Design

A Q&A With the ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Costume Designer

A Q&A With the 'Crazy Rich Asians' Costume Designer

Crazy Rich Asians, the romantic comedy based on the 2013 book of the same name, didn’t get its title for nothing. The characters — and their costumes — couldn’t be more lavish. The story of Rachel, an American economics professor, meeting her boyfriend’s wealthy family in Singapore is gripping — and their clothes tell the tale in fascinating ways, too. Here, costume designer Mary E. Vogt reveals how she dressed each character…

A Q&A With the 'Crazy Rich Asians' Costume Designer

First things first, as the costume designer, how do you begin work on a film?

A film is like a pyramid. The director is at the top, so we’re working within his or her vision. This makes sense because if everyone is doing their own thing it’s a big mess. In a drama, you would be more subtle with costume design, but in a film like this you can be more dramatic. The director, Jon M. Chu, wanted it to be bright and colorful. We went for it and made each of the characters as crazy as possible.

A Q&A With the Crazy Rich Asians Costume Designer

There are so many stylish characters in the movie. Where did you even begin?

Along with Kevin [Kevin Kwan, the author of the book], we made a list of all the characters and the brands they would wear. He’s from Singapore, and he sent pictures of his family so we could try to understand how the two families might dress. At the heart of the story is the Young family, with its longstanding wealth. They would be much more discreet. This family didn’t want to look influenced by fashion; they created their own fashion. If Nick [the leading man, played by Henry Golding] wore a Lacoste-type of shirt, it wouldn’t have a little alligator on it. For his mother, Eleanor [played by Michelle Yeoh], it would be couture, it wouldn’t be off the rack. They would never wear costume jewelry or fashion jewelry — all their jewelry was real. They wore colors you might see in an old Chinese painting. Fit had to be impeccable, so all the clothes looked custom-made for them.

A Q&A With the Crazy Rich Asians Costume Designer

Peik Lin Goh’s family, with its newer wealth, was just wild. The colors were more plastic, kind of like animé characters. If it had rhinestones on it, they should be really big. We had lots of gold, lots of Versace, lots of Dior. If it was Dior, it said ‘Dior’ on it. Their family is like, “What is the point of paying all this money if it doesn’t say Dior?”

A Q&A With the Crazy Rich Asians Costume Designer

Tell me about the style evolution of the main character, professor Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu), as she heads from New York to Singapore with her boyfriend, Nick Young.

Jon, the director, was always referencing fairy tales for the movie, and in the New York scene, he talked about The Wizard of Oz. In The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy starts out in Kansas, everything is in black and white. You don’t get into color until you get to Oz. With Crazy Rich Asians, all the New York stuff at the beginning is in black, white, gray and tan. Rachel’s clothes are a little edgy and confident. She has on a choker, a skirt, a tank top. In one scene, she wears a trench coat made of stiff fabric. In Singapore, she gets more into color and the fabrics are softer. She has more of a vulnerable look, because she’s out of her element in Singapore, particularly with his family.

A Q&A With the Crazy Rich Asians Costume Designer

Rachel doesn’t realize her boyfriend’s family is wealthy until she arrives in Singapore. Before she meets them, Rachel turns to her friend Peik Lin to get all glammed up.

The first time Rachel meets Nick’s mother, Eleanor, she’s got on an evening gown, by Missoni. It was supposed to be her friend Peik Lin’s [played by Awkwafina] dress, so we tried to find something in Peik Lin’s closet that would be the tamest of her clothes. It was flattering with vertical stripes. I pretty much kept Rachel in sleeveless dresses in Singapore to make her look more vulnerable. There’s more skin there. You feel the person more because they’re not all covered up in clothes.

A Q&A With the Crazy Rich Asians Costume Designer

A Q&A With the Crazy Rich Asians Costume Designer

Then there was the makeover scene, with Rachel getting ready to be a guest at the glamorous wedding of her boyfriend’s best friend, and trying all of those crazy dresses with Peik Lin. Which came first, the wardrobe or the jokes?

