sure that all the different pieces come together and coalesce into the day’s shooting.
Much of a costume department’s work takes place even before the camera turns on. And so you will have a prep-period of weeks, sometimes even months researching, sketching, talking to vendors and building costumes. Essentially, making sure all of that is ready before the camera rolls.
Can you give us an example of how you design costumes differently for different movies? What are your inspirations?
My design approach changes with every single project, because each script asks something different of the costume designer.
For example, when I was costume designing “Shiva Baby,” I knew that it was happening during a period of mourning. It was during a funeral. So I knew I had to incorporate the color black. To gain more visual interest, I leaned on different kinds of fabrics and textures so that you wouldn't get lost in the black void.
I also knew that when I was costume designing the movie musical called “Something Here,” being a musical, people have to be able to dance and move. So you have to think about the added element of motion and introducing that into the costumes.
Can you tell us about your upcoming projects this year?
I have a few films on the horizon hopefully coming out later this year, this first one being “Acid Man” starring Diana Agron and Thomas Haden Church.
I have another really fun, romantic comedy called “Meet Cute” coming out with Hayley Kiyoko and Pete Davidson.
And I have one more musical movie coming out called “Something Here” starring Savannah Smith and Owen Joyner.
Do you follow other costume designers on social media, i.e. TikTok, Youtube, Instagram etc.? If so, do you have a favorite TikToker/Youtuber you like to recommend?
I'm not that active on TikTok or Youtube, but I do follow some costume designers on Instagram. Some of them being Sandy Powell, Susanna Song, Miyako Bellizzi and some other folks.