An Asian woman and white man stand facing each other in a 1920s dress and suit, with other similarly dressed people in the background.

Costume designer Linda Cho credits Asian tough love for her third Tony nomination

The Seoul-born Korean American costume designer talks Broadway’s biggest awards and being mistaken for a legendary costume designer’s daughter

Eva Noblezada and John Zdrojeski in "The Great Gatsby."

Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Words by Caroline Cao

“You're a woman in a minority, you will never succeed in anything artistic.” Linda Cho remembers her mother’s warnings. However, the Seoul-born, Toronto-raised costume designer pictures how proud and delighted her mother would be had she lived to see her daughter’s lucrative career.

In another milestone for her 25 years in the costuming profession for plays, musicals, and operas, the Tony-winning Cho has recently scored her third nomination for a Tony Award for Best Costume Design in a Musical for the currently running The Great Gatsby musical playing (and partying) at the Broadway Theatre. It’s notably the only Tony nod the production received in an awards season widely perceived as crowded, with Broadway musicals racing for the late window for Tony eligibility. The 77th Tony Awards ceremony will announce the winners when it airs on June 16 on CBS Television Network, and The Great Gatsby digital album will be released on June 21.

The first Broadway musical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel in its public domain era, The Great Gatsby parades 295 glimmering Roaring Twenties costumes every performance. As AANHPI Heritage Month was coming to a close, I phoned the New York-based Cho to chat about her Tony-nominated labor and her storied history in theater costume designing. The sumptuousness of Cho’s handiwork can especially be sighted on Eva Noblezada, the Hadestown-famed actress who plays the disillusioned Daisy Buchanan, the long lost love of the mysterious millionaire Gatsby (played by Jeremy Jordan garbed in moneyed suits). Noblezada’s Daisy undergoes 10 of her own costume changes.

When the unhappily married heiress first utters her lines (spurring thunderous applause in the two times I attended), Daisy glows in a crisp white that complements the decor of her old money mansion. “I wanted [Daisy] to own [her] space, both visually and figuratively. This is her. This is her domain,” she says.  Cho often covers Noblezada’s character in pastels, which separates Daisy’s old money polishedness from the wild new money partiers who flaunt their metallic Art Deco patterns and peacocked headdresses.

With a giant Broadway-sized Gatsby, Cho works with a team (along with her associate Patrick Bevilacqua) that receives her drawings and produces the costumes. She also finds stimulation in the intimacy of smaller off-Broadway productions with sparser resources. “You usually end up having to come up with more creative solutions, which I still love to do,” she says. Her off-Broadway work yields unorthodox payoffs, like the stage-engulfing skirt of the Goddess of the Ocean in playwright Inua Ellams’s 2023 The Half-God of Rainfall at the New York Theater Workshop and the wetsuits in playwright Celine Song’s 2019 water-logged Endlings at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center.

A woman dressed in blue ceremonial garb that extends across a stage stands with his arms spread out.

Patrice Johnson Chevannes wearing the sea-wide dress in "The Half-God of Rainfall."

Joan Marcus

Cho is excited by the growing diversity of casting and storytelling, on and off Broadway. She has a patchwork in the Asian American oeuvre, including the recent 2024 Manhattan-based An American Soldier opera directed by Chay Yew (a frequent collaborator who also directed the 2023 Encores! The Light in the Piazza and the off-Broadway and touring Cambodian Rock Band, both of which feature her work). She resides a few blocks away from the Manhattan Chinatown street named after the late Danny Chen, the opera’s subject who was found dead in his watchtower in Afghanistan after racist bullying. An emotional core of the opera is the bereaved Mother Chen, an ordinary Chinatown mother who resolves to fight for justice. Cho sourced Mother Chen’s shirt and red vest from Chinatown, a street vendor and little store, respectively. “Danny's parents were not English speakers. So I imagined that she would buy clothes that would be in her comfort zone,” she says.

An Asian woman in a blue top and red vest, and an Asian man in a military uniform stand holding each other.

Mother Chen (Nina Yoshida Nelsen) and Danny Chen (Brian Vu) in "An American Soldier" at the Perelman Performing Arts Center.

Marc J. Franklin

Her vision often crosses historical accuracy and liberal interpretation, as displayed in playwright Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady, a fictionalization of the first documented Chinese woman in America, Afong Moy. “I didn't want to try to create a historical replica of what she might have worn,” she says, since The Chinese Lady bore a modern sensibility, comparable to a TED talk. For that 2022 Public Theater production, Cho incorporated dish prints on Afong Moy’s robed dress, to represent her role as an orientalist object for the white gaze, true to how Western merchants imported the real Afong into the United States as a specimen to sell Chinese wares.