We wanted to find dresses with lots of personality, so they could have funny things said about them. There was a Dior dress that had hands on it, so that was an easy one. There was a Ralph Lauren dress that’s super colorful, and then Nick’s cousin Oliver [played by Nico Santos] said, “Oh, that looks like a clown’s tampon.” And we were just like, “Oh my gosh.” It doesn’t make any sense at all, but it was funny.

A Q&A With the Crazy Rich Asians Costume Designer

And then there’s the gorgeous dress Rachel wore to the wedding.

Jon wanted the wedding to be Rachel’s big Cinderella moment, so I knew the dress should be light blue. This Marchesa dress was the perfect color. Usually sample dresses are made for people who are very tall. It was two feet too long, and it had gigantic sleeves. You would have to be 6’5″ to wear it. We ended up taking off the sleeves and paring down the skirt — but even when it was too long, and when it had weird sleeves, everyone liked it. There was something about the dress that was very ethereal. And she liked it, too, which was important.

A Q&A With the Crazy Rich Asians Costume Designer

A Q&A With the Crazy Rich Asians Costume Designer

Eleanor wore the same shade of blue to the wedding. Was that on purpose?

Originally, Eleanor was going to wear green, but then I saw the set — and it had green grass that was almost five feet high. I had seen a concept drawing of that set, and the grass was much lower. I thought it was going to be three-inch grass, not four feet high. She couldn’t wear green, because then you’d never see her sitting in the grass.

Michelle had just been to Cannes, and Elie Saab said that he would send her a dress. This blue dress showed up the day before we were going to shoot the scene. “That’s the exact same color of Constance’s dress,” I said, “Oops.” The thing was, it worked, because it was a very structured dress. So, it was very much keeping with the mother’s personality. Constance’s dress was like a cloud. It was all tulle, and it was very soft. So, even though the dresses were the same color, they had such a different mood.

It also worked out well that they wore the same color, because they do have a lot in common. They have the son in common.

A Q&A With the Crazy Rich Asians Costume Designer

Peik Lin was so much fun to watch on screen. Her character was so outgoing and idiosyncratic, so I’m guessing her clothes needed to be, too. Was it fun to dress her?

Everything about her was fun! She could pick something off the floor and it would work. That was a good example of when you have to go with the character because if you tried to do her in all high-end Gucci, or super elegant Versace, it wouldn’t really work. Instead, we would take one piece of a look, and something from something else, and something from the floor, and something from someone else’s closet. None of her stuff made any sense, but it made sense for her.

I had fabulous Gucci platform shoes with giant buttons on them. There’s a scene where Peik Lin is in her pajamas and she’s walking up the stairs of the house and she can barely get up the stairs, because the shoes are just so awkward. But she makes it work. Her character picked these shoes because they looked fabulous, not because she can walk in them.

A Q&A With the Crazy Rich Asians Costume Designer

Nick’s cousin, Astrid Young [played by Gemma Chan] was another style star in the film. Tell me about her wardrobe.

You’re there to help the actors create whatever character they’re creating. If they don’t respond to something that you think is great, then it’s not great. There was a scene with Gemma at an epic party at the grandmother’s house. It was not her entrance, but she didn’t have a lot of scenes, so every scene she had was really important, and we wanted to establish her as a fashion icon.

I had some beautiful dresses that Ralph Russo very generously lent us. They were gorgeous, and the director was excited about them, too. I showed them to Gemma and for that particular scene — the one where she finds out her husband is cheating on her — she said, I want to be really vulnerable and I don’t want to wear anything too fabulous.

At first, I was disappointed. I said, “Are you sure?” But when I thought about it, yes, of course it makes more sense for this scene. It’s about her vulnerability, not some outfit. I had an elegant, gray 1930’s Ralph Lauren dress. It was very simple, yet it worked. You looked at her — at her face and her expression. You weren’t distracted by three-dimensional butterflies or anything wild on the dress.

A Q&A With the Crazy Rich Asians Costume Designer

How often do actors weigh in like that?

