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