An Asian woman with a white painted face, in blue Chinese period clothing, a black headdress and floral fan in her hand.

Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo) in the Public Theater 2022 production of "The Chinese Lady."

Joan Marcus

It was back in 2014 when she snagged her first Tony nod—and then win—for A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. She subsequently scored a Tony nomination for the ornamental opulence of the Russian aristocratic gowns in the 2017 Anastasia, the musical based on the 1997 animated film. (Santo Loquasto’s costume design in the Hello, Dolly! revival would take home the 2017 Tony).

As the second Asian American costume designer to win a Best Costume Design Tony in a musical, Cho owes her proficiency to the first Asian American Tony-winner for Costume Design, the late Willa Kim (who won a total of two Tonys for Sophisticated Ladies and The Will Rogers Follies in 1980 and 1991, respectively, during a time when the Tony’s Best Costume category wasn’t split into Play and Musical). “It's wonderful to walk in her shadow,” Cho says. More than 20 years ago, she recalls assisting Kim during a summer job at Williamstown Festival for the 1997 show The Film Society. The rigor of Kim’s mentorship—“a great tough, tough love Asian thing”—drove her to tears on one instance where Cho got the potato prints wrong (Cho had to clarify to an ignorant non-designer like me that “potato print” is the art of carving a design into a potato and using it as a stamp). “She had the expectation that I need to learn it, I need to do it and do it right—and she made me cry,” she says, recounting that Kim drilled in her the discipline of putting her head down to stay laser-focused on the costume challenges. “It was a, ‘You know what, you're expected to rise to the occasion’ [moment]…It was my kind of fabulous. Not that I made people cry [like Kim did]!” She lets out a laugh.

She recalls going to a Korean restaurant with Kim. In an “all Asians are related” presumptuous fashion, somebody asked Cho if she was Kim’s daughter. “I was excited, and she [Willa Kim] was slightly horrified,” she admits.

A group of people sit and stand in a row above a city skyline, against a black background.

The cast of "Endlings."

American Repertory Theater’s 2018 World Premiere Productions

Speaking of her actual mom, whom she describes as “my entire life,” Cho’s late mother was an accomplished oil painter and her tiger parenting came from her own struggles with her art career. Interestingly, as far as her memory goes, Cho recalls that her mother was the “youngest to ever be exhibited in the National Gallery [likely referring to the National Museum of Korea] in Seoul, Korea at [age] 22” in the late 1960s, but she didn’t quite make it to wider recognizable renown. Though Cho’s mother earned her master's degree in fine arts in Canada, her endeavors into graphic design left her disenchanted. She oriented Cho into a medical studies track, leading Cho to study psychology with a pre-med focus at McGill University in Canada. Still, she did not resist the lure of art and theater classes.

Cho didn’t become a doctor according to her mother’s original wishes, but the latter did come around to say, “Why don't you do this theater, you seem to like it,” and thus support Cho’s application and enrollment into the Yale School of Drama. Cho recalls that her mother also told her, “Listen, I pushed you to be the hardest thing [the doctor profession] that I could pick for you to reach for the moon…Wherever you ended up [the arts], at least I'm pushing you in the right direction.”

A portrait of an Asian woman in a purple top, against a colorful backdrop.

Linda Cho just received her third Tony Award nomination.

Courtesy of Linda Cho

Cho understands that many Asian parents (their academic austerity is not a monolithic experience, but a common connected one) can be vocally anxious about their kids pursuing the unknowability—often the freelance nature—of the arts industry. “[That anxiety] might scare off some really talented people who could make an incredible contribution to American theater,” she says. Still, from her upbringing, she can assure that, “All the things that our parents push on us are actually incredibly translatable in our field.” Not to mention that she credits her psychology study for the characterological nature of costume designing. Cho hopes her sons figure out their best selves, and she frequently jokes that she wants them to be a geriatric doctor, so they can grow up taking care of her and their father.

Cho’s oldest teen son called dibs on being her Tony date. She already prepped their matching outfits. Whether or not she takes home another Tony this season (a scenario where she wins would tie her with Willa Kim’s two Tony wins), she affirms, “I always say that the work is the actual gold award. It's not money. It's not the awards or any kind of game or anything. It's actually doing the work. That is the biggest, biggest prize.”

Published on June 10, 2024

Words by Caroline Cao

Caroline Cao is an NYC-based writer. A queer Vietnamese American woman, she also won’t shut up about animation and theatre. She likes ramen, pasta, and fanfic writing. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @Maximinalist.