The day we shot the wedding, the mischievous playboy Bernard [played by Jimmy O. Yang] was one of the groomsmen, and he was supposed to wear black tuxedo. But he shows up in a gold-and-black embroidered jacket I had made for another scene. I was like, “You’re supposed to be dressed like everybody else.” And Jimmy said, “I don’t think Bernard wouldn’t do that. Bernard wouldn’t wear what everybody else wore.” He ended up wearing it and it worked, because his character would do something like that. How rude can you be?

P.S. “The mistake I made at Crazy Rich Asians,” and a Q&A with the costume designer of Girls.

(Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. Interview by Elizabeth Holmes.)

  1. Jilleun says...

    Love this, so interesting!

  2. In the future, can you put “may contain spoilers” or just “SPOILER ALERT” at the top of the post? I haven’t read the trilogy yet (just into Book 1) and now I a key plot point is revealed. Bummer. Otherwise, love the post.

  3. Meghan says...

    Such quality content- I LOVED this interview. Thanks, COJ team!

  4. Ana says...

    I don’t feel like there are enough comments here, letting you know how amazing it is to get the chance to get a backstage creative vision of pop and cultural phenomenons.

    Please keep it coming; we will forever be thankful ;)

  5. SB says...

    I got swept up in the lights and action of this movie, so even tho the fashion is so amazing I definitely missed some of these cues. I love hearing about the thought behind wardrobe choices – and love that the actors weighed in about these people they inhabited so well!

  6. Meaghan says...

    I read that the green ring is actually owned by the actress Michelle Yeoh! Such a fun movie.

  7. Lynn says...

    I just love all this insight! Please please please do Catastrophe wardrobe next. xo

  8. Jo says...

    This makes me want to see the film – hoping it’s on my next long haul flight given that I missed it in the cinema!

    • Sarah says...

      It’s on the American Airlines web free entertainment! That’s where I watched it this week!

  9. Meredith says...

    Love this article and LOVE Elizabeth Holmes! What a great addition!

  10. Kelly says...

    So interesting! If you do write another, La La Land (although a bit old now) would be my suggestion :)

  11. Emma says...

    This is so fun! I would also love to hear from set designers! I am so obsessed with the beautiful and fun interiors they create :)

  12. Shannon says...

    So interesting to learn about the costume design! Makes me want to watch the movie again!

  13. Phyllis Bregman says...

    Fascinating. I just saw the film a few weeks ago and thought the clothing matched the personalities. So interesting to read Elizabeth’s interview. I loved it.

  14. kimberly says...

    This is one of my favorite Cup of Jo articles. Please do more like this. So interesting to hear the mindset behind the costumes.

  15. sara g says...

    loved this!! so fun to hear the backstories and insight. could have kept reading, to be honest! :)

  16. Beth says...

    Just when I thought this EHolmes series coulnd’t get any better, you add in costume design stories! My heart’s all a flutter.

  17. Lea says...

    Love the attention given to these thoughtful decisions that went into the movie.

  18. Favorite movie of the year — next to A Star Is Born. :) The opulence of the costumes and styling was mesmerizing, not to mention that the film was spectacular overall anyway! Thank you EHolmes for this BTS peek!

  19. florence says...

    so fun! and i adored the movie… relishing in the books i got over the holidays. can’t wait for the sequel!

  20. Rachel M. says...

    Yes to anything written by Elizabeth. I read you in Town & Country, girl!

  21. Alison Briggs says...

    loved this! hope to see more like this :) and also praying they make a Crazy Rich Asians 2 – LOVE that movie!

  22. Kristian Olson says...

    Love the interview itself so much! I love the choice of costume design to focus on and on the choice of which film.

    I do hope you do this again with another film (maybe all costume design, maybe rotating to these different creative roles like location scout, lighting design, properties master etc. etc.) I’m sure it was work to make this happen, so thank you so for this!

    • Leah Travaglini says...

      that’s such a great idea, Kristian!

