Explore the world of costume design with artist Michelle J. Li

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Costume designer and set designer Michelle J. Li had his big break with Emma Seligman2021 breakout comedy feature film Baby Shiva. She hasn’t looked back since. At a time when many Hollywood productions have slowed due to the pandemic, Li has had the busiest years of her career, working on star-studded projects like the 2022 Sundance Film Festival short. Chaperone with Zachary Quintoand upcoming feature project Meet cute featuring Kaley Cuoco and pete davidsonand more.

In an interview with Asia Society, Li discusses how she fell into costume design, her holistic creative approach, and why having parents who nurtured her artistry at a young age was crucial.

Portions of the interview have been edited for clarity.


You’re from Queens, New York. How did your upbringing shape who you are and what you do today?

I am a first generation American. My parents moved to the United States in the late 80s from China. I was born in New York and have lived there all my life. Of course, there’s always that stereotype – especially if it’s immigrants from China or any other Asian country – that they always expect you to grow up and become a doctor or a lawyer or a really successful businessman. I feel very lucky in my upbringing because my parents really encouraged me and my older sister who is also in the arts to pursue the arts. My parents always told me growing up, “If your career and your passion is something that makes you happy, then you will be successful.”

This was a very big change from a lot of other Asian American students I grew up with, as I certainly knew my fair share of other Chinese kids who were prepping for school 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I also crammed in for school, but their parents were still dictating every aspect of their lives, and they were still focused on grades and had this amazing focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) being the only real way forward in a career. Having parents who were sort of outsiders in that sense, letting their kids pursue art, was something that was really important to me.

What made you decide that costume design was the way you wanted to channel your artistry?

The way I see myself, first and foremost, is as an artist. Living in the creative sphere and having a career in the arts is something that was my first priority. So I stumbled into costume design. It wasn’t something I always knew I really wanted to pursue, but the costumes were the perfect combination of all the artwork I loved and enjoyed.

I grew up always enjoying drawing, painting and sculpting. From an early age, I knew I was going to pursue art, but I didn’t really understand or know what facet of the art world I would occupy. And so when I was in high school, I discovered that my little niche was theater. I have always been involved behind the scenes in theater productions and have actually run the light panels in my stage production. I didn’t really have any experience in costume design until I went to college, where I ended up applying to Carnegie Mellon and studying in their costume design program.

What I love most about costume design and what keeps me coming back time and time again is that you’re able to work with your hands, think critically about characters, get into the psychology and to work and collaborate with other artists. That’s the best part.

Tell me about your costume design process. When you receive a work, how do you untangle it?

The first thing I always do is read the script. The script is my North Star and it helps keep my feet on the ground. I try to make sure that the goal you’re trying to achieve – the story the script tells you – comes to fruition. Whenever I’m approached with a project, the first thing I do is read the script and I just read it for the story, to make sure I understand the characters.

Then I read it a second or third time to really glean the logistical aspects. But making sure I have a good understanding of the story first is really important in my creative process. Once I’m able to marinate with the script and sit on it, I then move on to visual research, and I’ll look for resources and books, other movies if they’re relevant, and the internet.

Sometimes I even do physical site visits. For example, I just finished designing a musical in North Carolina, and I visited a local high school there just to see how the students in that rural town dress. Otherwise, you would not have access to this kind of research. I ended up getting a yearbook, which is so special to me – it was an invaluable resource as a costume designer because you’re looking at a primary source. Being able to gather research to base my costumes on is a really crucial part of my process.

Sometimes, if it suits me, I also create a playlist with music that inspires me when I read the script. So, you know, I cocoon myself in the script and the story and the aspects of how it makes me feel because I think that’s how I maintain the clarity of the character that I’m trying to to transmit.

Your work has been in feature films like Baby Shiva and short films like Chaperone. But you also made the costumes for Lewis Capaldi Before you leave music video too. There really isn’t a traditional script for something like this. Does your process evolve or change depending on the type of project it is? How does it feel when your source material is a song?

It’s something I’m still trying to get more experience in, because most of my work is still narrative shorts and narrative features. And so when it comes to working on music videos or musicals, that’s an exciting challenge that I try to take on – because you have that added element of making sure the music is as important as the script .

For example, when I was working on an upcoming musical called something here, I worked closely with the choreographers, making sure to think differently about the silhouette of the costume. You think about the composition of the fabric of the costume, because you have to take into account the movement aspect of the character; if they’re going to be doing all those elaborate jumps and moves, you want to make sure their footwear is appropriate so they’re safe. So yes, there are definitely a lot more elements that make it a bit more complicated but equally rewarding and an exciting challenge to complete.

I’m glad to hear you’ve been working on some projects recently. What has been the impact of the pandemic on your specific area of ​​the film/creative industry? How were you able to maintain your own inspiration or craft when things were on lockdown and projects weren’t really happening?

I feel very grateful and lucky because I think the pandemic years have been the busiest of my career so far. Everything took off after Baby Shiva created in 2020, just at the start of the pandemic. When working in film and television, the testing protocols around being on set and working with actors are extremely strict. I got tested three to four times a week. And so not only did I feel very safe going back to the workplace, but it was the only way for the film industry to maintain momentum, to keep moving forward and producing work. I’ve worked on three or four feature films during the pandemic so far, and so my career has definitely blossomed, even though everything around us has been on lockdown. I felt very lucky about that.

I’m curious how the ideas come to you. Are there certain things in your head that you’ve been hanging onto and waiting to use, or an idea that you’ve always wanted to use but haven’t found the right project for?

This brings me back to something I read in a book not too long ago. I remember him saying, “If you have good ideas and people want them, you’ll never run out of good ideas. I approach each scenario and each story that I come to separately. I approach it as an individual entity. So I don’t tend to cling to one thing in particular because I get my inspiration from so many different places. Whether watching food documentaries on Netflix, traveling, reading or working on felted sculptures. Everything I do in my spare time, I believe, enriches what I do in my professional work.

What kind of career goals do you have? Is there a dream project or dream people you would like to collaborate with in the future?

Something that I’ve been so in love with and thought “Wow, if I ever had the chance to work with them, I’d be so thrilled” that’s definitely the creative duo of PEN15, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. They’re at the top of my list because, especially with this show, they were able to bring to light aspects of childhood that we had never seen. On top of that, it was abstract and weird, and that’s so much my thing.

What projects do you always come back to or think are timeless? What other work examples appeal to you?

I want to say, Russian doll was so good. I’m based in New York, so I had that connection with that as well. But I think Russian doll is probably one of the best limited series I’ve seen in a long time because it was so raw and gritty and also funny and weird. I also really liked shows like Virtuous Gemstones and Flea bag. I’m very drawn to stories and comedies where the characters are flawed because you get to analyze the character in a way where it’s like, “OK, they’re not perfect, are they? But there is something there. Even though they’re dirty, there’s something about them that keeps me coming back.

Being able to dissect and analyze their psychology and realize, “OK, that makes them more real.” That’s the part that draws me in, the humanity that can be seen when you’re working with a character that has flaws.


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