  23. Keegan says...

    Loved this!

  24. Val says...

    Wow, really incredible to learn JUST HOW MUCH detail goes into every facet of a movie — including the attire! Super interesting read. What a talented team and cast… and wonderful movie. :)

  25. Claire says...

    That movie was so gorgeous- the sets, the houses, the clothes- everything. I always notice what the characters are wearing (Catastrophe is another one that always slays me w/ the clothes) and CRA was a pure visual delight. I really enjoyed reading here about the costume designer’s thoughts and choices, and how the clothes are part of the story being told. What a fabulous job she did! (has she been nominated for awards? because she certainly deserves to be!). I find it so fascinating to read or hear women discuss what they *do*- how they work, what their projects are, what they create and how they make it happen (whether at home w/ kids or out in the world).

  26. Emily says...

    Love this interview SO MUCH!

  27. Annalise Wagstaff says...

    THANK YOU!!!! I loved this movie so much and the costumes were truly one of my favorite parts (after the parts about the Singapore food scene). It is so fun and interesting for me to learn more about costuming–it is SO important to telling a story.

  28. Nina says...

    I love reading the thought process behind the clothing. Thank you.

  29. Carly Watt says...

    So so so so interesting! Thank you for this!

  30. Sarah says...

    Their clothes were so fun to look at in this movie. This was an interesting piece and it was good to learn about the thought process behind them. Now I want to rewatch the movie!

  31. Jenn S. says...

    So much thought, symbolism, and meaning that I tend to take for granted! This is a great reminder that the credits mean something! So many professionals poured their time and energy into each production.

  32. Kat says...

    Loved this! Wondering if this BTS costume design could be a series? Love love love.

  33. Jamie says...

    Where can you get the sample dresses made for very tall people?? I’m 6’4″–I need those extra two feet!!!

  34. Rachel Rizzo says...

    Saw the movie twice this week (because Midwest = cold). Would have loved to hear more about the wedding dress!!

    • Mary (the costume designer) designed it herself! She said it was inspired by Swan Lake. The dress was particularly challenging because the bride had to walk through six inches (!) of water to get down the aisle. Mary told me she looked for fabric that wouldn’t change color when it got wet, and then Scotchgarded the heck out of the skirt. :)

  35. E.M. says...

    Great post! Inhaled this!

  36. Ani says...

    Loved this!

  37. Kat says...

    Yes, yes, yes, and yes! Please write more pieces like this, CRA means so much to the Asian community in the US and we’d love to see more in COJ! (Also more Beauty Uniforms/Apartment Tours/A Week of Outfits that feature Asian women, please :) )

    Jimmy O Yang is a genius. Of course Bernard would do that, lol

  38. Mk says...

    Love this post! I LOVE Crazy Rich Asians and reading about the fashion was interesting. Can’t wait for the next one

  39. Shauna S says...

    This was interesting and different. Thanks for sharing this. :)

  40. More of this, please! I loved hearing about the thought process behind the looks.

    • emma says...

      ME TO! The show I am currently watching whose clothes I want to know more about is netflix’s ‘friend’s from college’. Everything every character wears is more gorgeous than the previous scenes’ clothes.

  41. Jovita says...

    Loved getting insight into the CRA wardrobe! I loved so many other aspects of this film, too. As a Malaysian expat, I truly loved all of the (spot-on) Singapore/Malaysia cultural references. I kept tapping my best friend on the shoulder to say, ‘I’ve been there!’ or ‘I’ve eaten that!’ One of my favourite movie-going experiences in recent years :)

  42. Chey says...

    This was such an amazing read. Thank you for always posting thought-provoking and interesting content.

  43. Cynthia says...

    I have not seen the movie, but I loved the book. Their wealth just knocked me over.

  44. Denise Blust Vermillion says...

    I fell in love with both Awkwafina and Gemma Chan in this movie. Excellent piece on the behind-the-scenes work that created such a wonderful movie. And can we just talk about the water flowing down the aisle at the wedding . . . oh, my heart . . .

  45. Lilia says...

    I marveled at the amazing clothing in this movie (loved the Missoni and Marchesa dresses!) — what a fun read!

  46. Oneida says...

    Yayyy so excited about this! I feel like there is so much more Asian representation now in clothing models and more and more on the screen. It has been a cool experience to see someone wearing something and be like “oh I could look like that in that”. Not that I’d look like a model or an actress or anything haha but in general. It’s not something I ever thought about until I started seeing it. Now I’m getting it and hoping that more and more people who are different shapes, sizes, colors, styles, ages, etc can see themselves represented. It’s why I love CoJ – you ladies try so hard to do this AND are humble to listen and learn to us as readers. I love reading not just to see more Asians but also to broaden my understanding of the world and women in the world.

  47. Becca says...

    Love the behind the scenes stuff. Movies are such a unique medium and there are so many layered stories (ie color stories and symbols) just in set design and costuming alone. I love the layered narratives and insight into how conscious all these creative choices are. And thanks so much for the sneak peek into one of my favorite movies. It’s like Jane Austen on sequined Gucci crack.

  48. Bethany says...

    I love posts like this and still remember the interview you did with the costume designer from Girls. I would love to see more!! And, I’m loving Elizabeth Holmes for CoJ and the fact that you’re using her reporting prowess for these engaging style stories.

  49. Christina says...

    This is incredible!!! I’ve watched the movie 3 times now, and love love love the costumes. This behind-the-scenes is wonderful! Great job, EHolmes!

  50. Christina H. says...

    I totally noticed Bernard wearing the loud jacket during the wedding, and thought it was spot on to character. So funny the actor chose to wear this! Also, how nice for a costume designer to have an open mind about it!

    • Lilly says...

      Right?? Thought the same thing. What a Bernard thing to do, such a brat! Loved this article, could’ve read forever. (or listened! Would love to eavesdrop on these interviews. CoJ podcast, anyone?)

    • Em says...

      Yes! And he says, “it’s not about me” and there he is in that jacket!

  51. Christy says...

    Love this post! Great insight into the making of a wonderful movie.

  52. gfy says...

    The clothes were a huge part of this movie! Clothes were also a major part of the pleasure of the Crouching Tiger/Flying Daggers/Hero trilogy we all loved so much as well as imagining the mood in books like Snow Flower and the Hidden Fan. I am not Asian but these Asian court stories are always such guilty pleasures. The depth of culture and struggle to reconcile class structure with loving, humane behavior is just so rich and fascinating.

  53. DJ says...

    more CRA content please! love this inside scoop and love this movie :)

  54. b says...

    This is so good. More like this, please. Gemma Chan is my favorite.

    • Fiona says...

      Agreed! She is so gorgeous!

  55. Fiona says...

    I came to say thank you too – what a yummy movie and what a beautiful way to showcase the joy it brings!

  56. Emily says...

    YES! I rewatched this movie on a plane recently and noticed a few of these things, like the Cinderella blue and how Rachel starts to seem smaller and younger in Singapore. (Though, did not think it was realistic that Rachel would wear a denim jacket and jeans on a 14+ hr flight from NYC to Singapore in economy. I would be so uncomfortable.) I really thought CRA would get a nomination for its costumes or production design. One of the most gorgeous movies I’ve seen on the big screen in years.

    • jade lees says...

      I know its Crazy – but I am an Aussie who flies long distance for work (leading groups of people) and will often go through Airports in Jeans and Boots (then change into sweats on the plane). As someone who jam packs their suitcase – this is one way to watch the weight restrictions and still feel more pulled together.

  57. Tara says...

    Thank you for this behind-the-scenes peek at all of the amazing work that went into the fashion for this film. I thought the costuming was brilliant and really told the story. I also think that it should have been nominated for costumes or production, so I am possibly biased, but it was all so well done and an absolute joy to experience. I laughed out loud at the story about Bernard wearing his own jacket to the wedding–I didn’t notice while watching but it really does capture the essence of that character!